Anyone can see which running backs are racking up rushing yards at the fastest clip, but how should we account for the effectiveness of teams' run-blockers at setting up their ball-carriers? By reviewing expected rushing yards per carry, of course! Nick Shook trains the Next Gen Stats spotlight on the top 10 ground attacks by expected rushing yards per carry (xYPC), also keeping an eye on key stats like expected rushing yards (ERY) and rushing yards over expectation (RYOE).
NOTE: Rushing stats listed are for running backs only; quarterbacks or non-running backs have been excluded. All stats and rankings were current as of Week 11.
2020 stats: 4.86 xYPC, 921 yards (5.1 YPC), 871 ERY, 50 RYOE (+0.28 per att), 5 rush TDs
This one is a surprise, considering all of the justified hand-wringing over Philadelphia's offensive struggles. Miles Sanders is doing a solid job in his second professional season, accounting for 76 rushing yards over expectation, while the Eagles as a team (thank to other players having a negative RYOE mark) have 50. This ranking is also remarkable because of the unusual adversity the Eagles have faced up front. The O-line lost Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks before the season even started, and then his would-be replacement, 38-year-old veteran Jason Peters -- who was planning on shifting from tackle to guard in Year 17 -- had to shift back to left tackle following Andre Dillard's season-ending biceps injury in August. Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce have also had to battle through injuries, and tight end Zach Ertz has missed time due to an ankle injury. Yet, the Eagles are still the league's best blocking unit when it comes to setting the bar for running backs, as evidenced by an expected-rushing-yards-per-carry mark of 4.86. The Eagles own a 0.24 yard advantage over the next closest blocking unit, a fairly sizable margin.
Of course, expected rushing yards only goes so far, as it's still on the rest of the offense to execute. Without Sanders, the Eagles would be posting subpar production from its skill players in another season fraught with injuries, but thanks to their promising runner, they're above water in ERY. Now, if only the rest of the offense could match their effectiveness ... (Looking at you, Carson Wentz.)
2020 stats: 4.62 xYPC, 862 yards (4.4 YPC), 914 ERY, -52 RYOE (-0.26 per att), 6 rush TDs
Like another group ranked lower on this list, we can chalk at least some of this O-line's success up to scheme and personnel. Patrick Mahomes and his bevy of weapons make for a tough assignment for opposing defenses, which are likely to focus less on the run and more on trying to limit Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Travis Kelce. But we shouldn't overlook the impact of rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who is doing his part (his RYOE per carry mark of -8 essentially means he's gaining the yards he's supposed to pick up) behind an offensive line that is playing at a premier level when it comes to run-blocking. The loss of Kelechi Osemele in Week 5 should have wrecked this unit, which, with Mitchell Schwartz going on injured reserve, only features one household name (Eric Fisher). Yet, the offensive line has been effective. Fisher is playing at a top-25 level among all NFL tackles, per Pro Football Focus, but the unit's strength has been consistency. Kansas City ranks in the upper half of the NFL as a run-blocking unit, per PFF, and is setting a per-carry bar that should have the Chiefs in the top 15 in rushing yards. Yes, the actual rushing total is lower, for which we can blame the team's understandable tendency to air it out with Mahomes. (Kansas City's running backs have combined to run the ball 198 times, eighth-least in the NFL this season, per NGS.) But the per-carry effectiveness of the ground attack still stands out.
2020 stats: 4.5 xYPC, 1,043 yards (4.3 YPC), 1,083 ERY, -40 RYOE (-0.17 per att), 9 rush TDs
The Rams are in a great position to make a playoff push in the season's final six weeks because of a balanced offense that opens eyes through the air while also creating plenty of opportunities for L.A.'s backfield committee. The Rams' expected-rushing-yards-per-carry mark ranks third in the NFL, and while the running backs aren't quite reaching that expectation, the team isn't hurting because of it. Darrell Henderson has been the best of the three backs in terms of rushing yards over expectation per attempt, gaining 0.22 yards more per tote than expected based on blocking and positioning at the time of handoff. He's carrying the load in this regard, with Malcolm Brown and rookie Cam Akers averaging -0.33 yards over expectation per attempt or worse (Akers is at -0.75 per attempt on just 50 carries). The beauty of expected rushing yards as a stat is, it is independent of running back performance, helping us understand that Los Angeles' slightly remade line is playing well in the run game. It will be interesting to see how the loss of Andrew Whitworth in Week 10 affects this group, but it didn't have a negative impact on Monday night, with the Rams boosting their expected-rushing-yards-per-attempt figure from 4.48 to 4.5 in their win over Tampa Bay. As these young runners get their feet under them, they can bank on strong support from the blockers up front.
2020 stats: 4.49 xYPC, 921 yards (4.6 YPC), 908 ERY, +13 RYOE (+0.07 per att), 6 rush TDs
Like the Chiefs, scheme plays a part in the Cardinals' ranking. We shouldn't expect anything less, though, from a Kliff Kingsbury offense, which is creating fruitful situations for the running game. Arizona's blocking unit is performing at the fourth-best rate in the NFL in terms of expected yards per carry at 4.49, and both Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds are taking advantage, achieving slightly above expectation. Of Edmonds' 315 rushing yards, 289 were expected, good for a rate of +0.18 rushing yards over expectation per attempt, while Drake's +4 rushing yards over expectation nudge him ever so slightly past the bar set by his blocking unit. Kingsbury's dependence on spread formations creates better rushing lanes for the two backs, but after a year-plus of Arizona applying this approach, teams still aren't bottling it up effectively enough to make a difference.
