Everyone knows that the NFL is increasingly becoming a passing league. Teams are throwing the ball on nearly 60% of plays, and passing plays are more efficient than handoffs. In recent weeks, though, there are a few teams that have used the run in such a way that it has been efficient enough to justify extremely heavy utilization.
This week, we’re going to use this space to take a look at the different ways three teams have been using their run game to great effect. We’ll start with the team that at the moment looks like it has the NFL‘s best running back.
Jonathan Taylor narrowly missed setting an NFL record with his ninth consecutive game with 100-plus total yards and a touchdown, totaling a measly 97 yards and a score against the Buccaneers last week. Still, since Week 6, Taylor has taken his 136 carries for 878 yards, adding in 12 touchdowns for good measure. His performance has helped the Colts average 0.12 EPA per rush attempt over that span — better than all but eight pass offenses during that time.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this stretch is the rate at which the Colts are creating explosive gains. An incredible 11.4% of their rush attempts have gained 12 or more yards during this time, per TruMedia. It’s not like those gains are only coming on one type of play, though. The Colts are using all different kinds of runs and all big plays in all different kinds of ways.
The offensive line is now back at full strength, and it is absolutely dominating opposing defenses up front. Taylor is a physical freak who checked in as a 90th percentile athlete among NFL running backs based on his performance at the combine; so he doesn’t exactly need an enormous hole to break a big gain. But he’s getting them anyway, thanks to the work of the big guys up front.
Sometimes, the blocking is so good, that opposing defensive linemen get pushed past the hole, and Taylor has a cutback lane that is even wider than the original rushing lane. He sees those lanes as well as any back in the league, and he takes them whenever they are presented. Whether it’s one gap away, two gaps, or more, Taylor has the vision and patience to get to where the hole actually is, instead of where it was supposed to be. He excels at using jump-cuts to maintain full speed as he changes direction, allowing him to pick up as many yards as possible on these plays.
Even when the blocking isn’t perfect, Taylor’s combination of vision and burst puts him in position to succeed. For such a big back (he’s 226 pounds), he’s able to make himself incredibly small on his way through a hole, then hit the jets to pull away from front sevens and break into the secondary. He has rare talent, and the ability to turn what should be small gains into much larger ones.
Sometimes, all of this comes together at once. He gets great blocking that provides a massive hole for him to get through and make his way to the second level. Then, that hole quickly closes. Taylor uses his vision to spot a lane to the next hole, turns on the afterburners, and makes a good run into a great one that reaches the end zone.
Taylor’s success as a runner has almost overshadowed his contributions in the passing game. After largely ceding passing-down snaps to Nyheim Hines for the better part of his first season-and-a-half in the NFL, Taylor has taken on a sizable receiving role as well. He has at least three receptions in seven of Indy’s last nine games, and he’s averaging more than 9 yards per catch on the year. That type of versatility is highly valuable, and it makes him the league’s most dangerous player out of the backfield at the moment.
No team has shown more commitment to the run of late than the Eagles. Philadelphia has called for a rush on 61% of its snaps since Week 9, around 7 percentage points more often than the next-closest team. As a result, according to our friends at Establish the Run, the Eagles have a -14.2% pass rate over expectation, easily the lowest figure in the NFL during that time. After beginning the season with an extreme pass-heavy lean, it’s a remarkable in-season shift.
The shift has been justified, even if only because it’s a far better use of Jalen Hurts‘ skill set. Hurts has looked awful as a passer in the team’s more recent games, but he has 49 rush attempts for 263 yards and three scores over the last four. His ability to take off and run on zone-read plays turns ordinary plays into multi-dimensional ones, and the mere threat of him scooting around the edge gives Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, and Boston Scott an advantage against opposing defensive linemen who hesitate for just a split-second before crashing down on a handoff.
It helps that the Philadelphia offensive linemen are DESTROYING everything in front of them. There are so many plays from the last few weeks where the guys up front are knocking multiple defenders to the ground and clearing the way for Hurts and the backs to get to the second level completely untouched. The Eagles are averaging 2.5 yards before contact per carry since Week 9, according to TruMedia, the third-best mark in the NFL. And that somehow seems low.
Even when they’re not tossing defenders out of the club, the Eagles’ linemen are executing to perfection. Philly did not do much else well other than run the ball last week against the Giants; but if you were looking for teaching tape for offensive linemen, you could do a lot worse than just firing up Philly vs. New York. These guys are executing so well that the Eagles ran the ball down the throats of the Saints‘ league-best run defenses a couple weeks ago. The blocking has helped them gain 5 or more yards on 40% of their early-down runs during this four-week stretch, per TruMedia, an elite mark that actually makes the run a fairly efficient option on first and second down.
With a game against the Jets and their 30th-ranked rush defense on tap this weekend, we could see some fireworks from this Philly ground attack, assuming it can get at least one of its backs healthy enough to play.
We wrote a big feature on the foundation of the 49ers run game prior to their Super Bowl appearance a couple years back, but the rushing attack might be even more interesting now than it was then. The biggest reason for that is the way that Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel allow them to attack the defense in wildly different ways, even while the 49ers still utilize their base concepts with both players.
Samuel, honestly, is a player that makes absolutely no sense. Through Week 8, Samuel ranked second in the NFL in receiving yards behind only Cooper Kupp. He’s basically been playing running back for the last four weeks, and he still ranks first in the NFL in yards per route run among the 130 players who have run 200 routes or more. And yet he might somehow be an even better rusher than he is a receiver. He has 25 carries for 203 yards and five touchdowns on the season, with 19 for 181 and four over the last three games alone.
The Niners will line up him in (or motion him into) the backfield and use him as a regular running back, running toss, inside zone, power, split zone, and more. And it all works just the way it would if they had lined up Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr., Raheem Mostert, or any one of their other various backs behind Jimmy Garoppolo. The way moving Samuel into the backfield allows them to shift their other skill position players into different alignments throws defenses into chaos, and turns regular run plays into seemingly unstoppable ones.
The Niners have also been spamming one particular play with Samuel in the backfield, while playing around with how they block it up by utilizing shifts and motions and different skill-position alignments. Samuel will line up or motion next to Garoppolo in the shotgun and take a handoff, but rather than executing an inside give like most handoffs from the gun, Garoppolo reverse-pivots just like he would from under center, and the play turns into an outside handoff instead. Defenses are completely flummoxed by this action.
Mitchell, meanwhile, is acting as an old-school workhorse and running people over. He’s averaging 3.4 yards after contact per attempt over the last three weeks, the fourth-best mark in the league. He has been particularly effective running to the edges of the formation, with 25 carries for 125 yards on runs to the tackle or end, per TruMedia. And it doesn’t even matter if defenses load the box with defenders. Mitchell is gaining nearly 6 yards per carry against 8-man boxes since returning from his injury earlier in the season.
With Samuel out this week against the Seahawks, Mitchell could be an even bigger part of the offensive game plan than he has been in his last two appearances, when he totaled 27 carries in each game. His increased utilization as a pass-catcher allows him to stay on the field even more often, and in turns makes the 49ers’ offense even more dangerous.