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A Running Game Deep-Dive, Part I: Diagnosis

Posted by CamPain , 26 December 2016 · 123 views

A Running Game Deep-Dive, Part I: Diagnosis While much has gone wrong in the undoing of the Vikings’ once-promising 2016 season, the lack of run game productivity has had perhaps the most profound impact of all, and has been front and center since the very start of the campaign. There’s no debating that the 2016 Vikings’ rushing attack has been among the least effective in the history of the NFL; statistics and film offer plenty of evidence to that end. The question is: what’s really going on, and can it be fixed? A two-part deep dive seeks to answer both.


While a cursory assessment of the Vikings’ running struggles as being attributable to both poor offensive line play and subpar running back production is not inaccurate, it’s not especially helpful in understanding the true heart of the Vikings’ issues, or in laying out a blueprint for correcting them. In Part I we’ll take a closer look at how specifically and to what extent these principle elements of the running game have factored into the Vikings’ rushing performance in 2016; in Part II, we’ll identify once possible path to correction in setting the table for a more successful season in 2017.

(Rarely) Running Backs: How ball-carrier inability to create yards has held the Vikings back
While the offensive line has struggled by any measure to create space in which the Vikings’ running backs can operate, there is plenty to indicate that the RBs themselves are far from being excused for what has transpired thus far in 2016, starting with the team’s shortcomings in critical short yardage opportunities that have reared their head time and again.

Accurately evaluating the credit or blame due a running back in any team’s short-yardage run game is difficult to do, but a comparison of the Vikings’ run game tendencies and output from last year to this year at the very least provides compelling insight into just how significant the impact of Adrian Peterson’s absence has been. According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings rank 30th in offensive runs stuffed (percentage of runs stopped at or behind the LOS) in 2016 after ranking a very respectable 12th in 2015, and their power run success (the overall measure of a team’s ability to convert on short-yardage opportunities) has dropped all the way from 2nd-best in 2015 to 3rd-worst in 2016. Plenty will be said later about the role that run blocking has played in explaining the drop-off, but given that the portion of the offensive line most often responsible for power running and short yardage success (Guards/Center) was kept largely the same compared to last year, if not hypothetically improved, it seems there must be more at play; a look at variance in output at the Running Back level hints at just how wide the gap in ability is between Adrian Peterson and the players charged with picking up his workload this year.

Football Outsider’s DYAR metric, which aims to calculate the true value of a running back by muting the impact of circumstances outside of a player’s control in order to create an apples-to-apples comparison, offers as clean a read as is readily available of how much McKinnon and Asiata take off the table that Peterson set, and the picture it paints for 2016 running back stable is not pretty: in 2015, Peterson ranked 6th in the NFL in DYAR, rushing for 143 more yards than would’ve the NFL- average running back under identical conditions; through Week 15, Matt Asiata ranks 25th out of 35 qualifying running backs with a DYAR of -13, while Jerick McKinnon’s -38 DYAR has him ranked 29th. While not necessarily the be-all, end-all in determining running back value, this particular measure would indicate that the Vikings have experienced nearly a 200 yard downswing in rushing output as a direct result of the Vikings’ 2016 RB stable’s inability to collectively replicate the unique skillset that Peterson possesses. To ask any offense to make up for 200 yards that vanished suddenly and without warning would be asking a lot, but to ask it of this particular offense is almost unfair.

While DYAR and metrics like it are products of advanced statistical analysis rather than of what can be seen with the naked eye, Pro Football Focus’s grading is rooted firmly in rigorous game tape evaluation, and offers a helpful complement to more quantitatively-oriented assessments either by adding credibility to the story told by numbers, or by highlighting instances where numbers may not tell the whole story. In the case of the Vikings, the PFF grades corroborate what the DYAR tells us: Asiata ranks as the 29th-most effective runner in the NFL in 2016, while McKinnon rank 39th, meaning the duo has looked even more ineffective in game action than the numbers would imply.

The facts and figures above are likely overkill in supporting the obvious conclusion that the Vikings have missed Adrian Peterson’s explosiveness and playmaking in 2016, and the inability of Asiata and McKinnon to compensate for his missing production has handicapped Minnesota’s ground game considerably. But there’s an elephant in the room: the fact that Peterson averaged only 1.9 yards per carry in what action he did see in 2016 is difficult to ignore, and clouds what is seemingly a very clear-cut picture of the impact his absence has had on the rushing attack. It could be chalked up to small sample size for a player that is notorious for stringing together nothing runs before finally breaking loose for a big gain, and he was simply yet to hit that first home run. On the other hand, it could also be evidence of more serious issues elsewhere.

