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Examining The John Clayton Big Back Theory Against 3-4 Defenses


John Clayton had a story that caught my attention the other day on ESPN.com in which he was trying to convey the notion that teams facing true 3-4 defense need bigger backs to get the job done on the ground. Clayton did preface this by saying, “To beat a 3-4 defense on the ground you need a bigger back, or at least a runner who can break arm tackles.”

I wanted to take a look myself at the running backs and fullbacks that ran against true 3-4 defenses in 2010 and see how accurate the big back compared to smaller back theory holds up. Clayton notes that 15 teams ran 3-4 schemes last season, but in my opinion it was more like 13 teams that truly ran a 3-4. Sure the Ravens use quite a bit of 3-4, but they also blended in quite a bit of 4-3 as well. I went with the Pro Football Focus notion that the Dolphins, Packers, Cowboys, Cardinals, Jets, Patriots, Chargers, Chiefs, 49ers, Redskins, Browns, Broncos and Steelers were the primary 3-4 users last year and only worked off the stats against these 13 teams for this study.

As you will see in the results below, the beastly Brandon Jacobs led the way with 6.74 yards per carry, but he only carried the ball 43 times against 3-4 defenses. Second on the list however is the 199 pound Jamaal Charles with a stellar 5.75 yards per carry. It should be no surprise that Titans running back Chris Johnson weighs in with a solid 4.87 yards per carry and he played against 7 of the 13 3-4 defenses in the league. He did struggle mightily in his game against the Steelers as he only registered 34 yards on 16 carries. Another smallish back with success, albeit it limited work, was Danny Woodhead of the Patriots who averaged 5.10 yards per carry on 42 carries against 6 different 3-4 defenses in 2010.

The Rams workhorse back, Steven Jackson, had the most carries against 3-4 defenses in 2010 and finished with only a 3.41 yards per carry. 8 of his 16 games were against 3-4 defenses with 4 of the 8 games coming against the Cardinals and 49ers. Jackson has some mileage on him of course, but tilts the scale at or about 236 pounds. As you can tell by the other names on the list with 20 or more carries, there is nothing solid trend wise as both big and small backs have different degrees of success against 3-4 defenses.

In the bottom table I have listed the 13 3-4 defenses stats against running backs and fullbacks in 2010. It should of course come as no surprise that the Steelers were clearly better than the other 12 3-4 teams used in this study as they allowed only 3.12 yards per carry against backs in 2010. Also 8 of the remaining 12 teams allowed more than 4.1 yards per carry against all backs they faced.

In the end I think the point that Clayton is trying to make is half off the mark. I do not think the bigger backs are the simple answer to running against 3-4 defenses. As the table shows, there is really no clear cut trend with any weight class of back. Some break tackles better and others are just more elusive. Also the offensive lines play a big role in running game success. In addition, some 3-4 defenses are just not as good as others are as they lack the talent and understanding to have 2 gap control. Clayton and Lions head coach Jim Schwartz would have been better severed just pointing out that Jahvid Best is just not an every down back capable of running in-between the tackles as 109 of his 171 carries came against 4-3 defenses and he did not fare any better as he finished with just a 3.2 yards per carry total for the entire season. In addition their offensive line was pretty bad in 2010. Sure they drafted running back Mikel Leshoure last month, but waited until the 7th round to address the offensive line by drafting Johnny Culbreath. He does weigh over 300 pounds though, so perhaps Schwartz might consider putting him at running back to carry the ball against 3-4 defenses.

As always, let me know if you find any stat discrepancies.

