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Establishing the run DOES matter

Twitter analytics can suck a spreadsheet

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Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Kyle Posey made a strong statement on Tuesday about the play-action pass game that’s so important to Mike Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme.

Another key part of play-calling is not giving up on play-action. The biggest myth in football is that you need to be successful in running the ball for play-action to work. That’s proven to be false. Garoppolo was 10-11, 151 yards, one touchdown, and had a 149.1 passer rating when using play-action against Arizona.

I strongly agree that the Niners should not give up on play-action — precisely because (I think) the rest of this paragraph is wrong.

And I don’t mean to pick on Kyle. All the cool kids on analytics twitter share this opinion. Last summer, Steve Ruiz of USA Today said: “That ... has been thoroughly debunked by stat nerds.” Has it, though?

I don’t claim to be an analytics expert, but I know this much: numbers can’t tell you anything unless you craft the right question, and find the data that can answer it. The best article on the subject (after the one you’re reading, of course) comes from The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen, who presents both sides of the issue, without taking a position one way or the other.

“The analytics says you don’t have to establish the run for effective play-action — though players and coaches still believe it’s crucial.”

That’s interesting — the people who know the game best disagree. Hmmm.

Arguing that the strength of your run game literally doesn’t matter suggests that defenders (and especially linebackers) are just bad at their jobs. That they don’t adjust to the offense in front of them or adapt to the game situation. I’m deeply skeptical about that.

How do you define the question?

Let’s break down the statement: “you have to establish the run to make the passing game (or play action) work.”

What does “establishing the run” even mean? Is 1) it running a lot, 2) getting a high average yards per carry (YPC), or 3) breaking off big plays on the ground? (say, ten or more yards). Most articles on the subject say #2; I think #1 and #3 are more important psychologically, and that happens to be the 49ers’ strength.

The Niners regularly rip off 20+ yard runs, and those plays have an extra demoralizing effect on defense beyond the pure yardage, in the same way, that a huge dunk hurts a basketball team’s heart more than the two points they just gave up — much more than a layup or 12 foot jump shot (also two points).

According to Sharp Football’s Explosive Run stats, the 49ers have the second most RB explosion plays in the NFL (36, behind only the Vikings’ 42).

What defines whether a play-action pass “works”? Most articles simply mean you get more yards per completion on PA than on a regular drop-back. Of course, you do - it’s a fake run.

The defensive line is not going to rush the passer as quickly if the offensive line blocks for a run. Duh. Even if the offense has a weak rushing attack, they’ll just be excited about stuffing the RB behind the line of scrimmage, which also helps a defense.

The real question(s)

What we really want to know is, can a strong run game make your passing game even more effective, especially on play-action? (And vice versa - PA should help your run game.) As Nguyen notes, almost every coach and player says yes, which matches common sense. But it’s hard to find data to test this proposition.

Instead of comparing average yards per run play with the advantage for PA vs. regular drop back passing yards, you could measure some of these things:

1) How often does an offense run, and how many double-digit gains do they get? Let’s define these two things as “establishing the run.”

Average YPC is a bad way to measure it, because it goes down when defenses sell out to stop the run, or when offenses get big leads (because their run/PA game is so good) and shift to their 4-minute offense. In both cases, your average YPC goes down precisely because you have a strong running game.

On the flip side, Washington, KC, and the Giants average between 4.2 and 4.4 YPC, which is strong, but gain less than 100 yards per game, so who cares? Each is bottom 10 in RB explosion plays (with 15 to 17). No one’s going to change their scheme to stop those rushing attacks.

2) Do defenses put 8 in the box more often for teams who run well? (Duh)

3) Do defenses switch to single-high safety, or stay in base more with teams that run well?

I haven’t crunched these numbers, but I think you know the answer. Asking the right question clarifies it. But I’d love to see a “data nerd” do the math.

Unquantifiable adjustments

Even if you could put together all of these numbers, you’d miss other defensive adjustments that open up your passing game, but aren’t always as obvious as moving the strong safety into the box or staying in base.

Defenders make small adjustments all the time, which can’t be measured in numbers. A cornerback is going to play a little deeper against a fast receiver such as Marquise Goodwin or DeSean Jackson, and hold back on breaking against shorter routes.

Linebackers will move up a little and bite more quickly on a run fake if Matt Breida might rip off 22 yards on any given play, compared to when they’re facing Kalen Ballage, the leading rusher in Miami’s roster (with a season-long of 8 yards). It’s downright insulting to claim otherwise.

And defensive coordinators will change their rotations depending on what they face, favoring players better in coverage or in run defense, depending on what they fear most.

Fake outs

There are other questions that the data can’t answer. How convincing are the fake handoffs in your play-action passes? That’s not a statistic, but they are very likely to be better if you run a lot and spend time in practice working on it. That’s another part of establishing your run game.

Let’s not forget the unique versatility of the Niners two best run blockers: fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle.

Other teams have given up on fullbacks since they can’t catch passes, or use them on running downs only. They also have separate moves and blocking tight ends. That means that defenses can tell whether it’s likely to be a run or pass just by looking at who’s on the field.

The whole point of a run-heavy PA scheme is to keep defenses guessing run or pass, as long as possible. San Francisco has two great blockers who are among their most reliable pass-catchers.

The real point is not establishing the run. It’s establishing the “could be run, could be pass” as seamlessly as you can.

Here in the real world

Arizona and Seattle shut down the Niners run game only by selling out against it, with lots of 8 man boxes — which opened up the passing game. And they only packed the box because San Francisco had established the run earlier in the season.

You remember when the 49ers racked up more than 230 rushing yards in three of their first seven games. Back before their best four run blockers (Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszczyk, and George Kittle) and leading rusher (Matt Breida) got injured.

Even with all that injury damage, Arizona and Seattle felt they had to build their defensive scheme around stopping San Francisco’s run game. And to be fair, it worked pretty well, as the crummy Cardinals battled the Niners tough for two games, and Seattle won a squeaker.

But it’s a strategy that opened up the secondary for big passing games. Garoppolo passed for an average of 330 yards per game, compared to only 213 YPG in the first seven.

The typical “data analysis” would say, “See? You don’t need a strong run game! The 49ers ran for only 77 yards per game in weeks 9-11, and their passing yards went up 50%!”

I say, “See? Even with their best blockers and runner out injured, the Niners run game was so well established that it forced the Seahawks and Cardinals to sell out against the run — and the play-action pass game exploded as a result (even with their best receivers out).”

UPDATE: I modified the description of Ted Nguyen’s article slightly after checking in with him. Also, h/t to sfsuphysics for catching the Mike vs. Kyle Shanahan typo, though there’s a bit of truth in it inadvertently.