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Running Rampant

With defenses worried about stopping the pass, teams with quality backs are starting to pile up some big numbers on the ground

September 26, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Welcome to the fraternity of NFL teams, where every Sunday seems to kick off another rush week.

Through the first two weeks of the season, there have been 21 100-yard rushing performances, an all-time high. Even more impressive, there have been seven 150-yard games, which is not only another league record but matches the combined total of the first two weeks of the last five seasons.

"Every week you say, 'Whew! Next week's going to be a little easier,' and it's not," said Greg Blache, Washington Redskin defensive coordinator. "There's no rest for the weary."

It's too early to tell if the avalanche of yards rushing is a trend or a statistical anomaly, but it certainly has gotten the attention of defensive coaches. Some say there are more outstanding running backs than ever. Others say the fear of giving up the huge passing play has led to softer defenses against the run. Still others say it's too soon to know.

"It could be like the weather," said Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator. "Take an average temperature over 100 years and it's different than a two-year trend."

In meteorological terms, this season looks to be a scorcher for running backs. The league is averaging 228.3 yards rushing a game, the highest average since 1989; and teams have scored 50 touchdowns rushing, the second-most since 1989 in the first two weeks of the season.

Who says offenses try to strike a balance between the run and the pass? In the first two weeks of the last three seasons, the average yards rushing have inched up, while yards passing have decreased by an average of 25.9 a game.

"I wouldn't have guessed things were that far out of whack," said Ed Donatell, Atlanta's defensive coordinator. "But they are."

To better understand why running backs appear to have taken a step forward, it's helpful to take a few steps back and look at the pendulum swings.

Remember how the St. Louis Rams rolled up incredible passing numbers a few years ago, winning one Super Bowl and nearly winning another? Well, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did a good job of neutralizing the Ram offense by using a Cover 2 defense, a zone scheme -- as opposed to man to man -- that featured two deep safeties helping the cornerbacks. Suddenly, teams all over the league started using Cover 2 schemes. They also began collecting defensive ends who were lighter, quicker and could put maximum pressure on quarterbacks -- sack specialists such as Jevon Kearse, Jason Taylor and Julian Peterson.

Meanwhile, offensive linemen seem to grow by the minute. The average weight of a starting lineman is more than 300 pounds on every NFL team but New England, Denver, Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

And the size disparity isn't only in the trenches. Every season, it seems, the height gap between receivers and cornerbacks is widening.

"I was at the [scouting] combine this year, and every receiver looked about 6-4," said Jim Schwartz, Tennessee's defensive coordinator. "It was like a basketball team. And every corner was about 5-9."

The league's emphasis on enforcing the rule that prohibits defensive backs from bumping receivers after the first five yards, Schwartz said, has prompted coordinators to do more to help cornerbacks. That means devoting even more attention to stopping the pass -- which can pop open running lanes.

"There's always been a constant one-upmanship between offenses and defenses," Schwartz said. "Maybe offensive coordinators are looking at last year's films and saying, 'Maybe we should have run it more. Let's try to pound them a little more.' "

And there are lots of backs who can do significant damage. For those looking for the best back in the league, convincing arguments can be made for San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, Green Bay's Ahman Green, Kansas City's Priest Holmes and Baltimore's Jamal Lewis.

There are other outstanding runners too, such as Seattle's Shaun Alexander, Indianapolis' Edgerrin James, the New York Jets' Curtis Martin, Carolina's Stephen Davis, Washington's Clinton Portis, and newcomers Chris Brown of Tennessee and Domanick Davis of Houston.

"Without question, the quality of running back has improved and increased every year in the NFL for the last 15 seasons," Washington's Blache said. "There was a time that you had one or two guys that you could sit and argue about. Back then, it was, 'Is it Walter Payton or Eric Dickerson?' Now, every team uses a lot more creativity and pours a lot more thought into the running game."

But it's not as if all that thought, creativity and talent bring every defense to its knees. The Titan defense, for instance, had gone 29 consecutive home games without surrendering a 100-yard game to an opposing runner. That streak ended last Sunday when the Colts' James ran for 124 yards in 21 carries, powering past the century mark with 52 yards in the last three minutes.

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