Player Weight Carries Yards YPC TD
Brandon Jacobs 264 43 290 6.74 3
Jamaal Charles 199 91 523 5.75 1
LeSean McCoy 208 68 383 5.63 2
Bernard Scott 197 34 175 5.15 1
Tim Hightower 222 56 287 5.13 2
Danny Woodhead 195 42 214 5.10 0
Knowshon Moreno 210 106 535 5.05 2
Marion Barber 218 22 111 5.05 1
Brandon Jackson 216 75 375 5.00 0
Darren McFadden 210 111 551 4.96 5
Brian Westbrook 203 55 272 4.95 4
Jerome Harrison 205 49 241 4.92 1
Felix Jones 220 41 201 4.90 0
Chris Johnson 191 119 580 4.87 4
Michael Turner 244 86 416 4.84 1
Jonathan Stewart 235 71 335 4.72 0
Justin Forsett 198 56 262 4.68 1
Darren Sproles 190 30 138 4.60 0
Adrian Peterson 217 157 713 4.54 6
Mike Tolbert 243 78 354 4.54 5
Peyton Hillis 240 91 409 4.49 4
Arian Foster 227 122 548 4.49 7
Joseph Addai 214 47 207 4.40 1
Jason Snelling 223 43 189 4.40 2
Frank Gore 217 49 215 4.39 1
Ricky Williams 230 65 285 4.38 0
Maurice Jones-Drew 208 102 443 4.34 1
LeGarrette Blount 247 69 297 4.30 3
Matt Forte 218 98 418 4.27 2
Ryan Mathews 218 95 386 4.06 5
Thomas Jones 212 85 345 4.06 3
LaDainian Tomlinson 215 116 457 3.94 3
Michael Bush 245 132 518 3.92 6
Fred Jackson 215 122 476 3.90 1
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 215 108 410 3.80 6
Maurice Morris 216 42 159 3.79 3
Chris Wells 229 40 150 3.75 0
Ahmad Bradshaw 198 93 348 3.74 2
Mike Hart 206 27 101 3.74 1
Shonn Greene 226 93 346 3.72 0
Cadillac Williams 217 42 155 3.69 1
Ray Rice 212 155 571 3.68 2
Kevin Smith 217 20 73 3.65 0
Marshawn Lynch 215 91 331 3.64 1
Rashard Mendenhall 225 81 294 3.63 4
Tashard Choice 212 27 96 3.56 1
Anthony Dixon 233 44 153 3.48 1
Willis McGahee 235 58 200 3.45 3
Ryan Torain 212 27 93 3.44 0
Steven Jackson 236 181 618 3.41 6
Jahvid Best 199 62 210 3.39 0
Ronnie Brown 230 86 287 3.34 0
Toby Gerhart 231 39 130 3.33 1
LeRon McClain 260 22 73 3.32 0
C.J. Spiller 196 46 152 3.30 0
Rashad Jennings 228 30 99 3.30 0
Cedric Benson 227 149 489 3.28 3
Chris Ivory 222 38 124 3.26 2
Julius Jones 208 30 97 3.23 0
Ken Darby 219 21 65 3.10 2
John Kuhn 250 41 126 3.07 1
Mike Goodson 212 28 79 2.82 1
Donald Brown 210 39 108 2.77 0
Chester Taylor 213 30 65 2.17 1
Mike Bell 225 20 40 2.00 0

3-4 Defenses Against Running Backs & Fullbacks

Defense Carries Yards YPC TD
Steelers 287 895 3.12 3
49ers 386 1313 3.40 7
Jets 345 1197 3.47 8
Dolphins 381 1342 3.52 7
Chargers 351 1332 3.79 12
Patriots 357 1467 4.11 8
Browns 451 1859 4.12 6
Packers 333 1375 4.13 5
Chiefs 364 1575 4.33 9
Cowboys 348 1531 4.40 8
Broncos 456 2043 4.48 21
Cardinals 468 2181 4.66 19
Redskins 371 1736 4.68 11

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About Dave Bryan

I am, I'm me. 40 something, retired and a life long Steelers fan.
  • Football Sickness

    Great work. I saw that Clayton article and found it interesting, but also found myself wondering “would I buy this if I had the time and inclination to research it a bit further?” Thankfully, you handled that for me. I think his point is reasonable, but to me it is much more about the individual teams and players involved than the systems they’re playing (or playing in). The Steelers, for example, are one of the top few defenses in the league. The system is part of that, but it’s not the 3-4 that is stopping people. It’s Dick LeBeau’s brilliance with his version of the 3-4 and the excellent players at his disposal. It’s not Chris Johnson, it’s that he’s really, really good and dangerous regardless of whom he’s running against. Thanks again for a solid read. Enjoyed it!

  • Dave Bryan

    I did a double take as well when I first read it and could not wait to get the stats compiled to see the results. Always looking for stuff to break down so feel free to send suggestions.

  • Andy…

    Good stuff, as always, Dave. I didn’t get a chance to read Clayton’s article, but saw a mention of it somewhere. The problem with guys like Clayton is that they get an idea, but don’t do the research to show it. It seems logical, but there is no statistical support. Too many people taking shortcuts today. Wonder if you could glean anything from expanding the RB analysis to see if there is any correlation with RB YPC vs. defensive ranking? For instance, is Peyton Hillis so far down the list because he runs against the Steeler defense twice? Is Brandon Jacobs higher because he runs against the Redskins & Cowboys twice?

  • Jared Coglietta

    Peyton Hillis is big and was no problem for the Steel Curtain. However I’m sure he had success against weaker 3-4 teams. It seems illogical to peg attacking a defense with a type of back without A. researching it and B. taking into account some defenses are better (or bigger/smaller) than others

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