How many times have you heard the mantra repeated over and over again? “To win in the National Football League, you need to run the ball and stop the run.” Week after week analysts resort to this default position when discussing how to win football games. It can be nauseating to hear over and over again, but it’s true.
Over the past decade, the NFL has turned into what we call a “passing league,” or at least that’s how it appears. Teams have won championships with running games near the bottom of the league in terms of yards per carry and overall rushing attempts. The rules have changed to make passing much easier. Scoring is up, offenses have become more innovative, and quarterbacks have been all the rage. No argument there.
However, because of this trend and emphasis on passing over the past few years, many have concluded that running the ball is not as important as it once was. The days of the single-back workhorse seem to have disappeared. Many teams now employ multiple backs while others don’t even carry fullbacks on their rosters.
As offenses have become more spread out and faster, defenses have had to respond by getting faster themselves. It’s almost as common to see Nickel personnel (4 down linemen, two linebackers and 5 defensive backs) as it is to see the basic 4-3-4, or 3-4-4. There continues to be an increase in the use of 3-3-5 personnel (3 linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 defensive backs). The goal has been to get quicker in order to cover more receivers and also to get pressure on the quarterback. Of course, since football is a game of adjustments, offenses are responding by committing back to the run.
Many of the elite offensive attacks around the league are emphasizing the run more than in past seasons. Sean Payton in New Orleans was quoted as saying that he will do whatever it takes to get his running game to work. The Colts just traded for Trent Richardson and have committed to being a power run team. The Eagles’ and Redskins’ offensive attacks only work if the running game is strong. The Packers drafted two running backs in this year’s draft and have emphasized the run despite having the best quarterback in football. Even the Broncos with their litany of options and weapons have won the past few weeks by keeping defenses honest with the run game using two and even three Tight End sets.
Establishing the run serves two masters. First of all, it is a reaction by coaches who see defenses getting smaller and faster (no coincidence that the best defense in football belongs to the Seahawks, who have the lethal combo of size and speed), and see an advantage in committing to the run. Having a successful running game also takes pressure off many of these “franchise” quarterbacks and puts them in manageable situations where they are less vulnerable to good pass rushers and blitz packages. Teams like the Packers, Colts, and Bears have seen enough of their gunslingers taking hit after hit in the pocket.
Of course, stopping the run is the opposite side of this coin. If teams are able to shut down a running game, it allows them to put offenses in predictable situations where blitzes and the pass rush are most effective. Ask the Giants or Steelers how much the absence of a running threat emboldens a defense. Also, look at the 49ers, who have been amongst the elite in terms of running the ball and stopping the run in recent years. No surprise that they’ve been one of the most consistent teams over the past few seasons (the first 3 weeks of 2013 not withstanding). The same is true for the Texans. Up in New England, even with Tom Brady and a quick-hitting passing game, the Patriots have been on top of the league in terms of rushing and stopping the run with their elite front seven.
In the NFL, the passing game has become more sophisticated and more explosive, changing some of the old narratives about how football games are won. But this is simply the end result of rule changes and scheme developments more than an overall philosophy that replaces the old way. There is a reason many teams, even those with elite quarterbacks, are committing to the run and going back to basics. Run the ball, stop the run. The tape doesn’t lie. Teams that commit to these ideas win. Bottom line.