One quarter of the way through the regular season, the running game has been poor. Statistically the Denver Broncos are near the bottom of the league in most rushing categories. How does the running game so far this year compare to last season? Should we be blaming the running backs or the offensive line? The offensive coordinator? All three?
It's really hard to win playoff games if you have no credible threat of running the ball. In our playoff wins last season we ran the for 133 yards (4.1 ypc) and 107 yards (3.8 ypc). Right now our running game is poor (3.2 ypc). A big part of this comes from one horrible game - SEA, but we have not been great running the ball in the other three games either. FWIW we were equally ineffective running the ball in the past two real games against SEA (27 and 36 yards on the ground).
Here are our current league ranks:
Rushing yards per game - 29th (79.5)
Yards per carry - 29th (3.2)
Rushing first downs per game - 25th (4.5)
Rushing TDs per game - 26th (0.5)
% of carries resulting in 1st down - 24th (18.2%)
Number of 20+ yard runs - tied for 23rd (1)
Admittedly we have faced some good run defenses in SEA, AZ and KC (based on 2013), but most of us were expecting more than being in the bottom 3rd of the league. All my data is from pro-football-reference.com
Is it a RB problem?
This could more easily be restated as a Montee Ball problem since he has been given the vast majority of our carries so far in 2014 (55 of 91). If you compare our runs from last season to our runs from this season (scaled 4x since we are one quarter of the way through the regular season) this is the result
We were pretty average in 2013 - and we are not even matching that in 2014. Through 4 games, we have a lot more negative, zero and one yard runs than we had last year (scaled). We are also on pace to have a who lot fewer runs of just about every positive distance. We had 455 runs in 2013 (not counting kneel-downs). So far this season we have had 91 runs (not including kneeldowns). 91 x 4 = 364, so we are on pace to run about 90 fewer times than we did last season - about 6 fewer runs per game at this pace. Here are the carries - by ballcarrier - so far in 2014 (not including the 8 QB kneel-downs)
Ball - 55
Hillman - 17 (almost all in game 4)
Anderson - 11
Sanders - 4
Thompson - 3
Green - 1
I would't put all of the blame on the RB, particularly if you think about how often our RBs have been getting hit behind the line of scrimmage, but we'll discuss that more in the next section. By my count we have 24 runs that have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage - 26% of our running plays so far. Sportingcharts.com says that we only have 13 (incorrectly) which makes us 30th in the league in stuffed % (% of runs that get stopped for zero or negative yards). Only the Chargers and the Eagles have been worse this year at getting stuffed. We also have a lot of runs this year where the RB has gained positive yards after making a tackler miss in the backfield. That being said, Ball has not been getting north and south as quickly this year as he did last year. Will our other backs be more decisive when given carries in the next 3-4 games?
Where do we run when we run?
So with our shuffled offensive line (relative to 2013) it is interesting to look at where we are running the ball and how well we are doing when he run behind the different offensive linemen.
Directional runs through 4 games 2014 - LE should be 1.5 not 1.0
So those are the average yards per carry when we run to various spots on the line. Right now the two weakest spots are behind Clark at RT and to the outside of Clady (nominally behind the TE - if one is there). The caveat is that the vast majority of our runs so far have be "up the middle" so at least we are not continuing to try something that is failing (i.e. running behind Clark) - [the table below was used to make the graph above]
We have been running up the middle almost half of the time (47%) when we run. If you include the runs behind Franklin and Vazquez, we have run in the G-C-G slots 66% of the time when we have run the ball. This is presumably playing to both our OL's strength (we have some massive bodies between LV-335, MR-320 and OF-320 - those are 3 of the 4 heaviest players on the team) and Ball's strength (vision and reading blocks). We may employ more outside runs with Hillman and Anderson getting more carries (both are presumably quicker/faster than Ball and Thompson). Another reason for the our general lack of outside runs (beyond the lack of success) is the defenses that we have played. It is almost impossible to run outside on the Seahawks - if you want to gain any yards on the ground against them you run right up the middle. AZ and KC also did a pretty good job of stopping any outside runs that we tried. We were successful only against IND running outside - LE = 3 for 9, RE = 3 for 27. After the IND game, we have gained a total of 2 rushing yards running outside the tackles. Here is the breakdown of who has gotten those outside runs this season
Ball: LE - 5, RE - 3
Hillman: LE - 1, RE -1
Sanders: LE - 3, RE -1
Sanders has 17 of the 38 yards we have gained on the season on outside runs (end-arounds). Outside of the end-arounds to Sanders, we have gained 21 yards on 10 outside runs (2.1 ypc).
With Ball sidelined for 3-4 games, we will get to see what the other RBs can accomplish behind this OL. We will truly get an answer to where the "fault" lies in our running game. In the first two years of his career, Hillman was a much more effective runner when running outside than when running between the tackles. So it will be interesting, assuming he gets the most carries of the three healthy RBs, to see if we continue to pound the ball up the middle like we have been doing with Ball and Anderson in the first 4 games, or if we try more outside runs. Hillman had runs of 9 (LT), 13 (RG) and 16 (LT) yards last Sunday. None of those runs were outside runs.
If you read CH74's (and Laurie's) OL write-ups, you'll get a much better understanding at what our offensive lineman are doing wrong and what our backs are doing wrong. For the OL, a lot of it boils down to not whiffing on blocks. Going by memory, it seems that we are whiffing on a lot more blocks than we were last season. JT has always had a problem with whiffs (a whiff is when you completely miss the defender you are trying to block), but Vazquez and Franklin have whiffed a lot more frequently so far this year than they did last season. If we can cut down on the whiffs, the running game will pick up regardless of who is carrying to ball because the backs will have fewer instances where they have to make a guy miss in the backfield just to get back to the LOS. Additionally our OL is doing a poor job recently at disengaging at the proper time on double teams to reach the second level defenders.
Personally I think the running game is going to improve during the rest of the season. We may only end up with an average running, but average is better than bottom quartile.