Matt Waldman examines the Yards After Contact statistic for running backs and concludes there’s a better way to track the data.
Yards After Contact is a great statistic in theory. It’s the sum of yardage gained after contact from a defender.
This sounds alright until you think about the way we track the data. If you track the data based on the literal definition of the stat’s name, then it’s the sum of all yardage gained after any form of contact from a defender.
It means if a cornerback slaps his hand across the hamstring of a running back turning the corner on a sweep and the running back gains 75 yards untouched afterward, the runner earned 75 yards after contact. This is a display of speed, but not of power. In other cases, the location of the slap—say, to the ankle—may require balance from the runner to maintain his stride.
Depending on who tracks the data, the scenario above earns the same value as a running back who drops his pads into the chest of a middle linebacker, runs the defender over, and then drags the tackler another four yards before pulling free and running away from the rest of the defense for 75 additional yards. In terms of which back executed the more powerful run, it’s no contest.
However, the data doesn’t provide this context. At best, it gives a location of where the defense initiates the contact.
Kenyan Drake And Nick Chubb Co-Led An Aspect of YAC in 2018—In Very Different Ways
Scrolling through Footballguys.com’s News Blogger, this blurb caught my eye:
Drake is a great athlete and an improving technician at the position. However, the context that fans and analysts use the Yards After Contact stat is usually to communicate the power of a running back.
This is why Sigmund Bloom or Cecil Lammey—whoever wrote the comments section of this blogger entry—noted this stat as surprising. To their credit, they also described Drake as a “slippery” back rather than a powerful one. Drake and Chubb are both talented runners but the Yards After Contact Stat only provides a basic glimpse that both backs find solutions to obstacles.
A little later, we’re going to examine 11-12 runs of Drake’s and Chubb’s to provide context that the above stat doesn’t show. First, let’s discuss how to contextualize Yards After Contact on Film.
There’s A Better Way
There’s a better way to track Yards After Contact and it involves classifying the types of contact, the angles of contact, and the sources of the contact. When studying running back prospects in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio I consider these three forms of contact. However, I have not been charting tackle attempts for runners to collect data.
Recently I created a robust charting matrix for quarterback evaluations. If I opt to pursue a similar path for runners, I will use these three categories of contact as the basis for it.
- Reaches: When a tackler can only get one or both hands on the ball carrier and attempt to latch onto the runner’s body. This is the least stable form of a tackle attempt and is often broken. However, a well-placed reach to the lower leg or a reach from a defender much larger can often bring a runner to the ground.
- Wraps: When a tackler can get both arms around a body part and hang on through the tackle. This is a more stable form of tackling than reaches, but it’s often lacking a collision to reshape the position of the runner. As a result, a lack of collision can give the runner a greater chance of working through the wrap.
- Hits: When a tackler initiates contact with a collision. Many hits can knock a ball carrier to the ground because of the angle, timing, and force of the hit can reshape the runner too dramatically for the runner to adjust. However, many hits are only slightly more effective than wraps because they have force but lack the stability of the wrap to limit a runner’s movement.
- Hit-And-Wraps: These are usually form-tackles where the defender can earn a strong collision coupled with a wrap-up that will drive through the ball carrier, disrupt the runner’s momentum, and reshape his frame. These are the most stable and effective forms of tackles.
Angles of Contact
- Indirect Collisions: These are hits that defenders deliver to the side or the back of the ball carrier.
- Direct Collisions: These are hits that defenders deliver head-on to the ball carrier.
These angles of contact can also be combined with the location of the target point on the ball carrier’s body.
- Upper-Body Collisions
- Lower-Body Collisions
If you really want to differentiate, you could pinpoint the zones in greater detail: 1) Chest and above. 2) Waist and stomach. 3) Legs above the knee. 4) Knees and shins. 5) Ankles and feet.
Sources of Contact
- Defensive Linemen
- Defensive Backs
When you consider the position of the player, the type of tackle attempt, and the angle of the contact, it becomes clearer which combinations are more difficult to overcome than others. A head-on hit-and-wrap from a defensive lineman is a more difficult obstacle than a reach from an indirect angle form a linebacker.
