2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

2014 Rushing by Number of Backs
2014 Rushing by Number of Backs
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Sterling Xie

Our current football terminology is going to cause a lot of confusion for future fans if it doesn't change. Just as modern defenses use sub packages roughly three times as often as base personnel, current offenses no longer use "regular" personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) that regularly anymore. As we lead up to the publication of Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, we're continuing to peel back the curtain behind some of the charting stats you'll see in the book. Today, we'll look at offensive rushing success based on number of backs in the backfield.

As you might expect, offenses are increasingly eschewing I-formation football in favor of single-back sets. The league-wide percentage of running plays from sets with two or more backs has declined every single season since 2008, and is now down to 33 percent after sitting at 40 percent in 2013 (for reference, I'm referring to all plays with multiple running backs as "two-back sets" the rest of the article, since we charted a grand total of 15 runs from three-back sets last year). Only one team used it on more than two-thirds of their running plays, and we'll get to this seemingly backwards franchise shortly.

An interesting trend has seen teams hiring playcallers that not only reduce two-back usage, but ignore it completely. Recall from last year's article how the Broncos, Eagles, and Lions were all outliers that used two-back sets on four percent or fewer of their running plays. This year, we have four teams in the disqualifying italicized red font on the table below. Along with Denver and Philly, the Dolphins and Steelers also fell into the red, as none called more than 35 two-back rushing plays all season. The Eagles only ran two such plays all season! Both calls came against Dallas, one in each game, and both went for a single yard. The second one actually resulted in this Darren Sproles touchdown with LeSean McCoy throwing quite possibly his only lead run block all season. Hence, the Eagles are technically your 2014 leader in two-back rushing DVOA.

(Ed. Note: Part of the confusion here comes from how to mark certain formations. We tell charters to mark plays based on where players are after motion. The Eagles run a number of plays which start with two backs, then one back goes in motion towards the outside and the quarterback snaps the ball while the back is on the move. These get marked as "single-back," and for the purpose of comparing running plays, that seems appropriate. -- Aaron Schatz)

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Anyways, with how incestuous the football coaching family is, the next generation of coaches might further disseminate single-back personnel sets. Throwing out the Bengals and Chargers, who promoted from within, seven teams went outside the organization to hire new offensive coordinators before last season: Washington, the Dolphins, Texans, Cowboys, Giants, Lions and Vikings. Five of those teams saw their two-back usage decline by at least 10 percent, and Miami, Minnesota, and Houston were the three biggest usage decliners from 2013. The other two teams, Detroit and Dallas, were at the other end of the extreme, as those two offenses saw the largest and fifth-largest increase in two-back usage, respectively.

Even ignoring the passing game, one-back sets are also becoming more popular because they're just generally easier to run out of, since defenses are likelier to counter with smaller sub packages and fewer men in the box. The league average DVOA figures over the past eight seasons bear this out:

Though two-back DVOA was a smidgen higher in 2009, the two-year rolling averages show a defined separation that has remained fairly constant. You'll notice that one-back sets aren't exactly fending off the decline of the running game as a whole, but the drop-off hasn't been as steep the past two to three seasons.

We'll move towards more team-specific talk shortly, so let's get to the numbers. The table below includes yardage and DVOA stats for single- and multi-back formations. As alluded to above, four teams were small sample size outliers, so we've listed their numbers separately and excluded them from the league-wide DVOA and yardage rankings. The data uses formation and not personnel, so if a receiver lines up in the backfield, for this study, he gets counted as a back. A tight end lined up at fullback will be treated the same way, although a tight end lined up in a wing position (i.e. right behind the tackle's hip on either side) is not. No Wildcat-style runs were counted, so plays involving direct snaps to running backs or receivers were left out of the study. The table is sorted by two-back rushing play percentage, and in the difference column, a negative DVOA means a team was better in two-back formations than it was out of one-back formations.

Team Rushing by Number of Running Backs, 2014
Offense Pct 2+ RB Rk 1 RB Rushes 2+ RB Rushes Difference
Avg. DVOA Rk Avg. DVOA Rk Avg. DVOA Rk
STL 68.5% 1 3.9 -23.7% 24 4.1 -6.8% 11 -0.2 -16.9% 26
SF 57.7% 2 4.7 15.3% 2 3.7 -17.1% 18 1.0 32.4% 3
OAK 54.2% 3 3.3 -33.6% 28 4.2 -18.6% 19 -0.9 -15.0% 24
BAL 48.8% 4 5.2 1.7% 5 4.4 -15.6% 17 0.8 17.3% 6
CIN 45.9% 5 4.6 -1.1% 9 4.5 -5.8% 10 0.1 4.8% 14
NYG 44.0% 6 3.9 -6.8% 13 3.3 -19.9% 21 0.6 13.2% 8
CLE 43.7% 7 4.2 -6.1% 12 3.3 -21.5% 23 0.9 15.4% 7
CAR 43.6% 8 3.6 -33.5% 27 4.4 -5.0% 9 -0.9 -28.5% 27
NO 43.4% 9 4.8 1.7% 6 3.7 -11.1% 13 1.1 12.8% 9
JAC 41.3% 10 3.7 -22.6% 23 4.4 -13.3% 16 -0.7 -9.3% 20
GB 41.2% 11 4.3 -8.8% 15 4.5 6.8% 3 -0.1 -15.5% 25
TB 39.9% 12 3.9 -33.0% 26 3.5 -18.8% 20 0.3 -14.2% 23
WAS 37.8% 13 4.9 6.4% 4 3.2 -26.7% 24 1.7 33.1% 2
KC 37.6% 14 4.8 -0.4% 8 3.8 4.8% 4 1.0 -5.2% 18
DET 37.6% 15 3.3 -29.7% 25 4.5 -0.8% 7 -1.2 -28.9% 28
IND 36.8% 16 4.1 -18.2% 22 3.5 -28.8% 25 0.6 10.5% 10

