Look who's back in the running

BY foxsports • October 3, 2011

Return of the running game

With the record-breaking total of 300-plus yard outings and eight quarterbacks bettering a 100 quarterback rating, there is no denying that the passing game is dominating the NFL. But this week we saw some dominating performances out of the backfield that prove a solid rushing attack can stabilize an offense.

Take the early games from Sunday as an example. Six of the nine winning teams boasted a 100-yard rusher. A seventh, the Saints, had a trio of running backs accumulate 177 yards on the ground for an average of 5.2 yards per carry. That means that almost 80 percent of the winning teams had a reliable rushing attack. Who were the two winning teams that didn’t? The Chiefs and the Lions, and the Lions were playing from a 24-point deficit early in the third quarter against the Cowboys.

When you look at the flip side of that game, the Cowboys threw three second-half interceptions while milking that 24-point lead. Yes, most of that blame can be put on Tony Romo, but I begin to question the play calling. Two of the three interceptions were thrown on first down! As an offensive coordinator, why are you asking Romo (who by the way, has a reputation of making questionable decisions), to air it out on first down!? Remember, the Cowboys’ best receiver, Miles Austin, was inactive for the game. Two of the three interceptions were returned for touchdowns, and even then, the Lions didn’t actually take the lead until 1:39 remaining. So outside of the interceptions, if the Cowboys just pound it out in the second half, they easily run out the clock before the Lions are able to put together three scoring drives … and that’s assuming they get all three 2-point conversions!

In the game I called with Thom Brennaman, we saw the best rushing performance of the day come from the least likely of places. Coming into their Week 4 matchup with the Panthers, Matt Forte and the Chicago Bears were averaging just 53.7 rushing yards per game. Well, Forte went off for 205 yards rushing and the Bears snapped their two-game losing streak. In this game, the Bears’ first possession was a nine-play scoring drive, which included zero passes. Actually, the Bears didn’t even attempt their first pass until 2:00 into the second quarter, and coincidently enough, their third attempt turned into a sack. Cutler finished the day with just nine completions on 16 attempts, and while that isn’t a sexy stat-line that will lead to multiple Pro Bowl selections, it is the winning formula for the Bears. The beauty of it, Jay Cutler agrees, and now hopefully, so will Mike Martz.

Coaching critique

In addition to my criticism of the Cowboys’ play calling, there were a couple of coaching decisions from around the league that are worth discussing. Oddly enough, the first also comes from the Cowboys!

On their second possession of the game, the Cowboys had a 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line and decided to go for it. While an early 10-point lead would have been nice, I can’t say I completely disagree with the call that could have potentially put them up by 14 early in the first quarter. They believed they had the Lions on the ropes, and wanted to go for an early knockout punch. As it turned out, the Cowboys were stuffed, but giving the ball to an offense backed up to their own goal line really isn’t such a bad thing. So in this case, I can understand how the positives outweighed the negatives in the mind of Jason Garrett.

The second two strategies involve the use, or in one case, the lack of using a timeout. In Baltimore, the booth replayed a Mark Sanchez fumble that was returned for a touchdown. The call was upheld and the officials put the ball back in play, but before the Ravens could snap it for the extra point, Rex Ryan called a timeout. There was literally no other reason for his timeout other than to yell at the officials. While I appreciate his passion, I am not sure that was an efficient use of one of his three timeouts.

In Arizona, with less than a minute on the clock and down four, the Cardinals were facing a 4th-and-2 from the Giants’ 30-yard line. Rather than call a timeout to setup for a critical play call, they actually ran no-huddle hurry up and failed to complete a slant route to Larry Fitzgerald. I can see both sides here. Rather than call a timeout, they preferred to force New York to keep the same defensive personnel on the field and perhaps catch them off guard by snapping the ball quickly. On the flip side, they could have consulted their game plan and picked a play from their third-and-short or fourth-down conversion chart. Based on the tape they studied all week, those are the plays that the coaching staff decided gave them the best chance to convert in short-yardage situations. But in the heat of the moment, coach Ken Whisenhunt thought they were better off in the no-huddle package. I can’t fault him for that …

Quick hits

* Dez Bryant plays much bigger than his 6-2 height. He goes up and attacks the ball at its highest point and rarely allows a defender to bat it out of his strong hands.

* Chicago’s Devin Hester should return kickoffs no matter how deep they are in endzone. He is the spark for this team, and his electrifying returns keep the crowd in the game at Soldier Field.

* Matthew Hasselbeck is very much at home in Tennessee. Even with the loss of Kenny Britt, he passed for 220 yards and three touchdowns against the Browns. This may have been the best offseason acquisition that no one talked about.

* San Francisco entered Sunday as the 30th ranked rushing offense, but when the game was on the line, they ran the ball right through the teeth of the Eagles’ defense. The Eagles surrendered 164 yards on the ground.

* Speaking of the Eagles’ defensive struggles, they have now given up 10 touchdown passes. That ties for the most in the NFL.

* The Cowboys brought in Laurent Robinson to fill in for the injured Miles Austin, but he has completely outperformed Kevin Ogletree.

* I really liked how Carolina utilized Cam Newton’s athleticism in the red zone on Sunday. Coming into the game, the Panthers were just 4-for-11 in the red-zone conversions, and on Sunday they were 3-for-5.

* Andy Dalton’s second-half performance against the Bills should give Bengals fans hope for the future. He and A.J. Green will only get more comfortable with one another, and Jermaine Gresham is pretty talented too.

* Jimmy Graham had a shaky start to the season, but his last six quarters have been completely dominant. He is finally using his basketball body to shield defenders and make huge plays for Drew Brees.

* I know it's not all Donovan McNabb’s fault, but at 0-4, it’s time the Vikings take a look at Christian Ponder. The question becomes, do you have to cut McNabb to do so? In the past, he has proven he isn’t the best mentor in the second-string quarterback role.

* I know the Chargers like to get Mike Tolbert his touches, but their offense is so much more explosive with Ryan Matthews in the backfield.

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