When focusing on the running game, it is conventional wisdom to avoid running into heavy boxes. The more people the defense puts near the line of scrimmage, the tougher it is to run the football.
It’s an axiom because on the whole, it’s true.
NFL Next Gen Stats tracked how often each NFL running back ran against eight or more defenders in the box, and in 2019, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur did a decent job avoiding running his backs in those situations. Among players with at least 85 carries last season, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams ranked 22nd and 23rd respectively in the rate at which they ran into boxes with eight or more defenders. Jones had 49 carries into heavy boxes out of 236 carries overall, a rate of 20.8%, while Williams had 22 out of his 107 carries against eight men for a 20.6% rate. Those numbers put them right in the middle of the pack, as 48 running backs qualified for the cutoff.
What is astonishing, however, is what Jones did with those carries. According to ESPN’s Matt Bowen, Jones was second in the NFL in yards-per-carry average in those situations, racking up a whopping 5.6 yards per carry. That put him behind only the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert among players with 40 or more such carries, with Mostert averaging a ridiculous 6.2.
Comparing this number against Jones’ totals for the season shows that he actually had a worse YPC against lighter boxes — about 4.2 yards per carry — than against heavy ones.
This is likely a statistical anomaly, and it is of course not a reason to try running into eight-man boxes. In fact, only four backs averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry against heavy boxes: Mostert, Jones, Derrick Henry, and Adrian Peterson.
Meanwhile, Packers fans who enjoy seeing numbers that reflect poorly on the Chicago Bears will laugh at David Montgomery’s numbers from 2019. In 47 carries against heavy boxes, Montgomery averaged an abysmal 2.51 yards per carry, helping to drag him down below four to an overall 3.7-yard average.
It is interesting that the top five in YPC against heavy boxes reflect a mix of styles. Mostert and Jones having a quicker, slashing running style, while Henry and the late-career Peterson tend to be viewed as more powerful, physical runners. Also notable is that the top two spots belong to backs coached by Kyle Shanahan and LaFleur, respectively.
It’s tough to really glean any significant information from these numbers, but at least throughout last season, Jones did not suffer when defenses put an extra man down to defend against the threat he posed on the ground.