Which NFL Teams Could Feature the Most Run-Heavy Offenses in 2015?
According to one of the most used coaching lines prior to each season, every team wants to commit to the run game.
Few coaches head into a season admitting they might have to throw the ball 40-plus times per game. While ignoring common knowledge around the analytical folk such as you run while winning instead of running to win, and that passing brings higher expected points from an efficiency standpoint than running, coaches can’t resist their primal need to keep the ball on the ground early and often.
Over the next two months, we’ll hear a lot of offenses wanting to think run-first. Many teams may be run heavy during the season, but very few end up as run-first.
During the 2014 season, only two teams ran more than they dropped back during the regular season. Drop backs include sacks taken because the team had all intentions of passing the ball but couldn’t do it.
Those two teams were the Houston Texans and the Seattle Seahawks, the overwhelming best running team by Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) -- NEP, of course, measures the value of each play based on how an average player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. Houston ranked 26th in Adjusted Rushing NEP in 2014, but when the alternative is having the combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum and Tom Savage throw passes, rushing efficiency be damned.
Even the Dallas Cowboys dropped back more than they ran last season and, with the loss of DeMarco Murray, could see a few more passes on offense this season. Both the Seahawks and Texans -- somehow their quarterback situation got worse -- figure to be among the league leaders in rushing rate again this season, but who are the teams that might join them?
If there’s any team that could follow the 2014 Texans offensive gameplan it would be the 2015 Buffalo Bills -- rushing efficiency included. Without a real hope at quarterback regardless of who wins the starting job, the Bills could rely heavily on the feet of LeSean McCoy and Fred Jackson. McCoy, for his part, is not new to a heavy workload in the backfield. In 2014 McCoy had the second most rushing attempts in the league behind only DeMarco Murray, though he was just 10th of 16 running backs with at least 200 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt.
Buffalo had the 11th highest pass-to-run ratio in the league last season, but many of the main players are gone. A Kyle Orton-E.J. Manuel duo at quarterback is now sans Orton with the addition of Matt Cassel. McCoy takes over as the lead back, and Rex Ryan replaces Doug Marrone as the head coach.
Ryan has never shied away from his defense and ball control game plans during his tenure with the New York Jets. The Jets were the fifth most run heavy team in the league last season, without the brand of defense Ryan’s teams have been accustomed to. By taking over a defense that ranked second in Adjusted Defensive NEP last season, the Bills could have the luxury of not needing to pass to make up deficits late in games.
The Cincinnati Bengals were sneakily the fourth most run heavy team in the league last season. The Bengals were middle of the pack (14th) in terms of point differential, so they weren’t necessarily nursing leads late in games. Running the ball ended up being the best part of the Bengals' offense, finishing seventh in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt.
Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard shared the load in the backfield, though it did not take long for Hill to prove he was the dominant back of the duo. Hill was fourth among 200-plus carry backs in Rushing NEP per attempt, though Bernard’s ability to pick up 173 carries on offense helped allow the Bengals to rely more on Hill when needed.
Much of Cincinnati’s offense will be back in 2015, and a healthier defense could allow the Bengals to run the clock out more than they were able to last season. Lowering the number of pass attempts for Andy Dalton wasn’t a terrible idea during the periods with non-100 percent A.J. Green last season, and it wouldn’t be a bad plan even with a healthy Green this year.
Right behind the Bengals and Jets were the Cleveland Browns in rushing frequency during the 2014 season. Cleveland had the sixth most run heavy offense while enduring the ups and mostly downs of Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel at quarterback. The Browns’ ability to run effectively vanished once center Alex Mack was lost for the season starting in Week 6, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Mack is expected to be healthy this season to join an overall solid offensive line.
Cleveland looks to have a three-back committee with Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and 2015 third-round pick Duke Johnson. There might not be a clear lead runner in that pack, but the Browns should be running the ball at a high volume to counteract what they’re lining up under center.
Like the Texans, the Browns took an unappealing quarterback situation and made it worse. Replacing Hoyer as the starter is Josh McCown, who was the fifth worst quarterback by Passing NEP out of 43 quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes in 2014.
The Browns, like Buffalo, but not to the same extent, could also rely on defense to save them from entering a pass-heavy, come-from-behind offense in the fourth quarter. Cleveland only ranked 19th in Adjusted Defensive NEP in 2014, but Mike Pettine could craft a healthy defense into an above average unit in 2015.