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Charting Fred Jackson and the Buffalo Bills' 2013 running game

Where were the Bills most successful running Fred Jackson last season, and which of his blockers had the most success opening up holes for him? You'll find out in this post.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

Fred Jackson had 890 rushing yards on 206 attempts in 2013. It was Jackson’s highest number of attempts since 2010 and his highest rushing yardage total since 2011. Unfortunately, his average gain per attempt was third-worst in his career. Despite a down year in that average, Jackson was still tenth among all running backs with at least 200 attempts. (C.J. Spiller was sixth on that list.)

Jackson is an interesting player that seems to buck the aging trend for running backs. Because of his continued success last season and this NumberFire article, I decided to chart his rushing plays from 2013 and see if I could find any trends or anomalies.

45 percent of Jackson’s attempts (and 53 percent of his yards) were classified as "up the middle" by the official game scorers. He averaged 5.06 yards per attempt up the middle (5.12 when removing attempts at the goal line). Jackson was great on runs up the middle, but he had pretty good efficiency in other directions, too.

Jackson’s rush attempts were split almost perfectly between formations with the quarterback under center and out of shotgun. Jackson had a slightly higher average gain when running out of shotgun, but that’s likely a result of goal line plays skewing the results.

After removing those plays, Jackson’s yards per attempt increases to 4.54 with the quarterback starting under center, and 4.45 yards per attempt out of a shotgun formation. They’re almost the same. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the plays and the average gains.

QB Alignment All Not Goal Line Left Side Middle Right Side
Under Center 4.3 4.5 3.6 5.3 3.8
Shotgun 4.4 4.5 4.5 4.9 3.7
Grand Total 4.3 4.5 4.1 5.1 3.8

Jackson was given the ball in three general ways: direct handoff, a delayed handoff, and a toss. I didn’t try to guess which plays were read options, although some of the handoffs definitely had a packaged play look.

Like the limited types of run types, Jackson’s rushes were mostly limited to direct handoffs. The team used a few delayed handoffs to Jackson, but infrequently. Toss plays to Jackson were downright rare (three total). The play count percentages by play type and quarterback alignment are below.

Shotgun Handoff Delayed Handoff Toss All
No 44% 5% 1% 50%
Yes 48% 2% 0% 50%
All 91% 7% 1% 100%

Another wrinkle in the equation of rushing success was the offensive and defensive personnel pairings. Here’s the average yardage gained per pairing, excluding goal line plays. (Offensive personnel groupings are identified by the number of running backs and tight ends on the field. A formation with one running back, one tight end, and three receivers would be an 11 - one running back, one tight end. Defensive alignments are denoted as DL-LB-DB.)

These averages are often skewed by a few plays and small sample sizes. For that reason, success rates are more reliable for analysis. Here’s the same table, but with success rates instead of yards per carry.

It’s a bit messy, but one thing’s for sure: Jackson (and the Bills) were really unsuccessful in jumbo packages against heavy fronts. The 22 personnel grouping was successful just 10 percent of the time, significantly worse than the rest of the groupings (aside from the 10 group, which was used just twice).

Jackson’s success in 2014 and beyond hangs with a lot of variables. One of them is the blockers in front of Jackson. The direction of the plays is noted by the game scorer, but a run "up the middle" doesn’t always involve center Eric Wood. Some runs to the "left tackle" included a pulling Kraig Urbik.

To control for those situations and get a better idea of blocking efficiency by player, I also annotated up to three blockers per run play. Usually, the three included the players sealing each side of the hole and a lead blocker. Not every play had three blockers, but I didn’t track any more than three. In some cases, like the one below, there was no hole. In those cases, the three blockers were the ones directly in front of Jackson.

Going forward, I’m going to refer to these as blocking assists (and hope to track it into the 2014 season). The assists from the offensive linemen on Jackson runs are depicted below.

Wood had the most blocking assists on Jackson runs. That makes sense, because most of Jackson’s runs were run up the middle of the field. If we combine the success rates with blocking assists, we can get an idea of which blockers contributed to better rushing success. The combination of blocking assists and success rates on runs classified as "up the middle" is below.

Based on this sample, Cordy Glenn had the most success (47 percent) and had an assist on 75 plays. Erik Pears was a close second, with a 46 percent success rate on plays up the middle. This comparison is very much in its infancy at this point, but shows that Glenn really had a breakout year in 2013.

Jackson had a nice 2013 season. He was used up the middle a lot, but that didn’t necessarily dictate who blocked for him. He’s 33, which might not bode well for his future as a running back, but his production certainly hasn’t declined yet.