There are still debatable areas when it comes to which poses a more difficult problem. For instance, I vacillate when forced to consider if an indirect hit to the lower body is more formidable to overcome than certain kinds of direct collisions—regardless of the size of the defender making the attempt.
However, these are high-level problems. The advantage of filtering this information in greater detail is it helps analysts, coaches, and players understand the real value of the Yards After Contact Stat, the various ways that runners solve problems, and the schemes that best employ these runners.
If you reverse the focus, this can also be helpful when scouting defenders and how they tackle.
Quick Thoughts On Drake And Chubb Film
When you examine Drake and Chubb on film, there are notable differences with how they earn their yards after contact. Before moving forward, it’s important to note that different styles of runners will have overlapping play types.
Both Drake and Chubb have earned yards after contact where the delivered contact has little or no bearing on stopping or delaying the runner’s progress. And both runners have also made powerful runs against difficult forms of contact.
However, after watching eight weeks of each runner’s carries from 2018, it’s clear that Drake is not as powerful as Chubb and Chubb has superior power against the more difficult forms of collisions. At the same time, it’s also clear that Chubb is far more than a bruiser and can make multiple defenders miss in tight spaces.
The analysis below isn’t a data-based tracking of tackle attempts. This is a rudimentary application of what I described above.
Kenyan Drake: More Slippery Than Powerful
Even when isolating the sample to gains of at least four yards, Drake’s Yards After Contact samples include a higher percentage of plays where the defender is reaching to grab the ball carrier rather than hitting and/or wrapping. One of the current problems with the way some may track the stat is that a defender reaching for the ball carrier earns the same value as other forms of defender contact.
This tackle attempt by the front side linebacker below should either be classified into a group of less formidable tackle types or not be counted at all as a tackle attempt.
However, these “reaches” are a notable number of tackle attempts on Drake’s 2018 tape. All backs encounter reaches and often break through them, but these were the most frequent form of yards after contact in Drake’s portfolio.
The play below can appear deceptively powerful if you’re casually watching Drake emerge from the line of scrimmage but not noticing that he’s barely touched in the tight quarters.
Still, many who chart these plays may not have a clear idea of what do do with them. As a result, they could give them the same value as a runner getting wrapped or hit.
There are plays where it’s also difficult to assess whether an opponent even contacted Drake in the hole. This one below is a good example of a defensive lineman whose arm may or may not have struck Drake with a reach to the leg. If counted, it inflates Drake’s average in ways that probably won’t balance out—even with a large sample size.
Another notable thought with Drake’s tape is how he works against wraps. Here’s a wrap from an indirect angle to his lower leg by a linebacker. Drake pulls through the wrap and earns nearly seven yards after pulling through the contact.
Although Drake earns significant yardage after wrapped, he never regains his balance and it’s ultimately the wrap that brings Drake to the ground. This is common with a lot of backs, but the best after-contact runners often maintain or regain balance and require another defender to take them to the ground. We’ll see this later with Chubb.
Drake shines when he can defeat direct attack angles with his quickness and movement. When he has the room to do this, he turns direct angles of contact into indirect angles and reduces potential hits into wraps or reaches.
When forced to attack defenders head-on, Drake loses far more often than he wins. This power/leverage portion of the running back resume is not his strength.
Even when he has a runway to work downhill towards an opponent, that opponent only has to lean into the oncoming Drake to stifle the runner’s path.
Drake’s best work against hits and wraps occurs when he can face indirect collisions. This bounce off a linebacker’s indirect collision below is a good example. Even so, the placement of the hit is at the most powerful spot of a runner’s frame and it’s difficult to reshape a ball carrier’s center of gravity with a strike to the hip.
Lammey or Bloom was correct to assess Drake as slippery. He’s definitely a good yards after contact runner, but we’re being fair to other runners or trying to deliver an accurate assessment of running style, we must recontextualize the type of contact that Drake is good at overcoming.
Even this run below is a far greater example of slippery power than brute force. At first glance, these tackle attempts may appear formidable but they are reaches and wraps without force and the sources of the contact aren’t linemen and linebackers.
Although I’m sure you’ll find some examples of direct hits and wraps on Drake that he overcomes, it’s easiest to find him slipping wraps and reaches. Give him space to move laterally from the oncoming defender and he’ll slip past.
