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Game Flow: Which Running Backs Were Used In Which Game Situations

This article is an extension of a piece from two years ago about the concept of game flow, and how it affects running back opportunity. 

In the spring of 2014, Rich Hribar wrote two articles about the concept of game flow, and how it affects wide receivers and running backs. In 2013 positive game flow, used to describe when a team is winning, was far likelier to produce rushing than passing. Inversely, negative game flow, used to describe when a team is losing, is far likelier to produce passing than rushing.

Hribar found that, outside of a few exceptions, running back targets were heavily dependent on neutral (when a team is tied) or negative (when a team is losing) game flow, while rushing attempts were heavily dependent on positive game flow.

When we look at last season, we see largely the same thing, although there are a few notable exceptions that stick out.

For the 45 running backs who had at least seventy rushing attempts and twenty targets last year, here’s how their work was split out based on game flow. I also added a few names that are relevant to the conversation, but didn’t quite hit those thresholds:


Danny Woodhead106221147
Theo Riddick99271656
Devonta Freeman97211462
Darren Sproles83131357
Shane Vereen81141750
Duke Johnson7421454
Charles Sims7011752
Giovani Bernard66271623
Bilal Powell63211329
Javorius Allen6213940
Mark Ingram6014640
Frank Gore58201315
Matt Forte5821739
David Johnson57241320
Lamar Miller5761239
DeMarco Murray5581422
Latavius Murray539836
James Starks5317828
Darren McFadden5381233
Dion Lewis5033125
LeSean McCoy5012929
Chris Thompson4891029
DeAngelo Williams47211016
TJ Yeldon466733
Doug Martin4410320
CJ Spiller44141218
Jeremy Langford4210527
Justin Forsett416629
Rashad Jennings409526
Ameer Abdullah38131510
Chris Ivory3713717
Melvin Gordon3713915
Adrian Peterson3612618
CJ Anderson3617415
Ronnie Hillman3513616
Shaun Draughn355822
Charcandrick West342077
Antonio Andrews295222
Jamaal Charles2911613
Chris Polk283223
Eddie Lacy289118
Ryan Mathews286715
Arian Foster282719
Joique Bell271269
Todd Gurley2612410
Le'Veon Bell269710
Matt Jones251177
Tre Mason252217
Isaiah Crowell222416
Marshawn Lynch216312
Jonathan Stewart211344
Jeremy Hill19757
Alfred Blue16646
Carlos Hyde15328
Alfred Morris13463
Chris Johnson13634
Thomas Rawls11740
LeGarrette Blount7610

All the running backs with a high number of targets were heavily targeted when their teams were losing.

I wrote about why I was selling Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick back in April, highlighting how both were beneficiaries of little competition for work, and unlikely to repeat their high number of targets. The notion that San Diego or Detroit could be better also cuts into their potential workload, and is just another reason to avoid chasing the dragon of their unlikely outcomes last season.

Both Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon had their usage far more spread out in all game situations than Riddick and Woodhead. With the draft capital that their respective teams spent on them, it seems unlikely that they will not see more usage in their sophomore seasons.

Two that stick out as surprisingly negative-game-flow-dependent are Charles Sims and Duke Johnson. Should the Buccaneers and Browns improve at all, their usage could become dangerously sparse considering their respective prices. Isaiah Crowell and Doug Martin, therefore, were surprisingly not positive-game-flow-dependent, seeing a fair amount of usage when their teams were trailing.

browns bucs rb adps

Shane Vereen seems to be the same guy in New York as he was in New England, and Rashad Jennings looks like a really attractive draft target.

On the other end of the spectrum, Giovani Bernard and Bilal Powell look to have very healthy usage across all game situations.

Another couple things that stick out; first, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien seemed to use Arian Foster in all game situations, but not Alfred Blue and Chris Polk. The other is that Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman didn’t seem to target his running backs unless the team was losing.


Adrian Peterson3271638480
Doug Martin2889448146
Latavius Murray2669756113
Devonta Freeman2657361131
Frank Gore260917495
Chris Ivory2471206166
Jonathan Stewart2421554146
Darren McFadden239728087
Todd Gurley2291054282
Jeremy Hill2231306429
Matt Forte2181855145
Ronnie Hillman2071154052
LeSean McCoy203765176
Alfred Morris2021096033
DeAngelo Williams200874964
Rashad Jennings195684087
Chris Johnson1951153941
Lamar Miller194575087
DeMarco Murray193654583
Eddie Lacy187943855
Isaiah Crowell1853338114
Melvin Gordon184454099
Alfred Blue1841003549
TJ Yeldon182337079
Mark Ingram166653962
LeGarrette Blount1651133715
Charcandrick West1601053123
Giovani Bernard154993421
CJ Anderson152734138
Justin Forsett151253690
James Starks148783139
Jeremy Langford148332986
Thomas Rawls147903225
Matt Jones144792540
Ameer Abdullah143674333
Antonio Andrews143402776
Javorius Allen137323768
David Johnson125703817
Carlos Hyde115322657
Le'Veon Bell113392252
Marshawn Lynch111353342
Charles Sims107371159
Ryan Mathews107541836
Danny Woodhead106221561
Duke Johnson104232259
Chris Polk99361350
Joique Bell90431730
Darren Sproles83322130
Shaun Draughn7892742
Tre Mason75311232
Jamaal Charles71252521
Bilal Powell70341818
Arian Foster6381441
Shane Vereen61261619
Dion Lewis4935122
Theo Riddick4313921
CJ Spiller3612519
Chris Thompson3515713

Adrian PetersonChris Ivory, and Jonathan Stewart stick out as particularly reliant on positive game flow compared to other heavily featured running backs. Peterson and Stewart probably won’t have much of a change in their situations, and their awesome teams should continue to provide them ample opportunity.

Ivory, on the other hand, just went to a team that Las Vegas expects to win 7.5 games this year, and had just five rushing touchdowns last season. He also has another running back on the depth chart better than him at everything, named T.J. Yeldon.

It’s interesting that both Matt Jones and Alfred Morris were so dependent on positive game flow. This season will, in all likelihood, be tougher for the Redskins than last year. The previous year’s division winners play the other division winners, and all three of their division rivals had miserable seasons. It’s tough not to envision a role for Chris Thompson that suggests he is woefully underdrafted. Keith Marshall also lurks, with a very intriguing athletic profile, and story of immensely high expectations derailed by injury.

redskins rbs dynasty adp

redskins rbs heatmap

DeMarco Murray was surprisingly used frequently both in the passing and rushing game when the Eagles were in negative scripts, adding more credence to the notion that Chip Kelly could ride Carlos Hyde as a three-down back.

I’ll quote Hribar from his piece two years ago here:

“I could do this all day long, but have fun with the table yourself. Enjoy sorting through the columns of each table on your own to see what else you can find.”

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