Lance Zierlein

The Smash Mouth

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Run-Game Rejuvenation

Saturday, November 09, 2013


Running backs got to work last weekend with their strongest collective performance from that position we’ve seen all year. Will the trend continue?

Last week there were 13 running backs who hit the 100-yard rushing mark, and nine of those 13 runners also scored touchdowns. The previous high mark this season for 100-yard rushers in a week was six. We also saw 12 backs get 20+ carries, which is something we aren't used to in this day and age of “RBBC”.

While Doug Martin never got it going, Mike James has certainly found running room in Tampa Bay and the same could be said for Rashad Jennings, who has substantially better field vision than Darren “straight line” McFadden.

Lamar Miller was terrific with his vision and patience in the Dolphins' zone scheme, while Chris Ivory and Zac Stacy continued to run as hard as any backs in the business. Evan Silva favorite, Andre Brown, will be the next grinder to hit the 100-yard mark, just you watch.

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Moving the Sticks

* Want to hear a crazy stat? Of the San Francisco 49ers' 1,224 rushing yards, only 67 yards (5.5%) have come over left guard Mike Iupati. Don’t get it twisted, however, as Iupati is a big part of the 49ers' running game with double team blocks and as a pulling, power guard. I was just shocked to see how infrequently the 49ers just base-block it and run right behind the big guy.

* The New Orleans Saints had a stretch of football against the vaunted Jets front seven where they ran eight times for 44 yards thanks to outstanding blocking on inside zone plays and a few power plays. If you can run it at the Jets, you can run it at other teams. If Sean Payton saw what I saw, I wonder if he might be more inclined to test the waters of the ground game in weeks to come.

* The New England Patriots found a hole in the Pittsburgh Steelers' run defense last week and they exploited it time and time again. The Pats kept pumping the same outside zone plays at Brett Keisel and Jarvis Jones, and the Steelers struggled badly in trying to stop it as Keisel kept getting ridden out of the play while nose tackle Steve McClendon wasn’t much of a factor in terms of getting penetration to disrupt cutback lanes.

* I know the Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito story has been done to death in the media, but let me tell you what it means on the field. Martin was just okay in the running game and subpar as a pass protector. I don’t think the Miami Dolphins will miss him at all. However, Incognito was a rock-solid run blocker who, despite his bulk, was able to function with some power and in their zone plays. Miami’s running game looked terrific against the Bengals, but they may struggle now with Incognito gone.

The Redskins creativity keeps the running game moving

I watch parts of (and in many cases, most of) every NFL game each week. I watch games on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday and then jump on then go to work with “Short Cuts” on DirectTV until the coaches tape comes out on Tuesday and I switch over to get a real feel for offensive line play around the league.

I see my fair share of ho-hum running games or teams who simply don’t commit to running the football because they don’t believe in it as a philosophy for winning football for their particular team. And that is fine. When I find teams who can physically dominate with their running attack or who are creative with their ground game, I sit up and take special notice. When it comes to creativity in the running game, nobody is doing it better than Kyle and Mike Shanahan in Washington.

I’m sure there will be some people who argue that this is Mike Shanahan’s offense, but let’s get real. There is no way that Mike Shanahan is coming up with the changes we’ve seen to the running game on his own. I’m sure Big Shanny is heavily involved with it still, but the changes that have been made to Washington’s rushing attack over the last two years have a distinctly collegiate feel to them, which makes me believe that Kyle Shanahan is the designer.

The Redskins added the Pistol formation and zone-read looks last season to accommodate the special skill set of Robert Griffin III, and it paid off to the tune of a league-leading 169.3 yards per game on the ground. I expected Washington’s running game to fall short of last year’s numbers after defensive coordinators spent the offseason looking for ways to slow down the zone-read concept, but I’ve been extremely impressed with the way that Washington has been able to make changes to their scheme on the fly and still generate outstanding results. Let’s compare last year to this year.

2012

FormationYards% OverallYPCTotal YPG
Under Center 866 32% 4.1 169.3
Shotgun 498 18.4% 6.6
Pistol 1,345 49.6% 5.8
Totals 2,709 100% 5.2



2013

FormationYards% OverallYPCTotal YPG
Under Center 456 33.5% 4.8 151.2
Shotgun 95 7% 5.9
Pistol 810 59.5% 5.1
Totals 1,361 100% 5.1



* In 2012, 58% of the Redskins rushing yards came from shotgun or pistol formations compared to just 8.5% in 2011. Clearly, the Redskins' schematic changes as well as the addition of RG3, Alfred Morris, and the continuity of the offensive line helped the Redskins become the top rushing team in the NFL.

* In 2013, RG3 hasn’t been the same passer he was in 2012, so the Redskins have gone to less shotgun and more pistol which allows them a little more creativity with their running game. You might also notice that as teams have focused on taking the zone-read away, they are allowing .7 yards more per carry when the Redskins go under center.

* The yards per game are down, but that is primarily because RG3’s legs haven’t produced at the same pace as last season. The Redskins' yards per carry, quality rush percentage and stuff rate are very similar to what we saw last year and that is due, in large part, the schematic changes the Redskins have made to keep defenses guessing.

Going old school for new results

I understand the Redskins are 3-6 and that is all that matters in the “real” football world, but in fantasy football, we care about the numbers and productivity. And as you can see, the Redskins' running game is productive yet again despite the fact that RG3 has just recently become a running threat again and despite the fact that teams spent the offseason game-planning how to stop the Redskins' ground attack.

Early in the season, when RG3 wasn’t running as often, the Redskins were struggling on the ground. Quite frankly, the talent up front isn’t good enough for Washington to just be an “impose your will” type of running game like San Francisco and New England feature right now.

Once the Redskins and RG3 decided that he needed to run more, they were able to implement changes that included added 1970s run-game concepts with some 2013 twists. The Redskins have started running old-school Bill Yeoman, University of Houston veer plays but out of the pistol and with an offset fullback. From time to time, they will also line tight end Jordan Reed up in a full-house backfield and run the triple-option out of a bastardized wishbone look.

The Redskins averaged one explosive rush play (15+ yards) per game before their BYE in Week 5. They made some schematic changes and have averaged 3.4 explosive rushes per game since then. The running game explosion has been an eye-opener for fantasy owners who saw Alfred Morris struggling early in the season, but who now leads the league in yards per game. When you compare the running room that Morris had to that of Adrian Peterson in Washington’s loss to the Vikings, you realize just how much easier it could be for Peterson if he had a better quarterback and run game design.

There are some things that will never come back in style….. John Stockton’s short shorts, hair parted down the middle and Chris Berman’s nicknames for players. Everything else is cyclical and eventually makes a return, and that includes 1970s college football. Washington and Carolina have been ahead of the pack as it pertains to creating headaches for defenses because they are constantly adding option-game wrinkles for defensive coordinators to prepare for.

With more and more quarterbacks coming out of college with the ability to threaten defenses with their legs as well as their arms, we may see offensive coordinators try and duplicate what the Redskins are doing as teams look to get the most out of their dual-threat quarterbacks and their running games.



Lance Zierlein is sports talk show host on KMBE 790 AM in Houston, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @lancezierlein.
Email :Lance Zierlein



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