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.
3-4 Defenses Against Running Backs & Fullbacks