I’ve written about when analytics say it's good (or at least okay) to run the ball in the NFL, but it’s now time to figure out the best ways to run the ball successfully. I got that started with “Stop Running It Up The Middle”, and now it’s time to look at where quarterbacks line up -- under center vs. shotgun.
I’ve removed quarterback scrambles from the data, so this chart is primarily looking at running back runs, although designed quarterback keepers and receiver end-arounds are still included. The red dots are runs in shotgun, and the blue dots are runs with the quarterback under center. The differences are minimal at first glance, but big enough to take notice. Simply put, shotgun runs (red dots) are more efficient than under center runs (blue dots) in terms of expected points added (0.03 vs. 0.01) and yards per carry (5.3 vs. 3.8).
Once again, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Five Thirty Eight’s Josh Hermsmeyer showed how defenders in the box is highly correlated to rushing success (less defenders leads to better rushing), and how offensive personnel determines defenders in the box (more receivers on the field leads to fewer defenders in the box). In general, defenses put more defensive backs on the field when more receivers come on the field because they anticipate a pass coming.
That same intuition can be applied to when an offense goes into shotgun because NFL offenses pass way more than they run when they are in shotgun (see chart). I know that’s obvious, but it’s potentially significant if going shotgun leads to fewer men in the box. Unfortunately, that data isn't available for me to analyze, although I’m guessing that going shotgun does in fact lead to fewer defenders in the box and thus leads to more rushing success, which we’ve already established with the first chart of the column ... But enough of the analytics. Here are some plays.
Kyle Shanahan opts to spread out the Browns Defense on this play. He subs in three receivers after the two-minute warning, and the Browns match by going nickel (five defensive backs), which puts six defenders in the box at the time of the snap. That’s six blockers vs. six defenders with the rest of the defense anticipating a pass. After the handoff, Garoppolo fake pumps, which makes the deep safety and inside linebacker completely stop. These short pauses by these two defenders were the difference between a tackle and an untouched touchdown by Raheem Mostert. A great design made possible by going 11-personnel and shotgun.
This play was very similar to the previous one. Both teams have three receivers on the field, are in shotgun, and facing a nickel defense, but the Cardinals have a distinct advantage with this play, and it’s Kyler Murray. At the handoff point, there are six blockers and six defenders in the box, but the defensive end is removed from the play because he has to defend Kyler’s ability to run it himself. There’s no way this defensive end is tackling Kenyan Drake here, so now it’s six vs. five in favor of the Cardinals, which leads to an untouched first down on 2nd-and-2.
If the Cardinals were under center, two defenders would be in much better spots to stop Drake, the first being the safety at the top of the screen. With Kyler in shotgun, he backpedals to defend the pass when the ball is snapped, essentially preventing him from stopping Drake before he reaches the first-down marker on this play. When offenses are under center, in-box defenders’ instincts are to move forward, not backpedal, at the snap in order to defend the run, knowing they have more time to adjust to the pass because the quarterback has to turn back around before throwing a pass. If this same exact play was from under center, that safety probably isn’t as far back as he was on this play. The second defender who would be in a better spot if Kyler was under center is that defensive end who was forced to read Kyler in shotgun.
This is the first play of the game. The Jaguars have had six days to develop a game plan to beat the Chargers, and their first play is an under-center dive up the middle in 12-personnel against a seven-man box. Bad teams stay bad, folks. For this play to be successful, the coach needs seven players to make quality blocks on seven defenders, plus have Leonard Fournette explode up the middle. And let me tell you, the second is definitely not happening. Because Gardner Minshew is under center, not in shotgun, the two linebackers both move forward with their first few steps because they know most offenses run under center and pass in shotgun (remember the second chart?). If Minshew was in shotgun and everything else remained the same, it’s unlikely that both linebackers would be moving forward as quickly as they are here, and thus would have a slightly better chance of being successful. Instead, the Jaguars call the dumbest play imaginable, and it rightfully goes for zero yards.
Overall, offenses dictate how defenses will play them. That extends from what personnel package they put on the field (11 vs. 12 vs. 21 vs. 10) to whether they are in shotgun or under center. Defenses know offensive tendencies -- teams run when they are under center -- so it’s now on offensive play-callers to counter. If there is a scenario where runs are better than passes (for example, 3rd-and-short), then offenses should remain in shotgun and still have a bunch of receivers on the field because there will likely be fewer defenders in the box than there otherwise would be under center, and that’s what determines a successful running play. Just ask the Ravens, Cardinals, Texans, and Chiefs:
2019 Percentage of Runs in Shotgun
Data removed QB scrambles. EPA Per Carry is for all non-QB scramble carries, including rushes under center. "Pistol" plays are counted as "shotgun", which inflates both the Ravens and Cardinals percentage of runs in shotgun data.
% of Runs in Shotgun
EPA Per Carry
Fantasy Football Content
1. 2019 Yards Per Carry Plus/Minus Rankings
2. 2019 Rushing Efficiency Rankings
3. 2019 Receiving Efficiency Rankings
4. 2019 Expected Passing TD Rankings
5. 2019 Expected Rushing TD Rankings
6. 2019 Expected Receiving TD Rankings
7. 2019 Big-Play Rushing Rankings
8. 2019 Expected Yards After The Catch Rankings
9. 2019 Deep Target Efficiency Rankings
10. 2019 Expected Fantasy Points (WR)
11. 2019 Expected Fantasy Points (TE)
12. Reviewing Late-Season Production - QBs & TEs
13. Reviewing Late-Season Production - RBs & WRs
14. NFL Depth Charts - QB, RB, WR, TE
15. Free Agency Winners and Losers