Rushing Stats Analysis – ‘Find The Gap’ Season Spotlight
The 2021 season is here. The hours count down until Week 1 is upon us. And with that, comes another series of Find The Gap. The rushing stats analysis will continue for another campaign.
There have been plenty of changes in the off-season. Head coaches have come and gone. Players have retired and rookies have arrived. But there has only been pre-season games so far. So it can be quite difficult to get a grasp on which individuals will break out this year.
So the first article in this series will look at a different aspect of the rushing game: the offensive line.
THE FIRST LINE OF OFFENSE
They are often forgotten in fantasy. But linemen have a significant role in offensive strategy. They provide shielding for the Quarterback. And, more appropriately for this article, they help to create opportunities for the Running Backs.
Collecting statistics and examining offseason movement may provide some clues to that rushing success. So, with that in mind, here are some teams where O-lines may play a key role in determining success for their rushing personnel…
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS – POSITIVE
- The Niners have retained the majority of their offensive linemen from last season. This includes left tackle Trent Williams, who posted a 91.8 PFF run blocking grade in 2020. As a result, Williams signed a massive contract, making him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL.
- The unit have also signed Alex Mack to provide stability in the centre of the line. Mack ended the 2020 season with a higher rating than Daniel Brunskill, who spent time in the position last year. However, he also played just as many snaps at right Guard. This signing allows Brunskill to focus on one position, adding stability in two important areas.
- The 2020 stats for the four remaining linemen (and Mack’s Atlanta Falcons stats) place this unit as first in zone blocking. They also place sixth overall for gap blocking. This shows promise for the Niners’ Running Backs, who have strengths in different areas. Whether it’s the raw speed of Raheem Mostert, or the patience and power of Trey Sermon, the line seems prepared to help them create a solid ground game.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS – POSITIVE
- The Patriots were thankful to get their longstanding Centre David Andrews back last season. After missing the 2019 season due to blood clots, Andrews made his return to New England. After being back in the fold for a year, there is scope for him to return to the form he showed back in 2018 before the serious diagnosis.
- The line also produced three players who received a PFF run blocking rating of over 80 – Shaq Mason, Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu. This was not based upon a small sample either. The Patriots ran the ball 500 times in 2020, which was the third highest behind Tennessee and Baltimore. And every single zone saw an average of over 5 yards a carry. With strong positions across the board, this looks highly promising for any Running Backs who line up behind that line.
- The Patriots line ranked as the joint-top offensive line in gap blocking in 2020(tied with the Bucs). This could really help a player like Damien Harris, now the lead carrier after Sony Michel’s trade and releases of other offensive pieces. In comparison, more of Harris’ rushing went outside the tackles (~25%) than Michel’s (~15%). And a scheme that helps create those outside gaps will greatly benefit Harris.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS – NEGATIVE
- It’s been all change at the Steelers since the 2020 season. Not only have they drafted a new lead back, but they have binned off the majority of their offensive line. And, after last year’s rock-bottom performance in the run blocking area, this was understandable. However, the organisation have made minimal effort to re-strengthen. Their sole signing, Trai Turner, had a run block ranking of 29.8. That was the worst run block rating in a poor 2020 Chargers offensive line. And yet he is the only experienced addition to this unit.
- Only one of the other four starters have over 400 snaps to show for their 2020 performances. Right Tackle Zach Banner played one game last season. This inexperience will not help when facing Cleveland and Baltimore defensive rushers twice a season.
- Matters also look bad behind the starting line up. The lack of depth in the offensive line is concerning. Ourlads.com list the only backups as Joe Haeg, who played 191 snaps with Tampa Bay last season – and two rookies. That’s it.
- To consolidate the issue, the current starting lineup’s stats from 2020 have them ranked last in zone blocking. That’s not great news for Najee Harris. The Running Back is touted as a big talent, but that could only take you so far if your line doesn’t help you find the gaps.
While this is based on last year’s data, these will be the three teams I will look at in my Week 1 review. From that week onwards, we shall also be using the data collected from the current season to try and find that rushing success.