Why Were the Vikings So Hesitant To Start Ty Chandler?

Photo Credit: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst the discourse of the quarterback controversy or head coach Kevin O’Connell’s job security, there’s been little room to discuss what happened in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals or what other changes the Vikings made that might have long-lasting ramifications on how they have built their roster.

That’s not abnormal, but it is a shame when we finally had a chance to see Ty Chandler start at running back. The results were outstanding. Chandler finished with 132 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. From an advanced stats perspective, he produced 0.478 EPA per play and a success rate of 79.6%, ranking in the 80th and 75th percentile of all single-game performances from running backs this year.

The Cincinnati game was his first chance at becoming a starter, but it was his fourth game with at least 10 carries. That gives us some data to work with and a reasonable sense of whether or not the Vikings were right to delay playing him and whether they should rely on him as the primary back moving forward.

At the moment, Alexander Mattison is considered day-to-day, while Kevin O’Connell just announced that Chandler would play a “featured” role in the Vikings offense. Nevertheless, when Mattison returns, it certainly seems like Chandler will play second fiddle. That’s at least an upgrade from where he was at the beginning of the process.

Early in the offseason, it seemed like there would be some competition between him and Mattison for the starting running back spot. As the offseason progressed, however, it looked increasingly likely that Mattison would take the starting job and the Vikings would give Chandler sporadic touches.

Before the season began, the Vikings acquired Myles Gaskin, ostensibly to establish him as the second running back on the depth chart. That didn’t work out, but the Vikings were still hesitant to play Chandler.

As the running game faltered early in the season, the Vikings traded for Cam Akers, making him the second running back above Chandler. It very much felt like Minnesota was finding ways to ensure Chandler didn’t see the field. The Akers trade sent us a soft signal that Chandler was probably not ready yet.

Although the team had largely pointed to concerns about pass protection, it very much looked like they didn’t trust Chandler in any phase of the game. But the Vikings have now had several games where they were forced to play the former North Carolina running back. And, in aggregate, the results look good.

We only have small samples, but it should be noted that Chandler ranks fairly high on the list of running backs in terms of EPA added per play and success rate on runs – meaning he’s not just reliant on explosives to get his gaudy rate stats, like Jahmyr Gibbs.

Generally speaking, both of these stats are much more reliant on the play-calling and offensive line in front of the backs.

In EPA per play, all of those teams repeat their feat of having two backs in high-level territory, while Detroit adds Gibbs to a list that already included David Montgomery.

That’s not the case for Minnesota. Chandler ranks 12th in EPA per play, just behind Alvin Kamara and ahead of Isiah Pacheco. Chandler also ranks 10th in success rate, just behind Montgomery and ahead of Aaron Jones. Mattison ranks 53rd in EPA per play and 26th in success rate.

This would suggest that the offensive line is doing its job to create space and that Mattison can’t take advantage of it. Metrics like PFF run-block grade substantiate this; the Vikings rank 10th in run-block grade.

“Running backs don’t matter” until they do. And it looks like Mattison matters – in the worst way. That’s not to take away from what Chandler can do, but this solves the mystery of how the Vikings can produce such good offensive line grades – from Pro Football Focus, Sports Info Solutions, and ESPN Stats & Info – in the run game without producing.

Let’s take a look at two Chandler runs from Sunday to see what separates him from Mattison.

Below is the first offensive play the Vikings ran, which looks like “Duo” to me. There are probably a number of reasons to think this is “Inside Zone” rather than Duo, but it’s not worth teasing it out at the cost of undermining the fundamentals of evaluating Chandler’s play.

The first thing to note is that Minnesota’s offensive line caves in the Bengals’ defensive line. There are acres of space. The play intends to run the ball to the interior gaps on the tight end’s side, with the running back reading the playside linebacker to “make him wrong,” in much the same way the quarterback makes the read player on read-option wrong.

