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Lamar Miller & The Texans’ Run Game: What The Numbers Say

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We take a look at some of the numbers behind the Texans’ running attack since Lamar Miller joined the team.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Lamar Miller’s time with the Texans has been less than perfect. In his two full seasons with the team, he’s had 506 rushing attempts that went for a total of 1,961 yards. That’s an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Those numbers are unimpressive, especially when put into the context of each running back who has a similar number of carries over the past two seasons.

RB’s With 500 Carries Over The Last 2 Seasons

Name: Total Carries: Total Yards: Yards Per Attempt Yards Per Game Total Touchdowns
Name: Total Carries: Total Yards: Yards Per Attempt Yards Per Game Total Touchdowns
Le'Veon Bell 582 2,559 4.3 94.7 16
Ezekiel Elliott 564 2,614 4.6 104.5 22
Todd Gurley II 557 2,190 3.9 70.6 19
Melvin Gordon 538 2,102 3.9 72.4 18
Jordan Howard 528 2,435 4.6 78.5 15
Frank Gore 523 1,986 3.7 62 7
LeSean McCoy 521 2,405 4.5 77.5 19
Lamar Miller 506 1,961 3.8 65.3 8

This list teaches us two things. One, for every sin that the Texans committed with using Lamar Miller, the Colts committed twofold with Frank Gore. Two, the usage of Lamar Miller within the Texans’ offense has been as a blunt instrument that’s flung towards the line of scrimmage in order to get three to four yards a clip. The problem with that is it just doesn’t do much. It puts Miller into high traffic areas with three to four tacklers around instead of getting him to work in more space, where he might only have to face one or two defenders. This, in particular, is the crux of Bill O’Brien’s strategy when it comes to the the run game within the Texans’ offensive structure. The run game with Lamar Miller only seems to subsist on inside runs.

Football Outsiders’ play direction charts gives a really good glimpse of what an offense is attempting to do with their running game. They split every single run into five directions: Middle, Left Tackle, Right Tackle, Left End, and Right End. They then take this and turn it into a table showing the amount of times each team ran in each direction. For these purposes, I’ve taken the Texans’ total rushing attempts from the last two seasons and created a table to see just where Houston places among teams that have also amassed 800+ run attempts over the past two seasons.

Run Direction Table

Name: Houston Texans Dallas Cowboys New England Patriots
Name: Houston Texans Dallas Cowboys New England Patriots
Total Runs: 812 839 814
% of Runs to Left Sideline 6% 7% 9%
% of Runs to Left Tackle 13% 15% 14%
% of Runs to Middle 62% 50% 59%
% of Runs to Right Tackle 11% 15% 13%
% of Runs to Right Sideline 7% 12% 4%

*Since Football Outsiders calculates the run direction percentages down to a single digit, I have done the same. The 1% that’s missing accounts for roughly ten unaccounted runs from all three teams.

This table articulates just how agrophobic the Texans’ philosophy is when it comes to the run game. To put this in context, the average percentage of runs outside of the tackles (either right or left end) in the NFL last year was 11% to the left end and 9% to the right end. The only category the Texans surpassed the NFL average on was runs up the middle, where they ran the ball 8% more than the NFL average. The Texans have had a conservative game plan, one focused on gaining yards by running up the middle. The question now is whether or not this strategy ever worked with Lamar Miller as the lead back.

2016:

This was a terrible year for Texans football. It started with brief and bright glimpses of what looked to be a competent quarterback, two exciting and talented receivers, and a do-it-all kind of running back.

Man, that Week One victory against the Bears was a magical time.

Anyways, enough about the good things that happened that season. While the season slowly fell apart, Lamar Miller was still out there plugging away, churning out numbers like this:

*Left and Right Side are ESPN’s way of saying Right and Left Tackle.

**Via ESPN

To give those numbers context, here are the yards per carry averages for the Texans in 2016, sorted into run direction, and the NFL average for yards per carry sorted by play direction.

2016 YPC Average Table

Name: Left Sideline Left Tackle Middle: Right Tackle Right Sideline
Name: Left Sideline Left Tackle Middle: Right Tackle Right Sideline
Houston Texans: 4.46 4.85 4.13 3.53 3.95
NFL Average: 4.3 4.32 4.19 4.17 3.85

A slight bit off-topic: If you want a really good example of why Duane Brown was important to the Texans, just look at the yards per carry numbers to his side of the offensive line. The Left Tackle average of 4.85 was fifth best in the league; that was the last time the Texans placed in the top ten of any yards per carry directional rankings.