A Lack of Holes Leaving a Gap: How injuries and inability have rendered run-blockers ineffective
Just as Football Outsiders developed DYAR to assess true running back value, they developed Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) as a way to accurately capture the effectiveness of an offensive line in the run game by adjusting a team’s total rushing output into a truer representation of the yards that the offensive line is accountable for generating; in crude summary, ALY punishes the offensive line disproportionately for negative runs, and awards a diminishing amount of credit the further the run travels past the line of scrimmage (for example: negative rushes have a 120% ALY weighting, meaning a run that according to the box score went for -1 will read as a run of -1.2 yards in calculating ALY; runs of 5 – 10 yards, meanwhile, are weighted at only 50%, and in effect give the OL credit for only half of every yard gained on runs of that length). All that to say: it’s well thought-out formula that for lack of a better alternative will serve as proxy for how well or poorly the line his played.

The Vikings rank 31st in adjusted line yards (ALY), which is surprising if only because they aren’t 32nd. Further analysis of the Vikings’ ALY reveals that they are ranked second-to-last not just because of an overabundance of negative carries, or because of a failure to generate runs that reach the second level (runs of more than four yards) and beyond, but rather by both in near equal measure. As mentioned in the Running Backs section, Minnesota ranks 30th in both Power Success and Runs Stuffed, meaning the offensive line has been regularly overpowered at the point of attack and the result has been far too many running plays stopped before they ever really seemed to get started. These sorts of runs aren’t being balanced by a meaningful volume of quality running plays, either, and while ranking 30th in those categories that measure resistance and power is bad, that the Vikings rank 32nd in both second-level yards and open field yards (runs of 11 yards or more) is even worse. As the ALY formula would imply, ball carriers take on added credit (or blame) for runs that reach the second level and beyond (or fail to), but it has been too frequently the case where poor technique and poor chemistry have the offensive line looking collectively confused in the rare instances where they aren’t collectively, immediately out-muscled.

Even more enlightening is an analysis of the Vikings’ ALY by play direction. While the Vikings’ also ranked 30th in ALY in 2015, their adjusted line yards per carry was nearly a full yard higher than in 2016 (2.68 vs. 1.66), and there is plenty of blame to be shared across Vikings’ run-blockers for the drop-off. According to Football Outsiders’ breakdown of rushing performance for each segment of the field (LE, LT, Mid/Guard, RT and RE), the Vikings’ league ranking has dropped in three of the five categories (LT, Mid/Guard, RE), with little solace to be taken from the areas in which a decline in ranking was not experienced: runs around left end have merely held steady at 13th in the league, and while ALY per carry behind right tackle has actually improved by seven spots, that silver lining loses some shine when you realize that TJ Clemmings was a 16-game starter at RT in 2015, and the jump from 23rd last year to 16th this year is largely a product of league-average performance to date in 2016 representing a massive improvement by comparison. Sure enough, Jeremiah Sirles’ run grade ranking of 31st among offensive tackles epitomizes average performance, though there’s no arguing that he’s played admirably in a pinch overall, given the circumstances.

Speaking of Clemmings: while the Vikings have featured several players at LT over the course of the year, and all have underperformed to varying degrees, current starter TJ Clemmings ranks 72nd in run blocking effectiveness amongst qualifying OTs, according to Pro Football Focus. That means that in a hypothetical scenario in which all OTs are removed from their existing teams and redrafted based only on run-blocking ability, Clemmings’ name wouldn’t come up until the 5th round in a league where the majority of teams keep only four true OTs active; in other words, Clemmings has displayed practice squad-level ability in a starter’s role, and while that may be a bit unfair to a player who was drafted to play guard but has been stuck playing tackle out of necessity, the results have been no less painful. The Vikings have gone from 30th in ALY per carry behind LT in 2015 to 32nd in 2016, and that understates just how dramatic the drop-off in performance has been: in 2015, Minnesota’s ALY/carry behind LT was 2.68, compared to a league average of 3.81; through Week 15 of 2016, that number has dropped to an abysmal 1.67, all while the league average has gone up 4.11, and only the Jaguars (2.24) come within even a yard of that number. It shouldn’t be shocking, then, that the Vikings have shied away from running to the left side of the line, having done so on only 8% of their carries compared to 11% last year and a 2016 NFL average of 13%.

Not that more is needed to explain the Vikings’ struggles to run off tackle, but it’s worth mentioning that the Vikings’ tight ends can’t exactly be relied upon by the tackles for good help. Though dangerous in the passing game, Kyle Rudolph is among the worst run blocking TEs in the NFL in 2016 according to Pro Football Focus (43.1 grade out of 100, 52nd in the NFL among TEs), and while Rhett Ellison has at least been serviceable in that regard (65.4 grade, 20th in the NFL) his limitations as an offensive weapon are such that he has been made an eligible receiver on barely more than 10% of Vikings’ pass snaps, which makes it difficult to regularly have him on the field at all; by comparison, Rudolph has been a potential target on over 85% of pass snaps this season.

