Reliance on the pass not just a trend in NFL
The four teams that received first-round byes in the NFL playoffs have a combined record of 52-12. To say they ran over the competition en route to the postseason would not be entirely accurate.
All of those teams have won big by using the pass as their primary mode of moving the ball. Their success may initiate what could be considered a seismic shift in strategy — if it hasn't already happened.
The Indianapolis Colts are challenging the long-standing football tenet that victory is directly proportional to a team's ability to run the ball. Indianapolis finished the regular season with a 14-2 record despite ranking 31st out of 32 teams in rushing offense.
The Peyton Manning-led Colts were No. 2 in passing offense, and of the eight division winners, only the Cincinnati Bengals did not rank in the top 10 in that category.
The Bengals are ranked last among the 12 playoff teams by Las Vegas oddsmakers, according to gaming expert R.J. Bell of pregame.com.
"I've said a thousand times, the league evolves offensively and defensively," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a franchise-record 4,328 yards this season. "And you have to keep up with Indianapolis, the (New Orleans) Saints, teams like that. Because if you don't, you are going to be left behind."
The passing sensibility that has gripped the NFL is evident even with a team such as the 12-4 Minnesota Vikings.
While Adrian Peterson rushed for almost 1,400 yards this season, quarterback Brett Favre became the centerpiece of the Vikings' offense. Minnesota ranked eighth in the NFL in passing offense.
"I think what people are starting to see is that 'three or four yards and a cloud of dust' is not good enough anymore, and that we need chunk plays," said Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, whose team finished 7-9 despite ranking fourth in rushing offense.
The Steelers, who have long been associated with a smash-mouth ethos, appeared to embrace that concept this season as they finished seventh in passing offense.
More and more, defenses are daring teams to throw, which often results in bigger passing numbers.
"If you get eight in the box, that means there's three covering, and you have three receivers," Philadelphia Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver said. "So if you have those odds, that's exactly what you'll take."
The odds are further stacked against defensive backs because of rules that are geared toward more scoring and higher TV ratings.
Defensive players are not allowed to initiate contact with a receiver beyond 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. A pass interference penalty, meanwhile, is a spot foul; in college it is a 15-yard infraction.
"If you're smart, you've got to take advantage of that," Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said of the rules that help passing offenses. "You can't really touch the receiver after five yards, and if you breathe on them, you get a flag. You'd be crazy not to take advantage of that."
More and more teams are doing just that, said Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior, a 13-year veteran.
"When I first came into the league, there was a lot more running involved," he said. "I think with the type of athletes we have on offense, you're more apt to go to for big plays. The main guy on the field is the quarterback, and they want to throw the ball 100,000 times a game."
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers set career highs this season in passing attempts (486) and yards (4,254), and he is a major reason why the Chargers take an 11-game winning streak into the postseason.
Rivers has taken over an offense that not too long ago ran through running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the league's MVP in 2006.
But Rivers said the running game is still vital to the Chargers' offense, which works best off play-action passes.
That teams are not about to abandon the run can be seen in what happened with the Steelers last week. Coach Mike Tomlin considered going in another direction with the offense even though the Steelers had their first 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and 1,000-yard rusher in franchise history.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is returning for at least one more season, but the Steelers could put more of an emphasis on running the ball in 2010.
"Teams still run the ball," Trotter said. "They have to establish the run. But a lot of times you see teams in passing sets and run the ball that way. It's the nature of the beast."
Top passing teams are also among the best teams in the NFL this season. Here is a look at such teams compared with teams that were the most successful running the ball:
Combined record of top 10 passing teams: 113-47
Combined record of top 10 running teams: 87-73
Playoff teams among top 10 passing teams: 8
Playoff teams among the top 10 running teams: 5
Teams with a winning record among top 10 passing teams: 10
Teams with a winning record among top 10 running teams: 5
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