2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs
2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Ridley

We continue our preview of game-charting statistics from the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 with a look at running offenses. How are they affected by the number of running backs they use, and how often do they use them? Next week, we’ll take a look at the defensive side.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest change from last season was in Denver, with Peyton Manning bringing in his usual single-back set. After employing one back just 57 percent of the time in 2011 with Tim Tebow at the helm, Manning’s Bronco’s used a one-back formation 93 percent of the time in 2012, the second-highest total in the league.

The addition of Manning wasn’t able to help the Broncos’ running, however -- or, more likely, the the departure of Tebow closed a few running holes. Denver's rushing DVOA from single-back sets dropped from 5.7% in 2011 to -0.6% in 2012. Their multiple-back formations fared even worse, dropping from 21st to 31st with a -35.8% DVOA. The only team who fared worse in multiple-back sets happened to be the only team who ran them less frequently than Denver: the Detroit Lions.

For the second straight year, Detroit featured single-back formations on a league-leading 94 percent of their runs, thanks to their infatuation with shotgun formations. Despite Detroit being the proud owner of the worst DVOA in two-back sets each of the last two years, they were able to find a slight improvement on single-back rushes. Moving from -4.7% DVOA to -1.4% DVOA helped them climb to 13th in the league.

The team that yielded the largest improvement (and had the best performance) in single-back formations was the San Francisco 49ers, who had a 34.8% DVOA. Thanks to the extensive use of double-tight end (and sometimes even triple-tight end) formations to go along with one of the best lines in football, the Niners basically telegraphed their intention to run over every opposing defense. Using this mantra, San Francisco saw their one-back DVOA improve by a whopping 51.0%. (Washington was second with an increase in DVOA of 25.4%.)

It will be interesting to see if San Francisco can continue their rushing prowess in 2013. Despite the luxury of having a mobile quarterback, the Niners rushing attack actually deteriorated under Colin Kaepernick. Through their first eight games, prior to Alex Smith's injury, San Francisco averaged a league-leading 5.8 yards per rush, leading to a staggering 169 yards per game. Through their final eight games, the Niners were only able to average 4.1 yards on designated runs.

Despite 56 percent of runs coming out of single-back formations 56 percent of the time (the highest percentage since we began charting this data), 12 teams still ran more often out of two-back formations. The most notable of those teams was the Minnesota Vikings. With the addition of second-team All-Pro Jerome Felton, the Vikings ran out of the two-back set 68 percent of the time, a 14 percent increase over 2011. Minnesota amassed a 17.8% DVOA out of dual-back sets, the second-best total in the league and a 10.0% improvement over 2011.

The Vikings were one of just five teams to run out of multiple-back sets at least 65 percent of the time, although this number is up from the mere three teams that claimed that distinction in 2011. The only two holdovers from the top six in both years are the aforementioned Niners and the Baltimore Ravens.

Below are all the running statistics we track for single- and multi-back formations, sorted by DVOA from single-back sets. This data uses formation, not personnel: if a receiver is in the backfield, for the purposes of this study, he is counted as a back. (The same goes for a tight end lined up at fullback.) Also, no Wildcat-style runs were counted, meaning we did not include (among a few others) direct snaps to running backs or receivers.

OFFENSE DVOA 1 RB DVOA 2+ RB DVOA Difference 1 RB Pct. 2+ RB Pct.
SF 34.8% 0.4% 34.4% 26% 74%
SEA 11.8% 4.6% 7.1% 48% 52%
WAS 11.4% 7.8% 3.6% 45% 55%
NE 9.0% 4.5% 4.5% 86% 14%
BAL 8.7% 5.5% 3.1% 36% 64%
BUF 2.2% 3.0% -0.8% 72% 28%
NYJ 1.6% -10.6% 12.2% 43% 57%
DAL 0.3% -18.8% 19.1% 53% 47%
NYG -0.2% 18.5% -18.7% 44% 56%
DEN -0.6% -35.8% 35.2% 93% 7%
MIA -1.2% -16.3% 15.1% 34% 66%
OFFENSE DVOA 1 RB DVOA 2+ RB DVOA Difference 1 RB Pct. 2+ RB Pct.
GB -1.2% -18.9% 17.6% 60% 40%
DET -1.4% -48.6% 47.2% 94% 6%
NO -1.6% 1.2% -2.7% 49% 51%
CIN -2.0% -25.3% 23.3% 61% 39%
STL -2.4% -15.3% 12.9% 67% 33%
HOU -6.1% -3.3% -2.8% 48% 52%
CLE -8.0% -28.4% 20.4% 65% 35%
IND -9.4% -34.9% 25.5% 83% 17%
PHI -9.9% -19.2% 9.3% 76% 24%
SD -10.3% -21.1% 10.8% 45% 55%
CAR -10.9% -1.2% -9.7% 62% 38%
OFFENSE DVOA 1 RB DVOA 2+ RB DVOA Difference 1 RB Pct. 2+ RB Pct.
ATL -13.4% -29.4% 16.1% 47% 53%
JAC -13.4% -18.4% 5.0% 58% 42%
MIN -14.1% 17.8% -31.8% 32% 68%
KC -14.7% -3.6% -11.1% 57% 43%
PIT -16.3% -27.1% 10.8% 65% 35%
CHI -19.8% 0.0% -19.8% 61% 39%
TB -22.3% 9.1% -31.3% 34% 66%
TEN -25.1% -19.0% -6.1% 46% 54%
OAK -27.2% -18.1% -9.1% 51% 49%
ARI -32.5% -25.2% -7.3% 52% 48%
NFL -5.4% -7.5% 5.7% 56% 44%


11 comments, Last at 29 Dec 2015, 1:06pm

1 Re: 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

The 49ers' decline in run efficiency is not surprising, especially when coupled with Kaepernick ranking third in passing DVOA. I think both results are to some extent explained by teams loading up against the run and trying to make the rookie passer beat them in the air. I like Kaep but he ain't that good. Yet.

2 Re: 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

See...I think this was very surprising. Didn't they usually stack the box v Smith too? I mean, since when was the idea to avoid smith passing over you? On top of that, Kaep being mobile plus the use of pistol and read option i figured would mean better run production out of the 49ers. I think it likely the 49ers were due to have a 2nd half slight regression in run performance anyways, smith or no smith.

4 Re: 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

That too. However, throw in injuries to Manningham and Kyle Williams and the likelihood of defenses playing the run increases. There is more to emphasising run defense than putting eight men in the box: run blitzes, safeties rotating down, db blitzes etc.

There is also the possibility that Kaepernick was better at taking advantage of the man coverage presented. Or perhaps Kaep wasn't as good at switching to better run fits?

8 Re: 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

The other thing that I notice is that Kendall Hunter got injured in Kaepernick's 2nd game as a starter (New Orleans, week 12), and he was a big part of that run offense. Eventually, James became very productive, but before that happened, we had a game or two of Brandon Jacobs being horrible, and a couple pretty sup-par games from James.

3 Re: 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

It has always interested me that 28 says he feels more comfortable in a one back set, but has always been more productive in a two back set. Perhaps having a fullback behind the line of scrimmage with him causes him to be more patient, which has always been something for him to work on.

7 Re: 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

When SF uses 3 TEs, is the third TE an in-line blocker (thus making their covered TE functionally a 3rd tackle), or is he an H-back? And is that guy really a surrogate FB, making it a 2-back offense?

11 Re: 2012 Rushing Success by Number of Backs

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