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Is Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott the best RB against stacked boxes in NFL?

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15: Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) is dragged down from behind by Green Bay Packers defensive back Kentrell Brice (29) during the NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers on January 15, 2017, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)
Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire

Last week, we took a deep dive into the rushing stats of Ezekiel Elliott by examining his 2016 performance by down, personnel, the number of defenders in the box and more.

In case you missed it, the conclusion was a shocker; Ezekiel Elliott is pretty good. By looking at the types of runs and the average number of defenders in the box, it provided some context for his rookie season stats. After posting the article, fans of other teams were curious to see how their team’s running back compares to Elliott.

Today, we are going to look how he compared to the rest of the league using those same statistics. But before we get into the statistical analysis, it is worth mentioning that these are all charted numbers and not official stats for the sake of clarity.

The first chart we are going to examine is how running backs perform versus a seven-man box. This is typically the average amount of defenders that a runner will see as an opposing defense will be using their base personnel to stop the offense on most of their downs, especially on first down. For nearly every runner on this list, this is the most common amount of defenders that they will face in the box:

(click the picture to enlarge)

Pro Bowlers Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson saw the most seven-man boxes in the NFL, but what’s fascinating is how they performed here. On nearly the same amount of carries, Elliott averaged almost a full yard more per carry than Johnson. Does that mean that Elliott is better on that alone? Of course not. Obviously, the offensive line plays some part in this, but the amount of credit is debatable.

If you are a top running back in the NFL, a seven-man box should be an advantage for the offense. Against seven-man boxes, it’s fairly likely that the offense will have at least six blockers and often seven. The elite running backs should average well over 4.2 yards per carry in this metric. Anything below that should be a sign that your team probably needs a new running back. (Remember Jordan Howard’s stats here. We will come back to that 6.05 average in a few paragraphs).

If seven-man fronts are the average, eight-man boxes are what separates the good from the great runners. Running backs sees eight-man boxes for one of two reasons.

They are either gashing teams on the ground with lesser fronts or the passing game doesn’t strike enough fear into a defense to keep the safety from walking up to the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, if a running back can consistently beat eight-man boxes, it means that the team is imposing their will on the ground, and it’s likely an elite player carrying the rock.

Below is a list of some of the league’s top rushers ordered by total rushing yards versus eight-man boxes:

Ezekiel Elliott saw the third most eight-man boxes in the league and was still able to average an insane 4.42 yards per carry on the ground. And as good as that was, many will still look to the top of that list to see a former Dallas Cowboy leading the way and wonder if the Cowboys made the wrong choice back in 2015.

In Tennessee’s power running game, Murray found a lot of success against seven- and eight-man fronts. But like every running back, they have weaknesses.

Check out how the aforementioned Murray played against nine-man fronts:

With one more defender in the box, Murray averaged two yards fewer per carry. As for Ezekiel Elliott, there wasn’t a drop off at all. Elliott averaged over 4.4 yards per carry, no matter what defense he faced. It’s also interesting to note that three of the top rushers in the NFL all struggled mightily versus stacked boxes.

But for players like Jordan Howard and Le’Veon Bell, stacked boxes aren’t where they make their money.  Those two players made their seasons off favorable boxes.

In this case, we are looking specifically at six-man boxes. These typically come out when teams are forced into nickel defenses or even on long down and distances.

Check out the number of rushes and yards per carry those runners average versus six-man boxes:

As I mentioned before, every runner has a weakness.

For Ezekiel Elliott, his was actually in short yardage this year. On third down and two or less, Elliott converted only 11 times over his 18 carries. While that’s not a bad percentage, that put Elliott right in the middle of all qualifying running backs.

Here is a list of the top rushers by first down percentage in 2016 in short yardage:

Did Elliott’s average production on 3rd-and-short cause the Cowboys to over-think these situations in the Green Bay game that led them to throwing the ball eight out of nine times in short yardage? It’s impossible to know. But what we can say is that just a small improvement on third down and short for Elliott would be a big step for the Cowboys’ offense in 2016. If they can increase that number to 70 percent, you’ll see a Cowboys’ offense that will rarely punt.

Ultimately, there’s a lot that goes into the success of a running back. The offense one plays in, the quarterback, the offensive line. But these numbers help to provide some kind of context when discussing running backs. Some of my biggest takeaways are as follows:

  • Jordan Howard is pretty over-rated. Most of his production came against favorable fronts and he really struggled when he saw more than seven defenders in the box.
  • Despite his flaws, DeMarco Murray is still one of the better running backs in the league. Get him in the right scheme and he can produce like a top five running back in the NFL.
  • As fun as it is to watch Le’Veon Bell, he’s probably one of the more scheme dependent running backs in the NFL. Needs favorable fronts and an excellent offensive line to produce elite numbers.

Hopefully, these numbers help provide some sort of context for each runner instead of just looking at the raw numbers to declare who the best running backs in the league. Stats can help tell a story, but they will never definitely tell you who is the best running back in the NFL. There’s just way too many variables to make an absolute conclusion here.

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