Breaking Down the Running Game Blues

Indiana’s running back rushing average against Power 5 teams has steadily decreased over the last 5 years, dropping a staggering 2.74 yards per carry over this period. Indiana sent two backs and two linemen to the NFL during this time leaving an offense unable to run the ball with ease. The line has struggled this year, but the backs haven’t helped either. Applying blame is difficult but there’s a reason we here at Punt John Punt are paid the big bucks.

You can see in the chart the massive decrease in yards per carry over the five year period. It’d be too easy to just say “the line can’t block anyone!” It’s probably also not true.

The 2013 Indiana offense was amazing. Despite rotating quarterbacks, scoring below 28 points in a Power 5 game was considered a major disappointment. Indiana had games of 35, 44, 47, 39, 52, and 56[ref]Losing 3 of these games…that’s another story.[/ref] The running game showcased an emerging Tevin Coleman who averaged 6.7 yards per carry in Power 5, non-garbage time. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry on the season. Somewhat forgotten in this equation was Stephen Houston who was really, really good in his time at Indiana. Houston averaged 6.5 yards per carry in Power 5 games and 6.7 on the season. Think about that. Two backs both averaging over 6 yards per carry! This season Indiana has just two backs averaging over 4 yards per carry. From Kevin Wilson’s debut to present, it’s not a HOT TAKE to say that Houston has been Indiana’s 3rd best back.

Moving onto 2014, Coleman was still amazing, averaging the same 6.7 yards per carry. Add to it that his carry total more than doubled from 2013.[ref]Remember he was injured and missed the last 3 games in 2013.[/ref] But Houston’s production was replaced primarily by DeAngelo Roberts who managed just 3.7 yards per carry. Despite the heavier Coleman workload, the drop-off in backup running back contributed to the yards per carry difference from 2013 and 2014.

The 2015 decrease can be broken down into two areas: Jordan Howard and Not-Jordan Howard. The current Chicago Bear averaged 6.1 yards per carry versus 4.7 for everyone else. Both averages were good, but this was also behind a line considered one of the conference’s best.

The 2016 season saw the departure of Jason Spriggs and Jordan Howard to the NFL, an injury to Dan Feeney knocked him out of several contests, and Dimitric Camiel missed the entire Power 5 slate. The result was a very disappointing 4.0 ypc. Fast forward to this season. Indiana running backs are averaging an incredibly pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry. Is this the Dan Feeney effect? Has the patchwork line struggled to give Indiana backs room to run? Or are the young Hoosier running backs not getting the job done? The answer is probably a little of everything.

First let’s look at the line. In terms of RB stuff rate,[ref]The percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.[/ref] the 2017 offense has been better than their 5 year average. The 19% stuff rate is not too far off from that great 2013 rushing team. It is also much improved over the 2016 offense. You can argue the line isn’t getting great push up front, but they are generally not getting knocked back either.

The percentage of rushes gaining 4 or fewer yards is significantly higher for the 2016 and 2017 offenses. If a higher percentage of carries are going for 4 or fewer yards, that means that a lower percentage of carries are going 5+ yards. That is not ideal. The reason that 4 yards or fewer was chosen all ties back to the notion of Line Yards. The idea behind Line Yards is to divvy credit for a given rush between both the runner and the blockers. Rushes of 4 yards or fewer are determined to be influenced more so by the line. Complaints about the line began in the 2016 season. Clearly there was a drop off in offensive line production that has hampered the IU running game over the past 2 seasons. But it doesn’t entirely explain the issue.

Rushes of 5+ yards are referred to as a highlight opportunity. The idea is that the line has done the work to get the back to the second level. At this point, running back explosiveness comes into play.

As we’ve seen, 71% of Indiana’s carries this year have been 4 yards or fewer. That means that only 29% have gone 5+ yards. Last year Indiana had an opportunity rate of just 30% which is a far cry from the 37% rate averaged between 2013 and 2015. The last 2 seasons have seen fewer opportunities for big plays.

While the opportunities haven’t been there at the same rate as before, Indiana’s backs are not as explosive as before either. No one expects the 2017 personnel to be at the explosive level of Tevin Coleman. Morgan Ellison is not an explosive back. He’s Indiana’s top back, but he’s more of a possession back that moves the chains and helps convert on short down rushes. That’s extremely valuable especially when the line has been pieced together with so many parts. His stuff rate is just 15%. Of his carries, 37% have been for 5+ yards, a figure that is not elite, but still well above the combined 22% rate for the rest of the 2017 backs. However, when he does get into the second level his rushes are just average. He is averaging just 8.3 yards per carry on rushes of 5+. Even Jordan Howard, the back he is most often compared to, averaged 10.5 yards per carry on rushes of 5+.  Ellison’s rushes greater than 10 yards read as follows: 18, 12, 31, and 11.

The other 3 backs in Majette, Gest, and Williams aren’t much better. They are averaging just 8.7 yards per carry on rushes of 5+.

This low total is a reflection of a downward trend. Obviously 2013 and 2014 are propped up by the ridiculously explosive Tevin Coleman but the 2017 backs are over 3 yards per carry fewer than the 2015 crew primarily led by Jordan Howard and Devine Redding. Simply put, even when given the opportunity, Indiana’s backs have failed to make defenders miss in the second level.

This has, in turn, affected Indiana’s overall yards per carry average. Big plays have a major impact on a running back’s yards per carry average. A back could have 1 rush of 80 yards with 15 rushes gaining no yards and he would have the same 5.0 yards per carry average as a back gaining 5 yards on all 16 of his rushes.

If Indiana’s backs averaged the 10.6 yards per carry on rushes of 5+ yards that the 2016 team did, their overall rushing yards per carry would be greatly improved. And this isn’t even using the unrealistic turbo-charged Tevin Coleman era average. This is simply using 2016 Devine Redding and Company average. There’s nothing flashy about it but averaging the 10.6 yards on rushes of 5+ yards instead of the 8.4 they actually are averaging in 2017 would increase their overall yards per carry from 3.5 to 4.2. Sure it’s a far cry from the mid-Kevin Wilson era, but I’m not sure a reasonable person would have expected those averages.

Looking at both the lower opportunity rate and the lower production on opportunities, it’s clear to me that this is a line AND back issues, not an either/or. Clearly the line has failed to give the backs room to get to the second level, but the backs haven’t entirely taken advantage either.