NFL Myth-busting: Elite Running Backs Battle Eight-in-the-Box Defenses
By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
This week we have a quartet of NFL myths that may not all be brand spanking new, but they reared their ugly heads often during 2012 and want us to believe they are going to have an impact on the upcoming 2013 season.
Don’t believe the hype. The truth comes from the facts.
This week’s first myth looked at the numbers behind the trend that is the read-option, specifically looking at how it helped the Carolina Panthers’ offense more than the myth that it hurt them.
Now we set our sights on a long-time myth about the running game that needs to go the way of the dinosaur.
Myth No. 2: Elite Running Backs Usually Face Eight-in-the-Box Defenses Because No One Respects Their QB
You can insert any big-time running back’s name here, but let’s go with the most obvious example, if only because we have our best data on him.
Adrian Peterson returned from a torn ACL injury to have the best season of his career for the Minnesota Vikings, rushing for 2,097 yards and winning the league’s MVP award.
A big reason he won the award was the lack of a passing game the Vikings had behind second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, who threw for only 2,935 yards despite throwing every pass for the team.
The assumed narrative is that Peterson heroically amassed these numbers by facing so many loaded boxes with eight or more defenders gearing up to stop the run without any respect for the pass.
While some have tried to build Peterson’s 2012 into something it wasn’t, this “he was tearing it up despite eight in the box!” story is nothing new for respected running backs. It sure sounded like something that was dying to have the film studied and quantified in today’s analytical football world.
When I asked ESPN’s Kevin Seifert about it, he returned with these figures from ESPN Stats & Info: Peterson had 6.45 yards per carry on 104 runs vs. defenses with 8+ in the box in 2012. The 49ers actually faced more loaded boxes than the Vikings despite better quarterback play and weapons in San Francisco.
Extrapolating those Peterson numbers, we get these results:
Adrian Peterson's 2012 Season (via ESPN Stats & Info)
Fewer than 8 in the box
8+ in the box
Well would you imagine that? Peterson faced loaded boxes no more than 30 percent of the time. That’s far less than the usual narrative leads us to believe. He also had a higher average on such plays, which makes sense in that if he breaks some tackles, there’s going to be a long, empty field ahead of him for huge gains.
In 2012 especially, Peterson was all about huge big gains, producing a career-best seven rushes of 50+ yards. While not a problem for Peterson in 2012, historically, rushing against 8+ in the box would not produce such favorable results.
ESPN’s Mike Sando was looking into these numbers in 2011 as well. From an article halfway through the season, he found that Peterson was leading the league with 59 carries against eight or more defenders in the box. Extrapolating these numbers, we get these 2011 results (first eight games only):
Adrian Peterson's 2011 Season (Games 1-8)
Fewer than 8 in the box
8+ in the box
The lower average against 8+ in the box is more in line with historical figures. Still, it only takes a big run or two to boost those numbers, because again we see the percentage of plays is not very high. In fact, the loaded box happened more frequently halfway through 2011 than last year, which is when Peterson supposedly had no passing game.
Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz, also via ESPN Stats & Info, said that all 2012 rushes (scrambles excluded) against eight in the box produced just 3.4 yards per carry. He posted the numbers for each front:
As you load the box with defenders, the rushing average understandably declines. However, while the number of defenders in the box does matter, the frequency of this strategy of using eight or more is not the heavy burden on a running back some lead us to believe.
Sando also had some different numbers on the concept of “loaded boxes” which are defined as the defense having more defenders in the box than the offense has to block them. Peterson only had 39 carries against loaded boxes through 14 games last season. No back had more than 58 carries. It is possible to have enough blockers against eight in the box for those runs to not factor into this.
Pro Football Focus had slightly different results with Peterson facing 8+ in the box on 34.5 percent of his runs in 2012. The highest was San Francisco’s Frank Gore (42.3 percent). The league average was only 23.3 percent, which may be the most interesting number of them all.