The element of motion and a fake screen pass to Jordan Addison doesn’t meaningfully force the linebackers to move their eyes, but it forces them to pause while Chandler gains forward momentum. It’s a nice wrinkle that helps add some yardage to the play.

Chandler’s jab before bursting upfield is classic for Duo. But what really stands out isn’t necessarily his acceleration or speed – critical factors that make him a potentially superior runner to Mattison. Instead, it’s his footwork.

Chandler takes short steps before hitting the mesh point, then jabs outside before planting off that foot to move inside. That jab moves Germaine Pratt, the playside linebacker. It also helps him avoid Josh Oliver, who’s getting pushed back into the pocket by Trey Hendrickson – perhaps because Oliver is the only one choosing to take on the full block instead of the half-blocks typically associated with the double-teams on Duo.

Either way, Dalton Risner secures the block while Garrett Bradbury and Ed Ingram win their up-front blocks before Ingram moves upfield to take on Logan Wilson. Christian Darrisaw collisions with Pratt. Although he doesn’t ultimately seal off the block, what he’s able to do in concert with Risner gives Chandler the room he needs to produce a success on the play.

He correctly reads Pratt and jettisons into the playside A gap into space, taking advantage of the fact that Ingram won his block.

In this second run, Chandler runs what I’ll call a counter lead split zone. He follows fullback C.J. Ham’s lead block and Oliver’s split flow into the end man, this time into Cam Sample.

Ingram is a bit too aggressive in providing help to Bradbury. Though the play often requires that the guard provide some help before moving upfield, Ingram commits too much to it and is late to his assignment. That throws off his footwork and timing, but he manages to seal Wilson. Awkwardly, Jordan Addison must block out Jordan Battle, a contest he’ll lose here and will lose fairly consistently throughout the game.

Ingram’s block is made to look good by Chandler, who uses the space provided by Bradbury’s block on Josh Tupou to make both Addison and Ingram correct on their blocks. Ultimately, the unblocked third-level defenders make the tackle – a credit to the Vikings running back.

Chandler’s quick reaction to the play almost collapsing stands out. But his instinct to find space while keeping his eyes upfield makes the play. Chandler’s contact balance and fluidity are essential, too.

The coaching point for many zone backs is to “read color” or “flash. After he follows the near Ham’s hip, he needs to bring his eyes to his blocker’s shoulders and run away from the shoulders where the opposite-color helmet is.

Astoundingly, Chandler does this without momentum-stopping jump cuts despite the immediacy of the tackle threat Battle provides. Mattison would often sap momentum from his lateral cuts without moving forward. Instead, Chandler cuts forward at the last moment, giving him more time to escape the defenders coming from the backside of the play.

Those two plays – the first two first-down opportunities he had in the game – provide us with a small menu of Chandler’s skill set. Unlike Kene Nwangwu, Chandler demonstrates “quick eyes,” allowing him to immediately process changes in the blocking in front of him. That was evident on his North Carolina tape and prior running film with the Vikings, as limited as it was.

As for pass protection, which coaches and analysts seem to agree has an outsized impact on how much a running back can help win games, Chandler scored well. In his ten pass-blocking snaps, he didn’t give up a pressure.

His pass protection has been an issue this year, but it hasn’t meaningfully separated him from Mattison. In PFF pass block grade, Mattison ranks 44th of 78 backs. Chandler, meanwhile, ranks 53rd.

There’s much more that goes into running back pass protection than what a PFF grade can capture, like the ability to know one’s assignment. But there also hasn’t been much indication that Chandler has fallen behind in those areas.

It could be the case that the Vikings were right to hesitate to start the second-year back. Perhaps he wouldn’t have played well out of the gate. But from the outside looking in, it certainly seems like Minnesota missed out on an opportunity. Not only should they have started him sooner, he should overtake Mattison’s job when Mattison is healthy.

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Photo Credit: Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer-USA TODAY Sports

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