Hot playoff trend? Check the running revival

BY Alex Marvez • January 13, 2010

A prolific passing game will get you into the postseason, but it might not be the key to reaching Super Bowl XLIV.

Three of last weekend’s four playoff winners (Dallas, Baltimore and Arizona) posted a lopsided edge in rushing yardage. The fourth squad – the New York Jets – finished tied with Cincinnati at an impressive 171 yards. All four winners also enjoyed an edge in time of possession.

“As you have seen evident in the playoffs,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, “running the football is not a bad thing.”

This may not be a good thing for the top seeds that enjoyed a first-round bye.

While outstanding through the air, Indianapolis and San Diego fielded two of the league’s four worst rushing attacks during the regular season. Both teams also struggled to stop the run. The Chargers and Colts ranked 23rd and 21st respectively.

Even with all-star running back Adrian Peterson, Minnesota finished down in rushing production from recent seasons. And New Orleans ended the season sputtering in both run offense and defense.

Philadelphia, Green Bay and New England (albeit sans injured wide receiver Wes Welker) entered last weekend’s games with three of the NFL’s top passing offenses. Yet the Cowboys, Cardinals and Ravens were better able to dictate their respective game’s tempo.

Yes, the running game was even a factor in the wild Cardinals-Packers shootout. Although overshadowed by the ridiculous passing numbers posted by quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers, Cardinals rookie running back Chris “Beanie” Wells gained 91 yards on 14 carries to spearhead Arizona’s 156-yard rushing effort. The Packers, who were forced to play from behind throughout the game, finished with just 90 yards.

“We had a number of different runs – weak-side, strong-side, monitoring the tight end – and it kept them off-balance,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said after his team’s 51-45 overtime win.

There is no doubt that the football will be flying once again in this weekend’s games. Indianapolis, New Orleans and San Diego all finished the regular season with top-five passing offenses while the Brett Favre-led Vikings were No. 12. Weather conditions also won’t be a tempering factor. Three games are inside domes; the fourth will be played in San Diego.

But the sun may ultimately shine on the more physical teams if last weekend’s games are a harbinger. Here is how the rushing offenses and defenses rank for the eight remaining playoff teams:

Ranking the running games: Offense

1. New York Jets

Mark Sanchez couldn’t have asked for better ground support. The NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack has allowed Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to keep his rookie quarterback from having to carry too much of the load.

With his fifth consecutive season of 1,100-plus rushing yards and no Pro Bowl berth, Thomas Jones is the NFL’s most underappreciated running back. Shonn Greene isn’t nearly as good a receiver out of the backfield as Leon Washington. But the rookie has done a quality job replacing Washington (leg/injured reserve) as Jones’ backup. The 5-foot-11, 226-pound Greene punished the Bengals for 135 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries in last Saturday’s 24-14 win.

Jones and Greene have the luxury of rushing behind what is arguably the NFL’s top offensive line. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, left guard Alan Faneca and center Nick Mangold are all headed to the Pro Bowl. Faneca – a future Hall of Fame selection – is a devastating blocker when he pulls.

New York’s rushing threat has created aerial opportunities for Sanchez, who was an efficient 12-of-15 passing for 182 yards and one touchdown against the Bengals.

“You have to play it honest,” said Chargers coach Norv Turner, whose team hosts the Jets on Sunday. “You have to play the run but know that at the right moments they’re going to come up with those play-action passes that can hurt you.”

2. Baltimore Ravens

It took much of the season, but Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron finally remembered that his unit is best when running the football. Baltimore has averaged a whopping 216.2 rushing yards the past five games, including 234 in last Sunday’s 33-14 dismantling of New England.

Ray Rice – who opened that contest with an 83-yard touchdown jaunt – blossomed in his second NFL season with 1,339 rushing yards. Ex-starter Willis McGahee has come on strong in the past two games and scored 14 TDs this season. Blocking for both is Le’Ron McClain. Not only is he the NFL’s best fullback, McClain also is dangerous with the football in his hands.

3. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have a three-headed monster in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Barber logged only three carries last Saturday against Philadelphia before heading to the sideline with a sore knee. But Jones and Choice picked up the slack. Jones – the best big-play threat in the Dallas backfield – iced a 34-14 rout with a 73-yard touchdown run. Choice added a TD and 42 yards on 14 carries before leaving with a head injury. Choice and Barber are expected to play Sunday, which could cause headaches for Minnesota.

4. Minnesota Vikings

Running back Adrian Peterson experienced a feast-or-famine season. He finished with 1,383 rushing yards and a career-high 18 touchdowns, but was stonewalled with increasing frequency as the season unfolded. He averaged 66.7 rushing yards in the final seven games with Minnesota evolving into more of a pass-first offense. Peterson has improved as a receiver out of the backfield, averaging a gaudy 10.1 yards on his 43 catches, but is still suspect in blitz pickup. That’s a role usually filled on passing downs by capable backup Chester Taylor.

