You Got Served: The running game is coming back

Anytime a person makes a football statement about “how the game is played today,” or “that won’t work in the modern NFL,” it's safe to assume that person probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

They’re probably being myopic, and they’re definitely being naïve, because nothing stays the same for very long, nothing is ever really passé, and at the same time, there’s really nothing new under the sun.

In a schematic sense, the NFL is, and always has been, extremely dynamic, in a very particular way; it’s entirely reactive and cyclical.

That may seem disappointing, but there's some logic to being reactive; if you don’t react to the changing schematic landscape, you are probably the Oakland Raiders of 2003 to 2012.

Today, I am going to make a prediction, based upon more than 25 years of watching the NFL, and it’s going to seem a little bit counterintuitive to people who read this site frequently.

We tend to be passing game evangelists here, especially Doug, who correctly notes that statistics indicate that passing well is strongly correlated with winning. Myself, I’ve always just loved the aesthetics and design of a good passing game.

However, I believe that the next major schematic trend in the NFL is the return of the running game as a major offensive focal point.

I’m not really a football historian, and I only write about football I saw with my own eyes, so my scope is kind of limited, but I want to take you through my perception of schematic history in the NFL over the last 30 years or so.

Time Innovation (AKA The Last Reaction) Reaction Result
Late 80s 3-4 defense (& Lawrence Taylor) West Coast Offense, H-backs SF & WAS win Super Bowls
Early 90s West Coast Offense, Run & Shoot Cover 2 schemes DAL wins Super Bowls
Mid-Late 90s Cover 2 schemes Power zone run schemes DEN wins Super Bowls
Early 00s Power zone run schemes 2-gap 3-4 schemes BAL, NE, PIT win Super Bowls
Late 00s 2-gap 3-4 schemes Flex TEs NE, SD, NO have big success
Early 10s Flex TEs Cover 3 w/man principles SEA wins Super Bowl

You’ll see what I mean about it being reactive; with every innovation, there’s a reaction, and to that reaction (which seems like an innovation, but isn’t), there’s another reaction.

It never ends.

Pete Carroll is an excellent defensive mind, but when it comes down to it, he’s an old school football guy. Cover 3 is a zone call that anybody who ever played high school football has played. The concept is extremely simple – the cornerbacks and the free safety are each responsible for a deep third of the field, and the strong safety is free to play in the box, support the run game, and take a shallow zone.

Seattle’s innovation is the way that their corners play. They start off keying the outside receivers on their side, and they play the vertical stem man-to-man, to the point of the 12-yard depth where most receivers in most schemes declare their route. If the route goes horizontal, or comes back to the QB at 12 yards, the corner squats on it.

If it goes deeper, the corner drops into his deep third. If two receivers flood the corner’s deep third, he tries to split the difference and play both receivers, and the FS reads it and shades that side.

Meanwhile, underneath, the linebackers and the strong safety are squaring up to destroy any receiver that catches the ball in their area. Up front, particularly against an offense built around the pass (like the Broncos), the Seahawks play a bunch of pass rushers.

For some reason, teams keep throwing the ball against this scheme, which is perfectly constructed to take away the pass. My belief is that in an era of cap-driven scarcity, a team can’t be all things, so in the short term, they stick with their comfort zone. That is, a team like the Broncos or Saints - that wants to be a prolific passing team - needs to put its resources into the players who can do those things. When they play Seattle, they dance with the girl that brung them.

Do you remember the early 2000s Ravens and Steelers? You couldn’t run the ball effectively on those defenses. I don’t care who you were, what players you had, or what scheme you were running. Those guys lined up and just kicked your guys’ asses, and all 22 guys on the field knew what was going to happen.

That was difficult at a time when the whole league (except for Mike Martz) had the mentality that you had to run the ball to set up the pass. Consequently, the whole league started to evolve in its thinking, little by little.

That’s what is going on with the Seahawks in the present day. They’re constructed to be as good against the pass as those Ravens and Steelers teams were against the run. That’s equally difficult for a league that has evolved to value the passing game much more highly than the run.

If a defense can take away your strength, what do you have left? Believe me, other teams are working hard to copy what the Seahawks do on defense, right now.

Well, no defense can be all things, just like no offense can be all things. The Seahawks defense can be beaten, but what it’s going to take is an offense that dedicates itself to being as proficient at running the ball as the Seahawks are at taking away the pass.

Seattle has some excellent athletes on its defense, but a team that can get its running game blocked consistently can line up and smash them. In the past, they used Red Bryant to 2-gap as a closed-side DE, similar to how the Broncos use Derek Wolfe. But Bryant is gone, and the reality is that he didn’t get used much by the end of last season.

Instead, the Seahawks started to feature Michael Bennett more in that role. A great deal of the time, they play with four pass rushers up front, and they rely upon SS Kam Chancellor to help a lot in the run defense.

The teams that had success against Seattle in 2013 all ran the ball well. Check this out:

Week Opponent Rush Yds Allowed Score from SEA perspective
1 Carolina 134 12-7 Win
2 San Francisco 100 29-3 Win
4 Houston 151 23-20 Win in OT
5 Indianapolis 109 34-28 Loss
8 St. Louis 200 14-9 Win
9 Tampa Bay 205 27-24 Win
11 Minnesota 132 41-20 Win
14 San Francisco 163 19-17 Loss
16 Arizona 139 17-10 Loss
Div New Orleans 108 23-15 Win
NFC San Francisco 161 17-14 Win

Seattle allowed 100 or more yards rushing in 11 of 19 games, and the opponent was competitive in all but two of those games. In Week 2, the 49ers committed five turnovers, and in Week 11, the Vikings committed four of them. I would submit to you that there is a lot of causality between the turnovers and the lopsided scores.

When a team gears its entire defensive philosophy toward taking away the pass, you need to run the damn football, full stop. This is football theory at its absolute most basic, and it’s indisputable. By running the ball well, the offense will eventually force the defense to play to stop the run, and that will loosen up the pass defense. At that point, you can get back to the fancy-pants correlation stuff.

I’m an offense man, and I always have been, and I always hate to see the swings in the league-wide schematic trends where the defense gains the upper hand. What’s going on right now is simply the same thing that happened in the early 90s. The 49ers were tearing everybody up with the short passing game, and other teams were going in that direction too.

The Cowboys hired Jimmy Johnson, adopted his University of Miami staffing model of emphasizing speed at every position, and started playing disciplined Cover 2. Within a couple of years, half the league was copying them. You know the Tampa 2? It got its name by Tampa Bay ending up being the best practitioner of the strategy that Johnson brought from Miami. Believe me, it was revolutionary at the time, and it was widely denounced until it worked.

The reaction to all this Cover 2 was teams like the Broncos, Steelers, Patriots, Jets, Raiders, and 49ers (!) getting really serious about running the ball. They chose sound running schemes, acquired the ideal linemen and runners for those schemes, taught their receivers to block, and they ran the damn rock. They used play action to great effect to help their passing games, and usually found their big plays in those situations.

That is going to happen again over the next couple of seasons, and the question is which teams will be smart and proficient enough to lead the way on it. I wouldn’t bet against the Broncos being in the vanguard, because at their core, both Peyton Manning and John Fox are old school football men, and neither one is allergic to lining up, knocking some skinny pass rusher on his ass, and running the ball with physicality.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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Ted's AnalysisYou Got Served