In 2016, Lamar Miller struggled mightily on interior runs despite the fact that over a third of his runs were up the middle. Contrast that with his runs on the two sidelines, where he was gettin four to five yards per carry. Those marks are not too dissimilar to Le’Veon Bell, Melvin Gordon and LeSean McCoy . To summarize, Miller outside of the tackles was quite good and comparable to some of the best workhorse backs in 2016, but when he ran run up the middle, he was a whole 1.1 yards worse worse per carry than Alfred Blue.

2017:

After the complete mess that was the 2016 season, the Texans and Bill O’Brien took some calm and quiet time for reflection. O’Brien admitted in hindsight that Miller shouldn’t have been leaned on so much:

“I think he probably carried it a little bit too much early on,” O’Brien said. “We were very, very dependent on him because he’s that type of player. He’s a guy that shows up every day, he’s in excellent condition, plays through pain. Had an ankle, shoulder, ribs -- played through all of it, practiced through all of it. He’s what you’re looking for when you talk about a teammate and a guy in your locker room. But I think, you know, 30 carries in a couple games, thing like that, that’s probably a little bit too much.

All things considered, this was probably for the best, given the injuries that had begun to plague Miller towards the end of the 2016 season. Bill O’Brien adjusted Miller’s workload accordingly in 2017. Miller had seven games in 2016 with 20+ carries. He only had two such games in 2017.

These are Miller’s directional rushing attempt numbers from 2017.

*Via ESPN.

This is where things start to get weird. Miller has improved quite dramatically in certain areas, yet he has regressed in others. Here are the 2017 numbers for the Texans and the NFL for a bit of background info:

2017 YPC Numbers.

Name: Left Sideline Left Tackle Middle Right Tackle Right Sideline
Name: Left Sideline Left Tackle Middle Right Tackle Right Sideline
Houston Texans: 1.29 3.89 4.23 3.6 3.48
NFL Average: 4.03 3.96 4.18 3.81 3.82

This is why you keep Duane Brown. That 1.29 Y/C was the worst in the NFL on run plays run towards the left end. Despite this improvement, Miller was still behind another member of the team in terms of production. Rookie D’Onta Foreman produced a directional Y/C of 4.1 and 4.8 on runs to the middle and left tackle, respectively. Both of these directions constitute the two highest percentage runs for the Texans last season, with 60% of the runs going through the middle and 15% over the left tackle.

This leaves us at a weird point with Lamar Miller and the Texans’ offense. The offense is very clearly tailored towards interior runs, and Miller is very much not that kind of back. Before moving to Houston, Miller only managed to clear the 4.0 Y/C average for runs up the middle once in his career, and he had never logged 70 middle direction carries. Those two numbers are honestly baffling. What kind front office and head coach look at Lamar Miller’s statistical history prior to his arrival in Houston and deduce that this is the back to give 20+ carries in an offensive system that runs 60% of it’s run plays into an area of the field where typically no space exists?

The one in Houston did. Yeah, sure, the most direct route from A to B might be by crossing a motorway, but in all likelihood it’s not going to be the most effective. It’s been painful to watch and chart this over the past two years. Anyone could see that something was wrong, that there needed to be a change made, and yet that change never occurred.

This isn’t to say that Lamar Miller is a bad player, I still believe he can be good, but it’s just been so long since he’s been in a system that tailors itself towards his strengths. Most of us have forgotten what Miller could potentially be.

I hope the improvement last season is the beginning of something, and along with the return of Deshaun Watson, the Texans’ offense will open up and become more expansive. Still, I have zero faith that will mean that the run game will begin to orientate towards more outside based runs. The Texans’ struggles at quarterback the previous two years didn’t inspire an attempt at changing how the offense approached the run game; rather, it just forced them further into their own interior run cocoon.

Entering the offseason, there are two questions that stand out regarding the run game: Will the Texans part ways with Lamar Miller, and what is it going to take for the Texans’ approach to the run game to change? Because of Miller’s cap hit, the Texans’ need for depth at other positions, and Houston’s continued commitment to inside runs, both of these integral offensive questions are far away from being answered.