Chargers turn to veteran to spring young star Gordon

By Nick Shook
NFL.com
Read full post on NFL.com

Melvin Gordon‘s rookie campaign in 2015 was disappointing, almost as much as the lack of civility in the current presidential campaigns, which ended Tuesday. But unlike the nasty battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Gordon has proven those early ugly moments weren’t signs of things to come.

A year after failing to reach the end zone and receiving alarming reps as a kick returner in training camp, Gordon is, as Gregg Rosenthal wrote, a far superior back. Gordon has moved well past his 2015 season yardage total (641) and taken his career touchdown total from zero to nine, thanks to his most recent game, which happened to be his best performance as a professional.

On the surface, it’s easy to note that Gordon was fighting an uphill battle in San Diego last season, entering as a green runner and quickly watching his starting offensive linemen drop like flies. The first foray into pro ball became a 17-week Sisyphean slog. And with a healthier line in place for the Chargers in 2016, we’re seeing obvious positive effects.

But as we forge onward in Next Gen Stats, we want to know more.

Melvin Gordon rush production by formation (Weeks 1-8)
Plays
% of plays
Carries
Yards
YPC
TD
Shotgun
222
53.5
33
81
2.5
2
Singleback
110
26.5
74
269
3.6
2
I-Form
61
14.7
41
183
4.5
1
Jumbo
16
3.9
11
19
1.7
3
Pistol
4
1.0
2
20
10.0
0
Other
2
0.5
0
2.5

San Diego ran more than 50 percent of its plays out of the shotgun in Weeks 1-8, but handed the ball off to Gordon on just 14.86 percent of those plays, per Next Gen Stats. Gordon received the majority of his carries out of the singleback formation, toting the rock on 67.2 percent of those plays. The Chargers flipped that script on Sunday.

San Diego ran 78.3 percent of its plays in the shotgun in Week 9 against Tennessee. Of Gordon’s 32 carries, 19 came out of the shotgun. The statistical breakdown, shown in this handy-dandy table, speaks for itself. But what was most interesting, and on a few plays, most effective, was how the shift to the gun allowed San Diego to use its future Hall of Fame tight end.

Melvin Gordon rush production by formation (Week 9 vs. TEN)
Plays
% of plays
Carries
Yards
YPC
TD
Shotgun
47
78.3
19
89
4.7
0
Singleback
8
13.3
8
104
13.0
0
I-Form
3
5.0
3
2
0.7
0
Jumbo
2
3.3
2
1
0.5
1

While the Chargers‘ front five executed a double-team-heavy gameplan, aimed at neutralizing Tennessee’s front four that includes havoc-wreaker Jurrell Casey, Gates was moved all over the field. San Diego frequently flexed Gates as part of a bunch trips set, either in the outermost or innermost receiver position off the line. Gates was effective blocking downfield out of this position, especially when San Diego opted to run draws, lulling the defense upfield and the defenders deeper downfield before Gates and fellow receivers engaged defenders.

Sometimes the Chargers would motion Gates inside the tackles or just outside, in a wingback position, right before the snap. From there, Gates could execute multiple blocks. Often, the veteran would post and hinge, simply base blocking on the edge, serving as a pseudo-backside tackle while the actual tackle and guard doubled down on Casey or Derrick Morgan, and the center and opposite guard doubled on the other. When ran correctly, one of the two double-teaming blockers would chip off to the second level, where they engaged linebackers. It made what looked like a complete disregard for defenders beyond the first level suddenly an effective, multi-level blocking scheme.

Gates executed a couple of split blocks often seen in zone schemes later in the game, and even pulled in tandem with D.J. Fluker in a variation of a counter play in the third quarter that was one slight path adjustment on the part of Gates from going for a huge chunk of yards.

Gates was at his best, though, when he was a lead blocker out of the wingback.

It didn’t take long for Tennessee to realize this. They sent linebackers on interior blitzes soon after Gates first led for Gordon on the play shown above, and jammed up three handoffs for losses in the first half. But that same zeal for TFLs became overzealous on a well-timed draw play. And again, it was Gates at the center of the play.