1 RB Rushes 2+ RB Rushes Difference
Offense Pct 2+ RB Rk Avg. DVOA Rk Avg. DVOA Rk Avg. DVOA Rk
MIN 36.1% 17 3.9 1.1% 7 4.6 -0.3% 6 -0.7 1.5% 16
NE 34.4% 18 4.3 -2.3% 10 3.7 -11.7% 14 0.6 9.4% 12
SEA 33.8% 19 5.0 18.6% 1 4.2 8.4% 1 0.8 10.2% 11
NYJ 28.2% 20 4.4 -11.4% 16 3.3 -13.0% 15 1.1 1.6% 15
ATL 27.5% 21 4.1 -16.6% 20 3.4 -4.0% 8 0.7 -12.6% 22
SD 26.6% 22 3.8 -14.1% 19 2.7 -20.4% 22 1.1 6.3% 13
TEN 25.4% 23 3.7 -18.0% 21 4.1 -10.8% 12 -0.3 -7.2% 19
DAL 25.2% 24 4.9 7.5% 3 4.9 8.0% 2 0.0 -0.5% 17
BUF 23.8% 25 4.3 -12.2% 17 2.4 -34.4% 26 1.9 22.2% 4
HOU 23.4% 26 4.5 -5.6% 11 2.4 -49.3% 28 2.2 43.8% 1
CHI 21.9% 27 3.9 -7.8% 14 4.2 1.9% 5 -0.3 -9.6% 21
ARI 17.2% 28 3.8 -14.0% 18 1.9 -34.6% 27 1.9 20.6% 5
PIT 9.4% 29 4.6 3.4% -- 3.1 -26.9% -- 1.6 30.3% --
DEN 7.5% 30 4.4 3.2% -- 3.4 6.4% -- 1.0 -3.1% --
MIA 3.6% 31 4.7 9.3% -- 3.7 -16.8% -- 1.0 26.1% --
PHI 0.5% 32 4.4 -4.0% -- 1.0 56.3% -- 3.4 -60.3% --
NFL 33.0%
4.3 -6.4%
3.8 -12.1%
0.6 2.6%


23 comments, Last at 12 Aug 2015, 5:56am

1 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

The niners are right near the top of the percentage of two running back runs again and for the second straight year they are much worse when they use it. It used to be effective but their rushing attack has been thoroughly worked out for at least two seasons, it's actually been in decline since midway through the 2012 season before getting bailed out by the introduction of the read option in the playoffs that year.

One very good reason for getting rid of Harbaugh has to be his and Roman's inability to recognize that they needed to adapt to the changing defenses. Harbaugh once described how when he first told Bo Schembechler that he was going into coaching his mentor drummed into him that he had to rely on a fullback and he's stuck with that old school, tired approach even though it really doesn't produce the best results anymore.

If all you have to do to increase your running DVOA by 30% is stop using the same old crap you would have thought that their own self scouting would have pushed them away from it by now wouldn't you?

23 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

The 49ers had massive problems on a previously awesome OL. Going to one back more of the time wouldn't help the fact that A) the rest of the league is pretty much ready for the read-option and B) Cap hasn't developed.

The idea that A) Harbaugh could have fixed the 49ers terrible year (relatively speaking.... 8-8 in the NFL is nothing to sneeze at) by being more flexible tactically and B) his firing was driven by anything other then York ego and C) Tomasula is the answer are all just awful ideas.

2 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

"...and we'll get to this seemingly backwards franchise shortly."

Thank your chief editor for spoiling this one on the front page ;)

"(Ed. Note: Part of the confusion here comes from how to mark certain formations."
What confusion is this?

4 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

"3 yards and a cloud of rubber pellets"
That's gold.

I'm actually surprised the number of 2 back sets is still that high. I expected it to be much lower.
It also makes me wonder what the heck happened back in 2009. Where there a few effective fullbacks that created that spike?

5 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

It sure looks like a lot of teams either play against their strength or not to it as much as you'd think they would.

Of course, you'd have to see total offensive DVOA to be sure. Could very well be worth taking a hit on rushing to improve passing, I sort of doubt that's what's happening though.

