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Going Deep

Stop Running It Up The Middle

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: July 24, 2020, 6:05 pm ET

For most situations in the NFL, it’s better to pass the ball instead of run, but there are a few down-and-distances (1st-and-5, 2nd-and-short, and 3rd-and-short) where passing and rushing are just about equal in terms of expected points added (EPA), which means offensive play-callers can play to whatever their offense’s strength is. What I’m saying is that analytics don’t always say pass the ball ... but when teams do call a run, there is at least one way to get a better result:

MiddleRuns

I’ve removed quarterback scrambles from the data, so this chart is primarily looking at which gap running backs are running between, although designed quarterback runs and end-arounds are still included. The green dot shows rushes right up the middle (guard), the blue dot is closer to the edge but still inside (tackle), and the red dot are outside runs (end). 

What the chart shows is that running the ball outside (red dots) was far more efficient than running it up the middle (green and blue dots) last season. If you have seen the research done by the Big Data Bowl winners or Josh Hermsmeyer’s defenders in the box column, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The entire goal for designing a successful run play is to get the ball carrier running fast towards an area of the field where there are more blockers than defenders or no defenders at all (aka “play in space”). It sounds extremely simplistic, but this philosophy is going underused in the NFL with coaches hellbent on physical running up the middle to “set the tone.” 

Let’s examine three plays.

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Let’s first take a look at the Giants and Saquon Barkley, who is either the best or second-best running back in the NFL. There are eight Dolphins in the box at the snap, but the Giants still opt for a run right up the middle (guard) on 1st-and-10. Barkley doesn’t get a chance to show off his elite speed, strength, and agility because he’s immediately slowed down by defenders up the middle. For a play call like this to work, the coach needs his entire offensive line to make a quality block and Barkley to explode upfield immediately. That’s a lot to ask, which is why it’s a highly inefficient play call compared to a pass or outside run.

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This is another 1st-and-10 run play from under center, but the design is a whole lot different (read: better). Kenyan Drake, who is decent but is not Saquon Barkley by any means, is set up perfectly for a chunk gain and a first down here. By running outside, Kliff Kingsbury needs two players to make clean blocks instead of the four-plus quality blocks needed for an inside run to be successful. In this play, the two blocks needed (LT and WR) were executed, but even if they weren’t, Drake is at least running near full speed right after the handoff point, so his odds of breaking a tackle are far greater than Saquon’s in the previous play, even though Saquon is better than Drake. 

Another thing that helps Drake out is the two receivers slicing back across the play at the snap. Similarly to how we see linebackers pause on play action, defenders take an extra second to make sure plays like this aren’t actual sweeps around the end, and that slowed movement is often the difference between a positive and negative play. Just watch the inside linebacker (#53) stop in the middle of the play here, which allowed Drake to pick up 14 yards instead of about six or seven. ESPN’s Seth Walder notes there is approximately a +0.08 EPA per play difference in favor of motion at the snap over run plays where there was no motion, which is equivalent to the per-play difference of the 49ers’ and Buccaneers’ rushing offenses last season. That’s huge.

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The last example is a run up the middle (usually bad), but the Ravens are the major outlier when it comes to inside run success, and it’s solely because of MVP Lamar Jackson. Whenever the Ravens run this option, the edge defender has to come to a complete stop to read Lamar at the handoff point. Lamar’s athleticism essentially takes a defender out of the box because he’s no longer defending the traditional run and is instead focused on preventing Lamar from shredding them outside, much like the fake sweep motion in Kingsbury’s design from above.

Overall, it is usually best to pass in the NFL, especially with how the game is being officiated in 2020, but there are situations when running is on par with passing or sometimes even the better option per analytics. When those down-and-distances arise, it’s better to run outside than pound the rock up the gut because quality blocks and finding space determines rushing success, and fewer quality blocks are needed on outside runs to make it a successful play. Unless your team has Lamar Jackson at quarterback (congrats), then you should be hoping that your rushing offense will look the Cardinals’. They were top-seven in motion at the snap and first in outside run percentage (rankings below), the two best and easiest ways to help out NFL running backs.

 

2019 Outside Run Percentage

EPA Per Carry is for all non-QB scramble carries, including rushes up the middle.

Team Outside Run Rate Rank EPA Rank
ARI 61% 1 0.09 2
IND 51% 2 0.02 3
PHI 48% 3 -0.09 21
KC 46% 4 -0.03 11
GB 46% 5 -0.03 12
LAC 42% 6 -0.08 19
WAS 42% 7 -0.12 26
MIN 40% 8 -0.01 9
JAX 38% 9 -0.06 17
DET 38% 10 -0.13 27
TEN 34% 11 0.00 7
DEN 34% 12 -0.10 22
NE 34% 13 -0.05 15
SF 33% 14 0.00 6
LA 32% 15 -0.11 25
LV 29% 16 0.01 4
CAR 29% 17 -0.10 23
DAL 29% 18 0.01 5
SEA 29% 19 -0.04 14
CHI 28% 20 -0.17 31
HOU 27% 21 -0.01 8
NO 26% 22 -0.04 13
ATL 26% 23 -0.14 28
MIA 25% 24 -0.22 32
CIN 25% 25 -0.11 24
NYG 25% 26 -0.02 10
PIT 24% 27 -0.15 29
NYJ 19% 28 -0.16 30
BAL 19% 29 0.13 1
TB 18% 30 -0.07 18
BUF 18% 31 -0.05 16
CLE 14% 32 -0.08 20

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5. 2019 Expected Fantasy Points (TE)

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