5. Arizona Cardinals

Arizona had the NFL’s 26th-ranked run offense during the regular season. But just like last year’s Cardinals squad that reached Super Bowl XLIII, Arizona got better rushing the football as the season unfolded. The Cardinals have averaged 119.6 yards in their past 10 games, which is almost double the 64.9-yard mark from the first seven contests. The improvement coincides with more production from Wells, who received limited action early while learning Arizona’s offense. At 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, fellow rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling is serving as a nice change-of-pace option. Tim Hightower continues to start because he is better in the passing game as a blocker and receiver.

6. New Orleans Saints

While Drew Brees’ numbers were down from last year’s 5,069-yard passing campaign, New Orleans fielded a better all-around offense for the first three-quarters of this season because of an improved running game. That balance gradually disappeared as Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush struggled with injuries. The midseason loss of fullback Heath Evans (knee/injured reserve) compounded the problem.

The Saints averaged 150.5 rushing yards in their first 11 games but only 90 in their final five. The Saints are hoping Thomas can add some life Saturday against Arizona despite having suffered three broken ribs Dec. 27 against Tampa Bay. A return to form by Thomas would allow New Orleans to use the struggling Bell only in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

7. San Diego Chargers

The Chargers have a future Hall of Fame running back (Tomlinson) and a backup (Darren Sproles) being paid $6.6 million this season under the NFL’s franchise tag. San Diego, though, finished with its lowest rushing output (1,423 yards) since a 1-15 season in 2000. The three main reasons for the drop:

    8. Indianapolis Colts

    No team had a greater offensive disparity than the Colts. Indianapolis led the league in passing and finished last in rushing. Running back Joe Addai did rebound from a disappointing 2008 campaign with 828 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Addai, though, was usually an offensive afterthought. He never exceeded 22 rushes in a game and broke the 20-carry mark just three times. An injury-plagued rookie season for backup Donald Brown and a finesse offensive line also contributed to Indianapolis’ meager 80.9-yard average.

    The lack of productivity makes the Colts’ run at a 16-0 regular-season record and quarterback Peyton Manning’s MVP season even more impressive.

    Ranking the running games: Defense

    1. Baltimore Ravens

    The Ravens had gone 40 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher until Cincy's Cedric Benson broke the streak in October. Baltimore, though, is starting to dominate once again. The Ravens have gone 10 quarters without allowing a rushing touchdown and surrendered a total of 163 yards in the past three contests.

    2. Minnesota Vikings

    No team allowed fewer rushing touchdowns in 2009 (four) than the Vikings, and the Vikings had the NFL's top-ranked run defense in each season from 2006-08. Credit for that goes largely to the Williams Wall of defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams.

    But the Vikings slipped in December, surrendering an average of 115.3 yards while losing three of four contests. The slump coincided with the loss of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson to a gruesome season-ending leg injury.

    3. New York Jets

    As evidenced by Benson’s 169-yard effort, New York proved against the Bengals last week that it isn’t infallible. But the Jets have fared far better than expected since losing standout nose tackle Kris Jenkins (knee/injured reserve) in Week 7. In fact, New York has actually allowed fewer rushing yards (98.6-yard average) since Sione Pouha replaced Jenkins in the starting lineup.

    4. Dallas Cowboys

    The Cowboys’ late-season surge coincides with better run defense. In its past five games, Dallas hasn’t allowed an opponent to top the century mark. The key is the stout front-seven play of inside linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James plus defensive linemen Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky.

    5. San Diego Chargers

    It took the Chargers some time to adjust after nose tackle Jamal Williams – the lynchpin in San Diego’s 3-4 system – suffered a season-ending torn triceps in Week 1. San Diego’s offense also has taken some of the heat off the defense by scoring at least 27 points in six of the past eight games. The Chargers, though, are still vulnerable. San Diego has surrendered 108-plus rushing yards in six of its past seven games.

    6. Arizona Cardinals

    The transition to a pure 3-4 scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Bill Davis was bumpy. Opponents averaged 4.5 yards rushing against Arizona during the regular season with six different backs gaining more than 100 yards. Although he plays like Superman, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett can’t do everything. Defensive end Calais Campbell is playing with a cast on his broken thumb, which affects his tackling ability.

    7. Indianapolis Colts

    Despite eeking out a 35-31 victory over Jacksonville in Week 15, the smallish Colts definitely don’t want a repeat of their defensive performance. The Jaguars controlled the clock for almost 36 minutes with Maurice Jones-Drew rushing 27 times for 110 yards. The best game plan to defeat Indy involves keeping Manning off the field. The Ravens have a good enough ground game to do just that.

    8. New Orleans Saints

    Injuries have severely damaged this unit heading into the postseason. Starting defensive end Charles Grant (triceps) recently joined nose tackle Kendrick Clancy and outside linebacker Mark Simoneau on injured reserve. New Orleans has allowed 119-plus rushing yards in 10 of their past 13 games.

    Just like with the Colts, stranding Brees and Co. on the sideline is the best chance for success against the Saints. That could mean a more run-heavy game plan by Arizona even though Whisenhunt will be tempted to attack a secondary that is also ailing.