8 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

It will definitely give a better view of two-back offense when we see overall success from the formations when the Almanac comes out. But it would take one hell of a two-back bootleg game for most of these teams to bail themselves out of the big hole they dig when they run out of the I formation.
It really is amazing how many coaches make their gameplans based on an obsolete ideology rather than based on what actually works. As Karl mentioned above, you would think teams would figure this out for themselves. If Football Outsiders can prove the I-form sucks with a handful of volunteer charters, how the hell does a pro football team with virtually unlimited resources not manage to see that their offense is heavily utilizing a counterproductive strategy? Hell, you don't even need something fancy like DVOA to see how bad the I-formation is; even YPC gives a large advantage to the singleback.

9 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

What I find interesting is that this trend towards single back is basically leaguewide, implying its not contingent on the quality of your quarterback.

One thing I find interesting is...even as teams have transitioned to going sub, overall rush defense isn't declining. It could mean that individual defenders are better at stopping the run than they use to be or offensive lines just aren't as good at road grading as before.

Anyone have a suspicion? I lean towards beefer dtackles.

14 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

That cuts both ways though, with college defenses not recruiting or training defenders to play against the power run since it isn't present in the spread offenses they face. There's been some grumbling from the two-gap 3-4's in the league lately that it's hard to find the "clogging" type D-linemen they look for since college defenses facing the spread don't bother with that kind of defender.

11 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

I don't get the issue with the Rams.

If the Rams were more successful running from 2 back sets, they should have run more from 2 back set, and so they did run more from 2 back sets. However without the book (as per jtr's comment), we don't know if 2 back sets hurt the passing game?

Drafting o-line this year does not preclude the Rams from going to more 1 back sets, nor does drafting Todd Gurley. Perhaps Fisher's line of thinking is to run more from 1 back sets and his plan to achieve this is through that improved o-line and rb?

15 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

Does this data include qb scrambles or just designed runs? For instance, does the niners' singleback data include Colin Kaepernick's 90 yard scramble against San Diego?

16 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

The 2TE is the main cause of death of the FB, imo.

Based on nothing more than casual observance Steelers games last year, opposing offenses went with a lot of 2TE sets against them. It's more versatile and you can accomplish much more with 2TE than with a FB. For one thing it creates eight gaps to defend and forces the defense to compensate in some manner. For a 34 team like Pittsburgh, they chose to stay in base. And against 2TE they invariably 2 gapped to account for the extra gap. And would still drop the SS in the box and play cover 3 behind it.

Could just one gap with the inverted safety. Gaps are covered with 8. But that's not what they did. LeBeau never trusted their run D all season. And was more bent on stopping the run than stopping the pass. So he overloaded to stop the run, and teams still ran on them...... and passed even more on them. 2 gapping 34 is crap against stretch plays. And they ate a steady diet of those. Or getting ripped on the play-action and boot-action set up by plays like outside zone. And teams like Cincy would mix in counters with the backside OT and OG pulling weak. Almost everything went weak side against base with these offtackle plays. Get the D to declare their strength, then hit them on the other side. Worked more often than not.

Too much reading and reacting. DLine set up nicely to get reached with little threat of zonebusting penetration (DEs were 4i). And the ILBs hang back trying to read instead of playing downhill and attacking a gap. Or, say, an ISO FB.

Steelers were the posterboys for why teams eschew the FB for an extra TE.

17 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

Just in general lots of advantages to 2TE over an FB. It gives you a lot more formation versatility--tight ends can line up in-line with the tackle, in the slot, at wingback/H-back behind a tackle, or in the backfield as a fullback. Teams like the Patriots and Eagles have been taking advantage of the versatility of the tight end position to use a variety of formations and concepts out of the same 2TE personnel, rather than trotting out a dedicated blocking back and declaring that they're in the I formation. The second tight end is usually a better receiver than the fullback, and as you said, the extra gap can cause problems for the defense. There's really not much reason anymore to bother giving a roster spot to a fullback, who usually isn't any good at anything besides making a downhill block on a linebacker.

18 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

Good point but now I wonder if the distinction between FB, H-back, and TE is semantics. For instance the Ravens are listed as one of the main teams who use two backs, but their FB, Juszczyk, was a TE in college and plays mostly H-back in their formations (from what I can remember). He didn't have a single carry but caught 19 passes and 1 TD last year.

21 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

The distinction between some of the positions can definitely be academic for some teams. The Steelers' Will Johnson is listed as a fullback (and inevitably mentioned on the broadcast as "Will Johnson, the Fullback" as if that's his full name), but he lines up as an H-back or extra tight end as often as he lined up in front of Bell. For defensive substitution purposes, a fullback and a blocking tight end are going to be treated the same way anyways.

20 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

I would just like to say, looking forward to next season, woo hoo. As a Seahawks fan, if both teams stay true to last season and both teams are probably likely to do so as I think these are the two teams with the least year to year variation, what you described is basically everything Seattle does on offense that is better than any other team in the NFL by a long shot.

And as a Seattle fan, a chance to wax the Steelers.

Again... Woo Hoo!!

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

22 Re: 2014 Rushing by Number of Backs

I'd be really interested in seeing the breakdown of the Packers' 2-back success in terms of how much came as a product of having John Kuhn in the backfield (which has been a decreasing proposition), having TEs line up in the backfield (something McCarthy likes), and/or having Cobb in the backfield for special packages.