2020 stats: 4.48 xYPC, 838 yards (4.0 YPC), 927 ERY, -89 RYOE (-0.43 per att), 7 rush TDs
The Lions might have something in D'Andre Swift. The game tape tells us to pay attention to the rookie, and sure enough, on his 70 attempts, he's gained 25 more yards than expected, good for a rate of +0.35 RYOE per attempt. As a team, Detroit is nearly 100 yards below expectation, which paints a picture of a backfield that has a clear No. 1 back, even if it hasn't quite committed to giving him the lion's share (pun unintended) of the carries. Between Weeks 6 (when Swift broke out with a 116-yard game) and 10, Swift logged 58 rushing attempts, or 52.3 percent of the attempts made by Lions backs in that span. (Swift missed Week 11 after dealing with concussion issues last week.) Swift accounts for all of Detroit's positive RYOE, providing proof the Lions' best course forward is with Swift as the lead back. If Detroit can become a team that rushes as effectively as it blocks, it might have a chance to turn things around before long.
2020 stats: 4.44 xYPC, 1.096 yards (4.9 YPC), 1,000 ERY, +96 RYOE (+0.43 per att), 6 rush TDs
Here's another team that has had to weather injuries up front. However, now that it has its core line back in place, the Patriots' ground game is performing at an elite level. Its 4.44 expected yards per carry earns the No. 6 spot on this list, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see this unit rise in the final six weeks of the season if the front five can remain healthy. Damien Harris deserves credit for boosting New England's RYOE, with his average of +0.87 RYOE per attempt ranking among the top five in the category. The welcome return of Sony Michel should also help make this group more effective down the stretch, which will undoubtedly be necessary if New England, at 4-6 entering Week 12, wants to make a push for the playoffs.
2020 stats: 4.33 xYPC, 779 yards (4.3 YPC), 784 ERY, -5 RYOE (-0.03 per att), 9 rush TDs
Seattle has had a rotating cast in the backfield due to injuries, which helps explain why it's in negative territory for RYOE. The Seahawks have also relied heavily on the arm of Russell Wilson, who has frequently been tasked with throwing the team to victory while its defense tries to figure things out. Seattle is one of eight teams with fewer than 200 carries by running backs this season, per NGS, a product of such heavy reliance on the pass. So, keep in mind that the Seahawks' expected-rushing-yards-per-carry mark is based on a slightly smaller sample size than that of most other teams. But we shouldn't overlook the work of a Seattle front five ranked by PFF as the league's fourth-best run-blocking offensive line.
2020 stats: 4.31 xYPC, 922 yards (3.8 YPC), 1,042 ERY, -120 RYOE (-0.50 per att), 10 rush TDs
Last year, Todd Gurley and Devonta Freeman ranked among the bottom four in the league in RYOE/ATT (minimum 120 carries), with Freeman's ROYE/ATT coming in below expectation by more than a yard. Understandably, the Falcons parted with Freeman in the offseason, but perhaps it wasn't the wisest move to replace him with a back who was struggling in similar fashion. To the surprise of almost no one, Gurley is again among the league's worst in RYOE/ATT in 2020 at -0.45 yards per carry. That helps explain Atlanta's negative RYOE total and RYOE/ATT mark, but with nine scores on the ground, Gurley is still on pace for one of the most unusual double-digit rushing touchdown seasons you'll ever see. With all of this being said, Atlanta is again blocking effectively enough to produce a stellar runner, much like it did last season -- it just hasn't received the production it deserves. The Falcons are falling below expectation by half a yard per attempt, but for the second straight season, this problem is not the fault of their blockers.
2020 stats: 4.27 xYPC, 753 yards (4.3 YPC), 748 ERY, +5 RYOE (+0.03 per att), 5 rush TDs
Undrafted rookie James Robinson has been a bright light in a dark season for the Jaguars. He's rushing slightly above expectation at +0.14 RYOE/ATT, but it's fair to wonder how much better they might be on the ground with a second reliable running option (no other back has more than seven rushes). The Jaguars' blocking unit is doing its part, with Jacksonville ranking ninth in the league in expected yards per carry at 4.27, and Robinson's +23 RYOE shows he's doing his part. Their struggles seem to be more about personnel deficiencies, predictability (Jake Luton's recent stint as QB1 didn't help with keeping defenses on their toes) and inconsistency.
2020 stats: 4.24 xYPC, 932 yards (4.2 YPC), 936 ERY, -4 RYOE (-0.02 per att), 7 rush TDs
The Cowboys' offensive line has been hit hard by injuries in 2020, but this group has navigated the situation surprisingly well on the ground. Their 10th-ranked expected-yards-per-carry mark is proof of Dallas' ability to produce amid adversity. We also saw Ezekiel Elliott awaken from his struggles in Week 11, rushing for a season-high 103 yards. Elliott ranks near the bottom of the league in RYOE/ATT at -0.1 per carry, with his struggles taking away an element the Cowboys have consistently relied since he entered the league in 2016. Injuries on the O-line and beyond have hampered this team, but Mike McCarthy's blockers deserve credit, especially for the opportunities they've created for Dallas' RB2, Tony Pollard, who has gained 12 yards above expectation (+0.24 RYOE/ATT) on just 52 carries this season.