RB1 Is A Fantasy
Do you really want Austin Ekeler as a workhorse back?
Let’s face it, a workhorse back is about as out of date in the NFL as using actual horses to do actual work is. Heck, the connotation of a workhorse isn’t a positive one anyway. Synonyms of workhorse according to the Cambridge Dictionary are toiler, peon, and worn-out. The antonym is thoroughbred. NFL teams should be looking for thoroughbreds, not workhorses. Also, we should stop referring to athletes as animals anyway…
Implicated meanings aside, the teams with the most efficient rushing attacks have more than one rusher with significant usage. Of the top 10 rushing teams by EPA, only the 49ers have a running back that accounts for more than 60 percent of the rushing yards. That is what Austin Ekeler’s rushing yardage percentage was last season.
The 49ers are the exception that proves the point. A team needs talent at the level of Christian McCaffrey to make a true RB1 situation work, but CMCs are hard to come by. Looking at other teams that have attempted it recently and you will see a lot of bad teams and/or injured running backs. And as a running back ages and the wear begins to show, rolling with a workhorse becomes even less tenable. Austin Ekeler has plenty of wear on his treads and is getting old when it comes to elite NFL running backs.
The Los Angeles Chargers used Joshua Kelley and Ekeler as complementary pieces once this season, with 16 carries each. It was in Week 1 versus the Dolphins. The team put up 233 yards and 34 points and both backs had success running the ball. The team hasn’t sniffed that rushing total since and outscored that point total only once since.
Honestly, the only people who should want Austin Ekeler to be a true RB1 again are fantasy football aficionados.
Gap Scheme Is On The Rise Because Of Brandon Staley
Running games across the league are starting to shift away from zone running schemes originally made popular by Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay’s teams to gap running schemes. Even one of the progenitors is moving toward it. Sean McVay’s Rams now run those concepts third most in the league and to great success. This is due to the changing face of defense. Defensive linemen are lighter and more athletic and the Fangio/Staley defensive scheme dictates lighter boxes.
This is ‘daring teams to run the ball.’ And good teams are accepting the dare and the best teams are winning that way.
Gap rushing schemes are a way to win when teams dare you to run the ball. Lighter fronts have a harder time getting a hat on a hat. Gap blocking takes advantage of that mismatch.
The Chargers are 13th in the league when it comes to gap running play calls and they are 25th when attempting it. The Chargers had always split Ekeler’s rushes nearly 50/50 between zone and gap runs. This season it’s 60/40 and Kelley’s are close to 50/50
This signals how the Chargers may deploy the two backs and signals a desire to accept the dare to run against teams. In fact, in the game against Miami, Kelley ran 10 gap looks and 5 zone, while Ekeler went 8 and 8.
Kelley’s downhill power running is more conducive to gap concepts, whereas Austin Ekeler’s style and versatility give him an upper hand in zone, particularly outside zone.
Kellen Moore‘s One-Two Punch
In Dallas Kellen Moore effectively used Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard in this way, except in reverse. Zeek was used as the power rusher and Pollard was the versatile dual threat. The Cowboys finished the season with the 12th-best rushing EPA last season, which isn’t necessarily great, but it’s a huge step up from where the Chargers are this season, 27th in rushing EPA per play.
That is the biggest reason that the Chargers should change how they deploy their running game. They have been bad at it. Austin Ekeler has been bad. Trying something new is exactly what you want from your coaching staff with how the Chargers season has played out.
Taking advantage of light boxes will open up the passing game, which will turn this offense into what it should be, one of the best in the league.