PFF also looked at runs where the team kept no more than one receiver split out, which would invite teams to load up the box more. Only 21.74 percent of rushes happened this way in 2012. Gore ran on such plays a league-high 53.5 percent of the time, which explains why he faced so many eight-man boxes. Peterson was third with 37.64 percent of his carries coming with one receiver split out.
No matter which numbers you believe, the fact is no defense is loading the box even half the time against top running backs. It’s just not a realistic strategy to employ often in the NFL.
Just last week we looked into the myth about the dependency of the run and pass. Despite Peterson’s success, Ponder had the Vikings next to last in the league in yards per attempt (6.30) on play-action passes.
The Vikings are one of only 22 teams since 1970 to average more yards per run than per pass, so you would think if there was a team that would benefit from the running game in the passing game, it’d be them.
They did not, yet defenses still did not load up to stop Peterson as much as you would expect.
In Green Bay last December, the Vikings faced a 3rd-and-1 situation, trailing 10-7 in the second quarter. To this point, Ponder was 5-of-7 passing for 36 yards and a touchdown. It’s not that that’s bad, but obviously throwing the ball was not something the team came to do that day.
On this play, defensive coordinator Dom Capers should be expecting a run as 3rd-and-1 is a high-percentage run call in the NFL. The Vikings just tried to run it on 2nd-and-1 and gained nothing. They lined up in the shotgun and the Packers brought safety Morgan Burnett late into the box. Burnett made the tackle on the play.
Now on the big 3rd-and-1, the Vikings line up in the I-formation, but Green Bay did not bring in the safety this time, sticking with a seven-man front even though it seemed obvious a run to Peterson was coming:
Man did Green Bay pay here. Peterson ran right and got the first down before even being touched. He then proceeded to break four tackles on the play and raced 82 yards for the touchdown, making this the longest run of his career.
Just as I went to Game Rewind to fire up the Vikings/Rams game from Week 15, FOX’s Kristina Pink dropped the myth right before kickoff: “Well it’s no secret that both of these defenses want to come out here, load the box and try to stop the run, so it’s up to these two quarterbacks to take advantage.”
Sure thing, honey.
It was just two weeks after the Green Bay game that Peterson ripped off another 82-yard touchdown run in St. Louis. This time the Rams did play eight in the box.
But all it took were a few good blocks, one cut and Peterson was gone again. That one extra guy moved up a few more yards didn’t make a difference. In fact, Peterson had an easier time on this run than he did against Green Bay’s seven-man front.
If you’re the Vikings with Peterson’s skills and the blocking talent up front, you might welcome more loaded boxes if it’s going to open up the field this much.
As we seen with the Vikings all year, little made sense with that offense. Some of Peterson’s worst games (San Francisco, Houston) were Ponder’s best. Some of Peterson’s best games (that Green Bay game and at Seattle) were Ponder’s worst.
Since teams will think Minnesota upgraded this year with receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, there’s a good chance Peterson will see less loaded boxes in 2013. That may be beneficial to him, though we know he can run well against run-focused defenses too.
We also know the success of the Vikings still rests more with Ponder’s ability to throw the ball, favorable defensive look or not.
Minnesota aside, the league-wide data proves we need to pluck the strings from these violins that want to play sad songs for the running back facing eight in the box.
At least, we know that in today’s game it’s not the defense’s strategy of choice. It would be very interesting to research the same data for an era like the 1990s when rushing was more common, averages were lower and backs like Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis were the best in the league.
We know the use of the shotgun continues to rise. The importance of nickel corners to defend No. 3 receivers and slot receivers is greater than ever. The game is changing, so it would be foolish not to think these stats for a simple defensive strategy have changed as well.
So if you hear a stubborn old Jim Brown say “back in my day we ran into nothing but eight and nine men in the box,” then he may be telling the truth. Though if you hear Darren McFadden complaining about it, someone might want to tell him to shut up.
He’s just keeping the myth alive.
Tomorrow’s myth: We return to the passing game, which has always been more important than the running game.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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