Is the NFL’s Pendulum Swinging Back to the Running Game?

Steve Balestrieri
February 12, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The NFL is a passing league and it is driven by the quarterbacks. With the plethora of talented passers and athletic receivers in the league, it has led to an explosion of passing yards, touchdowns and offenses that love to spread out defenses and find mismatches.

That has led to smaller, faster and more athletic defenses that have to try to keep up with these offenses. Denver’s defense is a prime example, a very athletic, blistering fast unit that uses speed to overwhelm their opponents.

But the NFL is always evolving and the league is trending back to being more run based but at a bare minimum, it is going to be much more balanced in terms of offense. A quick look at the final eight teams that rounded out the NFL’s season from the Divisional Round thru the Super Bowl shows that for the most part,  teams that ran the ball well were the ones standing in the end.

All four of the teams from the NFC were in the top 12 of rushing. Carolina was the #2 rushing team in the NFL averaging 142.6 yards per game. Seattle was the #3 rushing team, even without Marshawn Lynch down the stretch averaging 141.8. Arizona came in 8th with 119.8 yards per game and Green Bay rounded out the NFC at #12 with 115.6 yards per game.

Over in the AFC, Kansas City was the #6 rushing team in the NFL averaging 127.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh came in 16th with 107.8 yards per game. But they lost LeVeon Bell after only six games in 2015 with him serving the first two games of the season on a suspension and then him going down with a season ending injury, tearing an MCL in Week 8.

Denver was right behind Pittsburgh in 17th place in the league averaging 107.4 yards per game. But that number needs to be looked at closer. After Peyton Manning was sat down, and Brock Osweiler took over, Gary Kubiak finally installed the running game as he envisioned it with the QB under center. The results were startling. In the last seven games of the season, Denver averaged 134.9 yards per game, which would have put them right around 5th/6th place over the course of a season.

Only the New England Patriots were the anomaly in the final eight, rushing for a paltry 87.8 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Their success had more to do with the ability of Tom Brady than anything else and why they made it the conference championship.

It also isn’t surprising that the league’s top five scoring teams (Car, AZ, NE, Sea, Pitts) are also on this list, again only the Patriots are the wildcard with the vast onus being on the passing game. Kansas City finished with the 9th top scoring team in the league.

Does this mean that the NFL is going back to the 4 yards and a cloud of dust days? Hardly, as long as QBs like Brady, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger et al. are under center teams are going to throw the ball and do so very well.

But to combat the fast nickel and dime defenses that teams are playing more and more with five and six defensive backs on the field, teams are going back to more of balanced run based approach. It keeps the downs and distances manageable and when facing third and short, teams that run effectively have the option of mixing things up and keeping the chains moving.

The NFL is a copycat league, with the success of both Denver and Carolina having very good running attacks and fast, athletic defenses, look for the other teams in the league trying to duplicate their success. The age of the mobile, big-armed QBs are here and now the defenses will have to adjust accordingly again.

Bill Belichick likes to stay a step ahead of the trends in the game, when the Patriots play their nickel and dime defenses, they frequently do so with extra safeties instead of cornerbacks. Part of the reason is in the AFC East, they play the Bills and Jets, two teams that run the ball extremely well.

Safeties who take the place of linebackers in the big nickel defense have to be able to stuff the run and still be able to cover tight ends and running backs and the occasional slot receiver. Big safeties who can stuff the run and cover will become increasingly sought after as teams play more in their sub-packages than in their base defenses.

What does this mean for New England? Well one last look at the coach’s film from the AFC Championship Game shows that at a bare minimum, they’re going to need a complimentary running game if they want to get back to the big game.

They can’t rely on Tom Brady chucking the ball 80 percent of the time. Being one-dimensional against a very good defense like Denver’s hurt them twice in 2015. Brady took a beating in both games. With him turning 39 this season, they can’t afford to have him going down because the defense is just pinning their ears back.

So while the Patriots haven’t valued the running back position in recent years, perhaps this is a good time, to reverse that trend a bit and spend the money and/or draft picks to get themselves a higher tier running back. They’ve proven they can throw it with the best of teams, but with a viable running game, not only will it make the passing game even more effective, it will limit the abuse your 39-year old QB has to take.

There are some intriguing names out there both in free agency and the draft, several that can be had in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds. The league is trending towards having better rushing attacks again. The Pats are already well equipped to stop those. Now they need to get to work on getting one of their own.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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