Teams know importance of ground attack
Teams know the importance of winning on the ground. But that might not be reflected in the stats as aggressive defenses gear up to stop the run.
Some interesting adjustments are being made in what was supposed to be the "Year of the Running Back," and not all of them are good for the running backs.
The entry into the league of Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams, all first-round draft picks, made it easy to believe rushing stats would be going up. In fact, the opposite is true -- team rushing totals are down slightly, from 114.7 yards per game last year to 110.55 this season. And there have been only 42 100-yard rushing games by individual backs, compared to 57 at this point last season.
The numbers are somewhat surprising, because the trend shows more teams copying the Carolina Panthers' model of winning on the ground. Of the 14 teams with winning records after Week 6, 11 are running the ball between 47 and 56 percent of their snaps. The only contrary winning teams are the Eagles (28.2 percent), Giants (43.4) and Redskins (43.8) in the usually ground-oriented NFC East.
Further, pass receptions by running backs are falling off the charts. According to Stats Inc., a normal game in 2002 produced 11.2 catches per game by running backs, an average of 5.6 per team. But running back receptions have been falling from 10.4 in 2003 to 9.6 in 2004 to 9.05 a game this season.
In the supposed Year of the Running Back, with teams modeling the run-first Panthers, how can the backfield be in retreat?
The answer is that aggressive defenses are dictating what offenses can do, and offenses appear to be willing to trade glossy statistics for wins.
Exotic blitzes are skewing some of the offensive numbers, and no one is seeing that more than the league's best running back, LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson is this week's NFL headliner and rightfully so. He tied Lenny Moore's consecutive game touchdown streak of 18 and hopes to break it this weekend against the New York Giants.
Tomlinson has 652 yard rushing, third best in the league, and has scored 10 touchdowns. Yet at times, Marty Schottenheimer has had difficulty getting him the ball because of what defenses are doing. Though he has averaged 22 carries a game, Tomlinson's receiving numbers are down. The one-time 100-catch back has 18 in six games.
Chargers opponents studied Tomlinson during the offseason and came to the conclusion that the best way to stop him is to blitz and try to make him more of a blocker than a runner. Instead of just bringing up the safety as an eighth run defender, defenses are trying to aggressively dictate the action by overloading one side and forcing Tomlinson and the offense to be protective.
More than anything else, that prevents Tomlinson from floating out into pass routes. The only way to make him a receiving target against those types of defenses is to make him the hot read.
"They are bringing more than we can block sometimes," Tomlinson said. "Sometimes you make adjustments to that and you're able to throw the ball quick and really beat some of the blitzes. I think that's the biggest thing that we were doing."
Defenses are smart. They know Drew Brees' best weapons are Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Offenses in which a running back and a tight end are two of the main options are ripe for blitzing. That's what happened in Kansas City when left tackle Willie Roaf was out with a hamstring injury.
Trent Green usually whips teams with a steady diet of Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez. But with Roaf out, Gonzalez had to stay near the line of scrimmage to block. If defenses overload one side, he doesn't have the choice to go into his pass routes.
That is a case of the defense dictating terms to the offense, which must either keep a fullback or a blocking tight end in the backfield to free the pass-catching tight end or the back to get into the routes.
"We just try to give different teams different looks and really, like I said, try it throw the ball quick," Tomlinson said. "If they are going to blitz, we have them have to adjust to what we're doing, instead of us adjust to what they are doing."
Titans general manager Floyd Reese credits the Eagles with being the fore-runners in these strategies. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is one of the most innovative blitzers in football. He'll bring corners, safeties, middle linebackers, anybody.
"It's almost like a Cover 2 the Tampa Bay Bucs use, but it's like a two-deep zone missing a guy," Reese said. "In the two-deep, you have five pass defenders underneath in the zone. The Eagles take one guy out of the underneath coverage and rush him, and you have no idea who he is going to be. The only way you can adjust to it on offense is slide the protection to one side."
Unless the Chargers want to make Tomlinson the hot-read against overload blitz defenses, Tomlinson's pass-catching numbers might continue to decline.
The Indianapolis Colts are unbeaten because they are good enough to overcome defensive aggressiveness. Defenses are dictating that Peyton Manning refrain from throwing the ball all over the yard. If teams are going to drop seven defenders into coverage, Manning is delighted to hand off to Edgerrin James, who is averaging 110 yards a game rushing. After throwing an NFL record 49 touchdown passes, Manning is content to be undefeated with an offense than runs the ball 51.2 percent of the time, picking and choosing when to pass.
Mike Shanahan is choosing to run the ball more in his 5-1 start for the Broncos. He has come to the conclusion with Jake Plummer that too much Snake can bite him. Plummer is 13-1 since 2003 in games where he has 26 or fewer passes. He plays smarter when he throws less. He's currently on a four-game streak of interception-less games, and Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell are doing wonders mixing inside runs with big plays. With Plummer, less is more, and the Broncos have risen to the top of the competitive AFC West.
Shanahan is doing the same thing Bill Cowher did with Ben Roethlisberger. The axiom in the old-school football days was that three things can happen when a team passes, and two of them are bad -- an incompletion or an interception. Teams this year are finding it easier to manage the game on the ground.
But defensive coaches catch up quickly. This goes beyond just bringing the strong safety up to the line of the scrimmage and putting eight players in the box to clog the run. And as these trends continue, it's causing an interesting offensive debate. Should offenses dictate the action, or is it better to let defenses dictate things? You sense more and more teams this year are content letting defenses dictate the action as long as the offense has the talent to take what defenses give them.
It truly is the Year of the Running Back, but it might not be the Year of the Running Back's stats. Teams know the importance of winning on the ground. Eleven of the 14 winning teams are ground-oriented. It just might not show in the stats.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.