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Running to stand still

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The running game was sporadically effective last year, but let's take a deeper comparative look at how it performed.

Ronnie Hillman
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

{The title is taken from a U2 song of off the Joshua Tree album and I’ll be sprinkling allusions to song into this article that will be lost on all but U2 fans. My apologies for the many bad puns you are about to endure.}

Between injuries and inexperience our offensive line was below average last season and our running game suffered. On many runs our RB saw seven towers and they were mostly defenders leaving him no way out. Despite the OL struggles our running game managed to be average to below average in 2015 (yay?). Let’s look deeper than the average yards per carry comparison (league average was 4.13 while Denver averaged 4.18) which makes our running game look average and not poor like it was for most of the regular season.

This article is going to focus on the runs that gained between -3 and 10 yards and look at how the Broncos compared to the rest of the NFL last season. In 2015 88.3% of all NFL runs gained between -3 and 10 yards. 9.3% of runs gained 11 or more yards meaning only 2.4% of all runs to lost 4 or more yards. We had a decent number of long runs this season (10.3% of our runs this year gained 11 or more yards compared to a league average of 9.3%) but those were "balanced" by a high percentage of stuffed runs (more on this later). Those long runs were the white gold and pearls stolen from the sea.

Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A quick note about the stats you are going to see, I removed all QB kneel-downs which the NFL counts as a run for -1 yards. I think it’s stupid to count them so I took them out for every team meaning that the total % of runs for -1 yard is lower than it would be if you were to leave in the QB kneel-downs.

So how did the Broncos compare to the rest of the NFL. That is shown graphically below.

A graph showing how badly the Broncos running game sucked in 2015

So we want the orange lines to be lower than the blue lines on "bad" runs (gaining -3 to 0 yards) and we want the orange lines to be higher than the blue lines on "good" runs (gaining 3 or more yards). Note that I did not qualify runs, i.e., a run for 1 yard on 4th and 1 or 3rd and goal from the 1 is "good" outcome since you gain the first down or score a TD. We can have a more in depth discussion about the 1 and 2 yard runs for Denver this season in the comment section if you wish. The biggest thing that should jump out at you from the table is the percentage of runs for 0 yards we had relative to league average. Sadly, on many of those runs, our RBs were having to dodge defenders in the backfield just to get back to the LOS. We also had a significantly lower percentage of runs for 4 yards than the NFL average. For those who prefer tables with numbers instead of bar charts the data from the above chart is shown in the table below with a nice comparative difference (DEN%-NFL AVE%)

Yards Gained NFL Ave DEN Difference
10 1.65% 0.99% -0.66%
9 2.98% 2.22% -0.77%
8 2.87% 2.46% -0.41%
7 3.99% 5.42% 1.43%
6 5.32% 4.43% -0.88%
5 7.41% 7.39% -0.02%
4 9.59% 7.64% -1.95%
3 12.00% 11.58% -0.43%
2 12.82% 12.32% -0.51%
1 11.53% 12.07% 0.53%
0 9.47% 12.07% 2.60%
-1 4.50% 4.19% -0.32%
-2 2.64% 3.69% 1.05%
-3 1.52% 0.99% -0.53%

Now some context - How did we compare to a "good" rushing team? The Bills led the league in average yards per carry at 4.78 in 2015. So let’s compare the Broncos to the 2015 Bills

Comparison between DEN and BUF relative to league average

So what were the key differences between the Broncos and the Bills in 2015 in terms of our comparative running games? The Bills were way under the league average in terms of runs for 0 yards. They also had a much lower percentage of runs for -2 yards then the Broncos. This brings up the stuffed run percentage. I’m going to call a stuffed run, a run that gain -3 to 0 yards (I’m leaving out runs of -4 or worse since I didn’t tabulate them - you are welcome do so if you wish as the spreadsheet is available on google docs - link will be later).

Team Stuffed%
NE 14.0%
KC 14.2%
CIN 14.6%
SEA 14.9%
CHI 15.0%
DAL 15.0%
CAR 15.4%
PIT 16.3%
OAK 16.4%
MIN 16.7%
BUF 16.9%
NYG 17.4%
HOU 17.4%
TAM 17.6%
ATL 18.2%
IND 18.3%
PHI 18.5%
NO 18.8%
SD 18.8%
NYJ 18.9%
JAX 19.3%
AZ 19.6%
GNB 19.7%
CLE 20.3%
WAS 20.5%
STL 20.7%
DEN 20.9%
BAL 21.0%
TEN 21.0%
SF 21.1%
DET 21.4%
MIA 21.6%
NFL Ave 18.1%

So we weren’t the worst in the league at stuffed%, but we were near the bottom. I was surprised to see the P*triots at #1 in this ranking given that their McJedi-led running game was mostly an afterthought. New England only had 51 runs that got stuffed this year (again leaving out QB kneels) and that is pretty impressive until you realize that they had one of the lowest rates of running on first down this season (42.2% - 30th in the league, MIN ran it 65.5% of the time on first down to lead the league). Because of their tendency to pass on first down, it we easy for a jedi master like McDaniels to design run plays that were very difficult to stop in the rare instances when they did run on first down. FWIW, the Broncos were in the middle of the league, running the ball 47.6% of the time on first down plays.

Of our two main running backs in 2015, who was better? Below is a comparison of Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson using the same percentage of runs for X distance approach. In the graph below I have expanded it to show runs of length -5 to 20 yards.

Comparing Hillman to Anderson 2015

I was actually surprised to see that CJ had a higher percentage of runs for 0 yards than Ronnie had. Overall for the year, CJ averaged 4.73 ypc while Ronnie only averaged 4.17 ypc. In terms of runs getting stuffed, 21.3% of Hillman’s runs in 2105 went for 0 or negative yards while 23.2% of CJ’s runs went for 0 or negative yards. This contradicted my perception that Ronnie was almost always getting stuffed, while CJ avoided it. CJ actually got stuffed slightly more often than Ronnie. On an absolute basis Ronnie had 44 runs last season that were stuffed while CJ had 35.

For those who want to look at the data set for the whole NFL, here’s the link to the (read-only) spreadsheet.

Hopefully our running game in 2016 will not be the poison from the poison stream. I would love to see all three of our RBs raging with the storm blowing up in their eyes as they run around, through and over defenders on their way to our Super Bowl repeat.