Seeing Gates lined up at the wingback position but standing upright, middle linebackers Avery Williamson and Sean Spence cheated up right before the snap in anticipation of another rush. They were right, but the Chargers were better, thanks in large part to center Matt Slauson and Gates, who was there to meet Williamson in the hole and spring Gordon for a 43-yard gain. Gordon reached a top speed of 21.95 mph on the jaunt, finishing as the fastest ball carrier in the NFL in Week 9 and the fourth-fastest ball-carrying running back in the league this season.

As it goes with most running backs, the majority of Gordon’s 32 carries were for 10 yards or less. Four went for 15 or more, including the 43-yarder above, and the run that made Kevin Harlan exclaim in disbelief, “he’s amazing!

That one required multiple broken tackles, including running through a defender who was in the midst of shedding a block, and essentially clinched the win for San Diego. Gordon finished with 196 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries (the third-most efficient running back in Week 9, per Next Gen Stats), and added four catches for 65 yards — two of which coming on well-executed screen plays — to, as Rosenthal again wrote earlier, bury scouting reports that listed him as anything less than a three-down bellcow.

Other notes from Week 9 in Next Gen Stats:

1. Tyrod Taylor continues to spend plenty of time outside the tackle box. The Bills quarterback attempted 39.5 percent of his passes, and completed 53.3 percent of those attempts in a Week 9 loss to Seattle. Next in the statistical category was his Monday night counterpart, Russell Wilson, who attempted 26.9 percent and completed 42.9 percent of those attempts.

2. If you tuned into Thursday Night Football, you might have noticed that Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans appeared rather fatigued midway through the fourth quarter. He ran a route toward the end zone that was, well, pretty slow. Next Gen Stats is here to tell us he topped out at 15.65 mph. Yep, slow by NFL standards. Look to the tweet for explanation:

3. A week after Melvin Gordon led the league in carries against eight-plus defenders in the box, he finished third with nine carries for 58 yards (6.4 YPC) in the same scenario against Tennessee. That makes his career day even more impressive.

Latavius Murray led all rushers in the category with a stunning 94 yards on 16 carries (5.9 YPC) against Denver’s vaunted defense.

4. Did Robert Woods and the slot position just become best friends? Yes. Will they do karate in the garage? Probably not. Woods caught eight passes for 131 yards out of the slot against the Seahawks, an impressive statistic considering Woods spent just 53.3 percent of pass plays at the position.

5. If Carson Wentz is getting his first taste of the rookie wall after two straight losses, it isn’t showing in his arm strength. The passer led all quarterbacks with the longest completed pass of Week 9 at 61.5 yards of air distance, eight yards better than the next quarterback.

6. Two tight end sets are all the rage in some NFL huddles. Of the top five personnel groupings in terms of production, four were 12 personnel. Only New Orleans finished among the league leaders in a non-two-tight-end set at 10.3 yards per 33 plays.

7. We had some passing and receiving charts this week that were absolutely bonkers, starting with Evans’ chart above. Check the rest out here.

8. D’Qwell Jackson has built his career on being a tackling machine. In Week 9, he was the lone non-defensive-back defender to fininsh in the top five in average distance traveled per tackle, at 25.6 yards per takedown (he finished with seven). Packers corner LaDarius Gunter led the category and is deserving of a postgame whirlpool session after covering 28.6 yards per tackle (6).

9. Finally! A team that blitzes with high frequency and actually gets to the quarterback! The Los Angeles Rams blitzed on 62.2 percent of defensive downs in a loss to Carolina and sacked Cam Newton four times, which led the top five in the category.

10. Mike Wallace burned Pittsburgh deep for a touchdown and got a little payback in the process in a Week 9 win over the Steelers. Wallace’s 95-yard catch and run saw him cover 107.53 yards of distance and hit a max speed of 20.90 mph, good for third fastest among ball-carrying wide receivers in Week 9.

11. Speaking of speed, Vance McDonald is deceptively fast. How fast? He topped out at 20.60 mph on his 75-yard touchdown reception in a loss to New Orleans, toasting Saints defenders and the rest of the ball-carrying tight ends in Week 9 by nearly 2 mph.

To read previous Next Gen Stats notebooks, click here.

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