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The return of outside zone will elevate Raiders RB Josh Jacobs

Third-year tailback will bounce back with new line

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Jacobs has become one of the best running backs in the NFL after the Las Vegas Raiders selected him in 2019. The first-round pick already has a Pro Bowl under his belt. He can be dynamic with the ball in his hands, exhibiting quickness and power to create highlight-reel plays.

In 2019, Jacobs was excellent during his 13 starts. Averaging 4.8 yards per carry, Jacobs helped a below-average football team overachieve to a 6-4 start. The Raiders running back then fell into the injury bug derailing his season.

He was dominant in the open field, forcing 69 missed tackles leading the NFL, and was 7th in yards after contact, according to PFF. He was snubbed for offensive rookie of the year because of QB bias, but marked himself as one of the upper echelon running back in the NFL.

This past season was a different story, however, with the Raiders’ running game not experiencing success in 2020. Jacobs dropped to 3.9 yards per carry which ranked 42nd. He still managed to hit the 1,000 yard mark based on volume with 12 touchdowns on the year, which is a career-high.

The injuries early in the season played a factor with Jacobs losing his burst to create big runs in the open field. According to PFF, Jacobs was 5th in breakaway yards (rushes over 15+) in 2019 and dropped to 20th during 2020. His ability to make defenders miss was still there, finishing with 51 missed tackles forced but still a drop-off as well.

The run blocking did not help at all, finishing 27th in ESPN’s run-block win rate. According to sports info solutions, the Raiders offensive line hopped up from 31st in the hit at line percentage in 2019 to 15th in 2020.

However, when you dive a little deeper into Jacobs' numbers, you can see why last year a step was back. On next-gen stats rushing yards over expectation, Jacobs finished fourth in the NFL with 207 yards in 2019. Last season it dropped to 42 yards. The offensive line is not entirely to blame on Jacobs's struggles because it was not that good the year before either, based on the numbers.

Forced into Gap run schemes.

A significant reason for this was a switch in philosophy with injuries to the offensive line. The Raiders in 2019 were primarily an outside zone team leading the NFL in carries, according to SIS. In 2020 we saw a drop to 9th overall.

Denzelle Goode and Sam Young don’t have the athleticism to execute outside zone at a high level. The issue forced the Raiders to switch to more gap runs and inside zone. According to SIS, gap runs were 29% of the Raiders' run calls compared to 28% outside zone in 2020. For comparison, It was 40% outside zone, and 30% gap runs in 2019.

Jacobs has struggled with gap runs since he entered the NFL. He averages just 3.4 yards per carry on gap design, according to SIS. It’s also why he struggles in short-yardage. Jacobs had 18 carries inside the five with only five touchdowns. His 28% touchdown rate inside the five ranks 26th out of 28 players with at least nine carries.

Outside zone focus

On the flipside, he was steady executing outside zone in 2019, averaging 4.7 yards per carry according to SIS. The best runs of his career were outside zone calls. When the Raiders did run outside zone in 2020 they struggled, averaging just 3.1 when Jacobs was the ball carrier.

This is part of the reason we will see a revamped offensive line in 2021 since the Raiders run the ball 44% of the time, which is tied for 5th in the NFL.

The addition of Alex Leatherwood brings athleticism to the offensive line. The first-round pick was a dominant outside zone blocker in college, with his pancakes leading to big runs. A healthy incognito will raise the outside zone scheme where he dominated on reach blocks before injuries in 2019.

Add in the switch to Andre James or even Nick Martin, and you can see the vision ahead. The Raiders this year will focus on outside zone and inside zone to help Jacobs succeed. Jon Gruden wants to run the football, and watching the offensive line struggle had to grind his gears. Hopefully, his changes come to fruition and turn the Raiders back into the outside zone dynamo they were in 2019.