Nick Chubb: A Bumper Car With Agility And Towing Capacity
A big difference between Drake and Chubb is that Chubb drags linebackers and defensive linemen. Chubb has excellent burst but he also has the balance and explosive strength to take defenders for a ride.
Like Drake, Chubb has a slippery component to his game and it helps him avoid direct hits from oncoming linebackers. He avoids the direct hit from the linebacker in this play below. And while pulling that linebacker he also drags the backside defensive tackle through the crease for three yards after contact.
Chubb also pulls through reaches by defensive linemen. He does this against stud defensive tackle Chris Jones below and then takes the linebacker for a six-yard ride after overcoming Jones in the crease. You don’t see this often from Drake; it’s commonplace with Chubb.
Chubb swats away reaches from defensive tackles easily and even when contact knocks him off-balance, defensive backs get taken for rides that other backs don’t give.
Where Drake can pull through wraps to his lower legs, maintaining balance isn’t as easy for him. Chubb pulls through and maintains balance, guaranteeing that other defenders must come to the rescue.
Chubb also possesses the cutback ability and quickness to change angles on the pursuit. Once he gets downhill, even defensive linemen feel like they have to pay cab fare after riding Chubb to the ground.
Chubb is also better at winning direct collisions against larger defenders. This Steelers linebacker makes a direct hit at the end of the hole and Chubb earns three yards after the collision, sending No.98 to the ground and forcing the linebacker to hang onto Chubb’s leg and wait for reinforcements.
Give Chubb a runway through a crease and the linebacker better do more than lean into the oncoming runner. This Chiefs linebacker leans into Chubb as Chubb exits the crease and gives up five yards after the direct collision.
Here’s a backside defensive end getting a decent hit to the back of Chubb after Chubb bounces his way from the front side to the backside of the line. The force of the collision leaves the end on the ground after Chubb shrugs off the contact.
Chubb continues downfield unfazed and finishes the play with two defensive backs wrapped around him as he earns the first down. This was a dynamic cutback with quickness, balance, and strength.
Rookie linebacker Breeland Speaks, a defensive lineman at Ole Miss in 2017, comes down the line to hit Chubb at chest-height. It’s a flush hit from an indirect angle that rocks Chubb. Still, Chubb isn’t knocked sideways. He extends through the contact for at least two extra yards. Many backs would have been ear-holed to the turf.
Defensive end Allen Bailey takes a nice shot on Chubb at the line of scrimmage and Chubb still earns four yards through the collision. And if you notice with these pile-moving runs, there aren’t Browns linemen helping Chubb move any of these defenders.
Here are another 3-4 yards Chubb earns when three Chiefs box defenders gang tackle the Browns runner. Although I could have shown more plays where Chubb runs through reaches, these types of plays were far more accessible on Chubb’s film than Drake’s.
These 23 film clips are one of many examples why Yards After Contact needs greater contextualization. When you examine total Yards After Contact from 2018, Chubb averaged 4.5 yards after contact on 192 carries, earning 86 percent of his rushing yards (858 of 996) in this manner.
Drake averaged 2.7 yards after contact on 120 carries, earning 60 percent of his rushing yards (322 of 535) in this way.
Although filtering the nature of the contact taking place at or behind the line of scrimmage is an attempt to isolate some of the most difficult scenarios that running backs encounter, it doesn’t shake the misuse of the data as an indicator of power.
Those who generate the data have a right to say that it’s not their fault if the general public misuses the information. This is absolutely true—there are different ways for running backs to earn yards after contact and the stat is only measuring the amounts of yards earned and not the manner in which it’s done.
Still, there’s a better way. If we can refine the way we gather the data based on the type of contact and the source of the contact, we can get a clearer idea of how backs are winning against contact.
In this instance, Drake wins most often when he can transform unfavorable defender angles into winnable situations for his talents. Chubb can do the same, but because he also excels at moving immovable objects, he can use his quickness, agility, and speed as a changeup that leads to big plays.
Drake is a versatile player who can catch and run. However, if we isolate the comparison to running the football, Chubb’s skills make him a more versatile runner in terms of play types that he can execute productively.
Contextualizing Yards After Contact is a helpful way towards making these assessments.
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