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The NFL’s top runners against stacked boxes in 2019: Derrick Henry, Lamar Jackson and more

Plenty of studies out there show that success in the run game is largely a function of situation. One of the biggest contributing factors is how many defenders are loaded into the box on a given play to stop the run. It doesn’t matter who you are — if the numbers game is against you as a running back, success will be hard to come by. That makes the success from these runners last season, at least from a PFF grading perspective, even more impressive. Among the 39 players with 50 or more carries against a stacked box (categorized by eight or more defenders lined up in the box), these are the 10 highest-graded runners during the 2019 season.

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1. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

PFF Rushing Grade: 80.9

Does it really surprise anyone that Henry shows up at No. 1 on this list? If any running back was built to take the punishment of running into loaded box after loaded box — giving just as good as he gets — it is Henry. His 244 attempts over the course of the regular season and postseason were nearly 80 more than the next closest runner, and he averaged just over 5 yards per carry on those runs (4.4 of which came after contact).

Carries with eight-plus defenders in box (regular season and postseason)
Player Carries
1. Derrick Henry 244
2. Dalvin Cook 166
3. Sony Michel 141
4. Leonard Fournette 131
5. Ezekiel Elliott 126

He should continue to run into loaded boxes again next season, opening things up for Ryan Tannehill and what became a very effective passing game over the back half of last season.

2. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

PFF Rushing Grade: 80.5

As the only non-running back on the list, Jackson’s case is obviously unique. His 89-carry sample did come almost entirely on designed runs (82 of 89 rushing attempts), though, so it’s not as if the grade is buoyed heavily by scramble opportunities. No one was better at moving the chains than Jackson. He ran for a first down or touchdown on a league-high 39% of his carries against stacked boxes, and he was also one of the most effective runners in the league when it came to making defenders miss. Jackson forced 19 missed tackles on his 89 carries with eight or more defenders in the box.

3. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

PFF Rushing Grade: 80.1

In his first season, Jacobs was one of the best runners in the NFL, period. His 86.9 rushing grade overall trailed only Lamar Jackson and Nick Chubb among all qualifying runners, and Jacobs’ performance against stacked boxes didn’t fall too far from that mark. He is one of the best in the league at making defenders miss, and he put that to use against loaded fronts. Jacobs’ 29 broken tackles on 115 attempts amounted to the third-best rate among the 39 runners in this sample.

4. Todd Gurley II, Atlanta Falcons

PFF Rushing Grade: 79.8

Gurley averaged only 3.4 yards per carry with eight or more defenders in the box in 2019, but a couple of factors play into why he still graded well in those situations. First, the Rams’ offensive line was bad last season. On average, 2.9 of those 3.4 yards for Gurley came after contact. Second, a higher percentage of Gurley’s carries came in short-yardage situations than most, and he was one of just five backs to convert a first down or touchdown on over 30% of his carries against loaded boxes in 2019 (32% — third). His injury issues may have taken away some of his explosiveness, particularly as a receiver last season, but his PFF rushing grade was still that of an effective runner.

Highest % of runs against stacked boxes going for first down or touchdown (regular season and postseason)
Player Rate
1. Lamar Jackson 39%
2. Kenyan Drake 32%
3. Todd Gurley 32%
4. Jordan Howard 31%
5. Gus Edwards 30%

5. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

PFF Rushing Grade: 77.8

In terms of three-down running backs — capable of producing in a variety of ways both on the ground and through the air — there are few that come to mind ahead of Cook. That’s clearly something he’ll be looking to leverage as he attempts to negotiate a second contract, and Cook's resume can now include being one of the most productive runners against stacked boxes. Due to all the heavy personnel Minnesota utilized in 2019, Cook had the second-most attempts (166) on this list to only Henry. Most of his touchdown production came against eight-plus men in the box, as well. Thirteen of Cook’s 15 rushing touchdowns in the regular season and postseason came against loaded boxes.

6. Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

PFF Rushing Grade: 77.4

Lindsay is one of the more underappreciated running backs in the NFL, highlighted by his own team bringing in Melvin Gordon this offseason to add to the battle for snaps already present between Lindsay and Royce Freeman. His 87.8 rushing grade since the start of the 2018 season falls behind only Henry and Chubb among running backs with 250 or more carries, and his speed and vision allowed him to succeed similarly in stacked box situations a year ago. Denver certainly won’t be short on capable running backs heading into 2020.

7. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers

PFF Rushing Grade: 75.6

Mostert is the first of two 49ers running backs on this list for 2019, and he heads into next season as the favorite to lead the backfield in touches after a strong postseason run. He was one of just four backs to carry the ball at least 50 times against eight-plus defenders in the box and average over 5 yards per carry on those runs. Clocking a 4.32 unofficial 40-yard dash time at his pro day, Mostert clearly has the speed to be a threat on every play, but he’s also a tough guy to bring down. Against stacked boxes in 2019, Mostert forced 28 missed tackles on 104 attempts (second-best rate among qualifiers) and averaged 3.7 yards after contact per run.

8. Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals

PFF Rushing Grade: 75.4

If you limit this sample to the 54 attempts when Drake saw a stacked box after joining the Cardinals, his rushing grade is even more impressive — jumping to 80.1 from Week 9 through Week 17. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry on those 54 attempts, and 21 of them went for first downs or touchdowns. That 39% rate would have tied Lamar Jackson for first in the NFL over the course of an entire season. By most metrics, Drake was one of the most successful runners in the league over the back half of last season, creating a difficult task for opposing defenses when paired with the threat of Kyler Murray himself taking off.

9. Matt Breida, Miami Dolphins

PFF Rushing Grade: 75.2

Breida is the second 49ers runner on this list, and now he gives the Dolphins a back to pair with Jordan Howard in the hopes that Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t once again their leading rusher in 2020. Like Mostert, Breida has speed to burn, and he uses that speed just about better than anyone to avoid contact near the line of scrimmage. His 5.8 yards per carry mark against stacked boxes was more than any other runner in this group. Half of that (2.9 yards on average) came before contact, aligning with what he has been able to do throughout his career. Part of the credit goes to Kyle Shanahan’s scheme and the offensive line, but Breida deserves his fair share of credit for those results, too.

10. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

PFF Rushing Grade: 74.4

Carson is another underrated runner in the NFL in my opinion. Few can break through arm tackles and consistently produce above expectations quite like he has over the past few years in Seattle. His performance when the defense loads the box is just another application of that ability. Carson’s 31 broken tackles across the regular season and postseason were fewer than only Henry, and his forced missed tackle rate of 30% was higher than any other runner with at least 50 carries against stacked boxes. He has earned what he’s been able to get on the ground behind a shaky offensive line.

Highest forced missed tackle rate with eight-plus defenders in the box (regular season and postseason)
Player Rate
1. Chris Carson 30%
2. Raheem Mostert 27%
3. Josh Jacobs 25%
4. Todd Gurley 23%
5. Adrian Peterson 22%

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