RSP contributor J. Moyer shows you why the metric Yards Before Contact (YBC) isn’t enough to discern the differences between the play of Broncos backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. He also shows you where Freeman’s bruising style can unnecessarily limit his game.
Follow J Moyer on Twitter @JMoyerFB and his YouTube channel, Skill Films
Statistical evaluation of running back play is difficult. I call the running back-offensive line relationship an ecosystem, as both units rely on the other to thrive. If one misses the assignment, block or read, the other suffers. This inter-dependence makes it hard to assign credit or blame when things go right or wrong on a given play.
One advanced metric that is often championed as a window into the blocking versus running dilemma is Yards Before Contact (YBC). Common understanding goes like this: runners with high YBC must benefit from wide running lanes, while those racking up most of their yardage after contact are doing the heavy lifting behind bad blocking. While these scenarios can occur, remember, the run game is an ecosystem. The runner plays a prominent role in earning yards both BEFORE and AFTER contact.
The shared backfield in Denver is the perfect example of why YBC does not tell the story most assume it does. Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman exist at the opposite ends of many spectrums of running back play. Their size, explosiveness, vision, and running style could not differ more. And despite playing on the same team, they also are polar opposites in yardage earned before contact.
In 2018, Lindsay led the NFL at 3.0 YBC per attempt, while Freeman went 0.8 yards before encountering defenders on average, per Pro Football Focus. This relationship held true in Week Three against Green Bay, when I charted Lindsay traveling 1.8 YBC per tote, well ahead of Royce Freeman’s 0.7 YBC.
Obviously both players play with the same offensive line. So, there must be other factors involved in creating YBC. While playing against overloaded defensive boxes may matter, Green Bay had a numbers advantage, or “loaded box” on 52 percent of Lindsay’s runs, compared to only 27 percent of Freeman’s in Week Three.
I’ll give you a hint: the difference is the runner.
Lindsay is well-known as an electric back who struggles to break tackles. He also owns elite scheme awareness, vision, processing and lighting quick, yet brutally efficient footwork between the tackles. These traits allow Lindsay to create running lanes and avoid contact entirely.
Alternatively, Royce Freeman is a bruising runner with excellent contact balance. And while Lindsay is forced to play with refined technique in creating space due to his inability to win collisions, Freeman’s power and skill through contact have produced an insensitivity to his blockers’ leverage and a tendency to miss open holes.
While both runners are effective in very different ways, Lindsay’s efficient discipline offers more consistency than Freeman’s herculean efforts, and, coupled with Lindsay’s elite speed, has produced several explosive runs over a short career. So, while yards earned before contact does tell a story about these runners, conclusions that Lindsay benefits from lighter boxes and/or better blocking, or that Freeman is a better runner are incorrect, and a bit lazy.
Previous Running Back Rooms
Week One: LeSean McCoy And Miles Sanders–What is Vision?
Week Two: Dalvin Cook, David Montgomery, Peyton Barber, and Kalen Ballage–Footwork Efficiency and Scheme Awareness
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