NFL's reliance on pass spelling end for prolific rushers
By Mark Kaboly
Published: Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 10:04 p.m.
“Maybe every team wants its quarterback to be like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.”
Troy Polamalu may have just been trying to be witty when thinking out loud about why the NFL is trending away from the run game this year so vigorously and at a record pace. However, the Steelers' All-Pro safety may have a valid point.
Well, either that or it's just so much simpler to throw the ball in the NFL.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been playing or coaching defenses since 1959, and that's what he believes.
“I think it is easier to throw it over somebody's head for 40 yards than it is to pound down the field for 3 yards a time,” LeBeau said.
The statistics prove that.
Rushing attempts per game (53) are at an all-time low this year. Receptions (44.6), passing yards (491.8), passing attempts (72.4), completion percentage (61.7 percent) and touchdown passes (3.2) per game are all-time highs.
Only 27 times this year has an running back rushed for 100 yards or more. When projected over an entire season, that pace computes to a 39 percent drop from a year ago. During the same period, there have been 91 100-yard receiving games. When that's projected over a season, it represents an increase of 24 percent from last season.
“There are still a lot of great running teams around, but I don't think they run the ball as much as they used to,” LeBeau said.
Attempts have dwindled by 20 carries per game since the 1950s and have decreased every year since 2003. At that rate, the run game might soon go the way of the dinosaurs.
“Why run the ball for 3 yards on first down when you can throw it for 8 yards?” Steelers veteran safety Will Allen said.
You don't have to look any further than Sunday's game at Heinz Field between the Steelers and Ravens — two blue-collar, smash-mouth running teams — to realize the change in philosophies is league-wide.
The Steelers can't run the ball — they're 30th in the league.
The Ravens can't run the ball — they're 31st.
The Steelers haven't had a 100-yard rusher in 13 games.
The Ravens are averaging 2.6 yards per carry, and their production is down nearly 50 yards per game from last year's Super Bowl championship team.
Both teams would love to run the ball with more success but aren't losing any sleep over it.
“You need to put some efficient runs on the field,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “It might be a 2-yard gain on second-and-2 or a 1-yard gain on third-and-less-than-1. You have to keep handing it off, and it ends up paying off dividends. The hard part is having patience to do that.”
Teams haven't had patience with the run game.
Some of that is because how difficult it has become to run, but it is also because teams are pressured to rely more on their $100 million quarterbacks.
“A lot of the teams think they can beat you with the pass early on,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “They are using the running game as secondary, and I don't think it is a good theory … and it is kind of sad because that position used to set a physical mentality for the game.”
The rules say throw
Allen saw a change in how the game was officiated a couple of years after he was Tampa Bay's fourth-round pick in 2004.
“You could be a little more physical when I first came in the league. Then things started to a change a little,” Allen said.
Rules have changed a lot over the past few years that have made it more conducive to throw the ball, such as:
• Limiting downfield contact beyond 5 yards.
• Increasing the protection for quarterbacks inside the pocket.
• Protecting defenseless receivers.
• Regulating hitting in training camp and in-season practices, making it more difficult to work on the running game.
• Prohibiting a running back from using the crown of his helmet outside the tackle box.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said rule changes that make it easier to throw the ball in today's NFL can't be overlooked.
“I don't know if I want to get into all that right now, but there's probably an argument for that,” Harbaugh said. “It's obvious that, over the course of the years, the league has wanted to open the game more and more, and make it more exciting. That's probably been a big part of it, sure.”
A spike in offenses opting for the passing game over the running game came after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down on what he deemed to be unnecessary hits by defenders during the 2010 season.
By the following year the fines were flying — and so were passes down the field.
In 2010, there were 96 games in which quarterbacks passed for 300 yards and 124 games that featured 100-yard rushing performances. Three years later, the league is on pace for 141 games of 300 yards passing and only 75 games with 100-yard rushers.
“I could throw a theory about Roger Goodell out there, but I think that'd be too easy, so I'll just stay away from it,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “It is definitely a different game.”
“It's a passing game now,” Steelers tackle Ramon Foster said.
Ask most offensive coordinators, and they would tell you how much they would love to run the ball.
Even pass-happy former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who is now the coach in Arizona, wanted to run the ball. But as he always said: “I am not going to bang my head against the wall trying if it's not working.”
One of the theories of why passing has become more viable is because of the trickle-down effect from high school and college.
College programs' emphasis on the pass, the spread and up-tempo game has an impact on which position the best high school athletes play.
Yesterday's athletic linemen are now tight ends, and yesterday's tight ends are now receivers. That filters its way to the NFL.
“What's happening in college is defining the bodies that are coming out in the draft. ... It is harder to find fullback bodies. It is harder to find tight-end bodies that are true tight ends,” Haley said.
There are few blocking tight ends around anymore but plenty of pass-catching ones. Same goes with offensive linemen. Some coming out of college haven't run-blocked out of a pro formation, making it more difficult for them to make the transition in the pros.
Of course, there are exceptions.
“The beautiful thing about LSU, Alabama and those kind of SEC teams is that they have proven that running the ball, controlling the clock and playing great defense work at that level,” Polamalu said. “Where we are now, it is just the evolution of the game.”
But the question remains: Will the NFL ever get back to its roots? Will the league ever get back to the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality?
“For sure,” Polamalu said.
“Somebody (needs) to win a Super Bowl doing that,” he said.
Don't expect that anytime soon.
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.
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