Having addressed LE, LT and RT leaves the two parts of the field where the drop-off in terms of league ranking has been the most significant: Mid/Guard and RE. That the Vikings have gone from 9th in the league in ALY/carry on outside runs to the right side of the field in 2015 (3.98) to 27th this year (2.74) is not entirely surprising, as the play type that has led to so many of Adrian Peterson’s big plays throughout his career have been those that get him into space wide right with a head of steam and the ball in his preferred carrying hand (whether the play was originally designed to track toward the right sideline or not is a different conversation); though the Vikings haven't ceased to run the tosses and bounce plays that were customary in previous years entirely, the lack of success has resulted in dialing back substantially on their frequency (from 12% of runs in 2015 to just 8% this year). That leaves the most mind-boggling of offensive line year-over-year comparisons: the Mid/Guard portion of the line – the clear strength of the Vikings’ run game in 2015 – has fallen from their 4th-ranked performance in ALY/carry last year (4.3) to being tied for last (3.33), all in the face of the notion coming into this season that they would be, if anything, better. The outcome has been unexpected to the point of seeming impossible, so…how has it been possible?

The preseason optimism regarding the middle of the line stemmed from the free agent signing of Alex Boone – which represented a talent upgrade at guard while also allowing Brandon Fusco to transition back to RG, where he played well in 2013 and 2014 – and the potential for Joe Berger to possibly even improve on what was a breakout 2015 campaign at center with an entire offseason worth of reps to prepare physically and mentally for the position after simply being thrust into the role last year after John Sullivan’s injury. The statistics above indicate that reality has obviously varied greatly from expectations, however, and there are three factors that seem to stand out in explaining what has happened:
  • Consistency: Though the Vikings entered 2015 without their starting C and RT, the same five players started all 16 games; the Vikings have trotted out over a dozen different starting combinations thus far this season, which includes turnover at guard and center; teamwork and chemistry is more critical to the success of the offensive line than to any other position group, and consistency with average talent almost always trumps unreliable strength. Boone, Berger and Fusco have all missed time this year, and with a disastrous injury situation already in effect at tackle, the team has ill been able to afford it.
  • Poor Play: Joe Berger has again played well – according to PFF, he was the 6th-highest rated run-blocking center before his snap count trend changed his classification to guard, where he ranks 8th – but Boone and Fusco have failed to deliver. Though Boone has been solid as a pass blocker and has shown gradual improvement over the course of the season as a run blocker in the Vikings’ offensive system, he has performed below expectations in total, grading out as only the 39th-best run blocking guard in the NFL. Fusco, meanwhile, is falling short by any measure: he has received a failing grade from PFF in both the run and pass game, and nets out near the bottom of the NFL heap as the 63rd-best offensive guard overall, with a grade of 52.0 out of 100. His 2016 grade is essentially identical to last year’s (a statistically insignificant improvement from 50.3 in 2015), only his poor play can no longer be excused as a byproduct of playing “out of position” at left guard; at some point, the Vikings may need to acknowledge the possibility that Fusco is simply no longer a viable option at guard. That cutting Fusco prior to the start of next season would generate more in cap savings than dead money in 2017 should be cause to consider it thoroughly.
  • Predictability: Dealing with inconsistency of both personnel and performance along the offensive line would be enough to torpedo most any team’s season, but in the case of the Vikings those difficulties have been compounded by engaging in what has felt like an extended game of poker played with their hand facing out: they can’t run behind their OTs, they can’t reliably support their OTs with tight ends due to a combination of inability and their very presence being a tip-off for defenses, and they can’t go away from the run because their offensive line is unable to offer the type of consistently strong pass protection that would allow for a dangerous passing game that touches all levels of the defense, and thus balanced play-calling is required in order to keep defenses just honest enough to enable the Vikings’ very specific sort of passing game; if you’re Norv Turner or Pat Shurmur, what choice do you have but to run behind the middle of your line? And that’s just what they’ve done: the Vikings have run Mid/Guard on a whopping 68% of carries this year, up significantly from 58% last year, and an even more drastic departure from the 2016 NFL average of 56%. Really, how effective can your run blockers be when the coordinator may as well have radioed the play into the opposing linebacker?

To summarize, the Vikings’ historically weak rushing attack has been driven by a mixture of ineptitude and bad luck, with a handful of issues that stand out among the rest:
  • A categorical lack of run blocking ability at offensive tackle, felt more and more acutely as the season wore on and injuries piled up
  • The unexpected emergence of a weak link (Brandon Fusco) in the LG/C/RG unit that was expected to again be the strength of the Vikings’ run game
  • A forced reliance upon below-average talent at RB after Adrian Peterson’s injury in Week 2
  • A lack of versatility at TE that limited Turner’s/Shurmur’s run game play-calling universe and thus made the Vikings more predictable as a running team
In other words, there’s a lot that’s gone wrong, but there are certain things that may fortunately be only symptoms and and to cure the disease could take less than we think. In Part II, we’ll review how it might just be done.

Dec 31 2016 02:07 PM

excellent break down. I appreciate the effort.

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