A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about Pro Football Focus’ new Actual Opportunity statistic and the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ players performed relatively well by that criteria last season. The feedback to that article and to that nature of statistic was largely positive, so I thought it would be interesting to visit another PFF source material, in which they take a deep dive into the yards per carry statistic.
An article written by Scott Barrett begins with the article stating that, “despite using it quite often myself, I loathe the statistic”, and there is a solid basis for doing so. While the basic number can give a general indication of a running back’s performance, there are too many variables to take into account that can positively or negative influence the end result.
“It’s inherently biased”, Barrett says, “favoring running backs with great offensive lines, running backs who see a high percentage of carries against poor run defenses, running backs who see a high percentage of carries on likely passing downs, or running backs who might be inconsistent but compile a high percentage of their yardage on relatively few carries”.
Now that I’ve established the impetus for entering this discussion, let’s actually talk about some of the numbers presented. The one that I’m most interested in is the fact that, by the numbers, the Steelers offensive line actually looks decidedly average, managing the allow their backs just 1.61 yards before contact per rush. But with Le’Veon Bell’s patient running style, that is going to influence that number.
And when we look at another figure, we get a broader picture. Bell was quite easily one of the most consistent runners in the NFL last season, and that would not have been possible had the offensive line not been doing its job well.
Barrett compiled a list of all running backs in the league last season who recorded at least 100 rushing attempts, and then charted the percentage of their runs that covered at least a certain distance. I think this is the most critical piece in the entire article.
During the 2016 season, Bell recorded at least one yard or more on a whopping 87.4 percent of his carries. That was the best figure in the entire league, and means that he very rarely was stopped for no gain or took a loss—just over 12 percent of the time.
He also gained at least three yards on nearly two thirds of his carries, 66.3 percent. That ranked as the third-best in the league, and it was close, all within a percentage point. Going further, nearly 40 percent of his runs went for at least five yards, again ranking very favorably, though this time as the fifth-best mark in the league.
He still placed in the top 10 in terms of rushes that went for double digits, but he lacked explosive runs. Still, what he left out in chunks he more than made up for on a down-to-down basis. Considering that he was an all-purpose back that played in every situation, including short-yardage and goal line, the consistency of his performance was the story of the Steelers’ season.