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.

PlayerWeightCarriesYardsYPCTD
Brandon Jacobs264432906.743
Jamaal Charles199915235.751
LeSean McCoy208683835.632
Bernard Scott197341755.151
Tim Hightower222562875.132
Danny Woodhead195422145.100
Knowshon Moreno2101065355.052
Marion Barber218221115.051
Brandon Jackson216753755.000
Darren McFadden2101115514.965
Brian Westbrook203552724.954
Jerome Harrison205492414.921
Felix Jones220412014.900
Chris Johnson1911195804.874
Michael Turner244864164.841
Jonathan Stewart235713354.720
Justin Forsett198562624.681
Darren Sproles190301384.600
Adrian Peterson2171577134.546
Mike Tolbert243783544.545
Peyton Hillis240914094.494
Arian Foster2271225484.497
Joseph Addai214472074.401
Jason Snelling223431894.402
Frank Gore217492154.391
Ricky Williams230652854.380
Maurice Jones-Drew2081024434.341
LeGarrette Blount247692974.303
Matt Forte218984184.272
Ryan Mathews218953864.065
Thomas Jones212853454.063
LaDainian Tomlinson2151164573.943
Michael Bush2451325183.926
Fred Jackson2151224763.901
BenJarvus Green-Ellis2151084103.806
Maurice Morris216421593.793
Chris Wells229401503.750
Ahmad Bradshaw198933483.742
Mike Hart206271013.741
Shonn Greene226933463.720
Cadillac Williams217421553.691
Ray Rice2121555713.682
Kevin Smith21720733.650
Marshawn Lynch215913313.641
Rashard Mendenhall225812943.634
Tashard Choice21227963.561
Anthony Dixon233441533.481
Willis McGahee235582003.453
Ryan Torain21227933.440
Steven Jackson2361816183.416
Jahvid Best199622103.390
Ronnie Brown230862873.340
Toby Gerhart231391303.331
LeRon McClain26022733.320
C.J. Spiller196461523.300
Rashad Jennings22830993.300
Cedric Benson2271494893.283
Chris Ivory222381243.262
Julius Jones20830973.230
Ken Darby21921653.102
John Kuhn250411263.071
Mike Goodson21228792.821
Donald Brown210391082.770
Chester Taylor21330652.171
Mike Bell22520402.000

3-4 Defenses Against Running Backs & Fullbacks

DefenseCarriesYardsYPCTD
Steelers2878953.123
49ers38613133.407
Jets34511973.478
Dolphins38113423.527
Chargers35113323.7912
Patriots35714674.118
Browns45118594.126
Packers33313754.135
Chiefs36415754.339
Cowboys34815314.408
Broncos45620434.4821
Cardinals46821814.6619
Redskins37117364.6811

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