Commentary

Giving up ground is a bad idea

Mailbag: Teams that let run game slide too much usually struggle

Originally Published: October 1, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Giants-Steelers-RamsGetty ImagesThe Giants, Steelers and Rams have struggled to run the ball -- and win games.

The increasing reality that the NFL has become more of a passing league has decreased the value of running backs in general, but the first four weeks proved that teams can't lose too much of their ground game.

The New York Giants are 0-4 after watching their running attack drop from 116.4 yards a game in 2012 to 57.8 this season. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-4 after going from 96.1 to 58. They went from 12 wins in 2011 to eight last year after losing 22.8 rushing yards a game. The St. Louis Rams are 1-3 after letting Steven Jackson go to Atlanta and watching their running offense go from 107.1 to 47.3 yards a game, worst in the NFL.

Jackson was needed on the Falcons because their running offense fell from 114.6 in 2011 to 87.3 with Michael Turner as their lead back. The Falcons weren't able to close out games with the run. But Jackson has been hurt the past two weeks, and Atlanta is down to 82.0 rushing yards per game while starting 1-3.

Drew Brees and Sean Payton may the exception to the running rule because of the Saints' high-powered offense. They know their running game is down at 81.3 yards per game, but that's only 17 off from the previous year. That's not too big a drop.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesSteven Jackson can't help the Falcons' run game when he's not healthy enough to play.

Overall, 20 teams have seen a decrease from their 2012 rushing yardage averages. Injuries to offensive lines have been one of the problems, while strategic efforts to pass the ball more have kept down the number of carries.

The key for offenses is making sure there isn't too much of a drop. Of the 12 teams averaging fewer than 100 yards a game, only the Saints, Dolphins and Lions have winning records. Of those three teams, only the Dolphins have lost more than 17 yards off their running attack from 2012.

In fact, one of the reasons the Lions are 3-1 is because of the addition of Reggie Bush, who left a Dolphins offense that rushed for 112.6 yards a game last year. Miami's numbers have dropped to 81.5 this year, but the Dolphins are 3-1. We'll see if that catches up to the team as the season progresses if the running offense doesn't improve.

Teams don't need to average 125 rushing yards a game to be winners, but based on what we are seeing this year, if the ground game gets totally grounded, bad things will happen in the win-loss column.

From the inbox

Q: I am a longtime Patriots fan, which explains why I might be bitter about Peyton Manning finding so much success this season. But while everyone continues to tout him as such a force this year and how he will be setting records and can't be stopped, are they forgetting about how easy his schedule has been and is? So far, he has played a decent Baltimore team, missing some of its greats from last year; an 0-4 in-shambles Giants; Oakland; and a Philly team that has one of the worst defenses in the NFL. While it is still impressive that Peyton has been putting up these numbers, is it fair for me to feel as though he hasn't really been put to the test because of his weak schedule? Are his numbers truly justifiable this season?

Eben in New Orleans

A: Record-breaking seasons often get help from an easy schedule. The St. Louis Rams in 1999 had the third-easiest schedule in NFL history when they made that Super Bowl run and made 500-point seasons a reality. Tom Brady has had some great stat years against easy schedules. That doesn't take away from the records, but yours is a legitimate point. The Broncos entered the season with a .430 schedule based on last year's records. That was the easiest in football, which is why most people had the Broncos as the favorites to win the AFC.

Q: The problems with the Giants go much deeper than game-day issues like poor execution and bad offensive line play. That team is seriously lacking in talent in many areas, and that is on the GM more than anyone. Jerry Reese's "best player available" approach in the draft never actually yields the best player available. He has also overpaid for free agents, which is one of the reasons the team has cap-space problems. At what point does the Giants' ownership realize this and make a change at GM?

Peter in New York

A: Taking the best player available is a good philosophy as long as you fill key needs. The problems of age along the offensive line have been there for years and still exist. That oversight has played into this year's problems. I have liked the type of athletes Reese has been drafting on defense. He's been getting good pass-rushers and cornerbacks who have man-to-man skills. Unfortunately for the Giants, the cornerbacks have suffered injuries, and that trend hasn't stopped. I think he's done a good job of getting receiver prospects. But football goes in cycles. Reese and the Giants had a great run, but the number of needs has been growing and the fill-ins haven't matched the standards from before. That partially explains the drop-off. Reese has a good eye for talent, but he hasn't filled key needs along the offensive line or at linebacker.

Q: I have a question regarding the AFC North, specifically the Bengals. After four games, I am little concerned and not entirely sure where the blame goes for an uninspiring start. Andy Dalton has been wildly inconsistent from game to game after playing pretty well in the season opener. I also think the interior of the offensive line has become an issue. Over the first four games they're averaging 3.4 yards a carry, and neither one of the running backs has even surpassed 150 yards rushing. The numbers aren't horrific, but I feel that last year there were more explosive plays from the running game, which really helped open up the pass for Dalton and A.J. Green specifically. I was wondering what part of the offense can be blamed for the lack of production that was expected in the beginning of the season?

Allen in Cincinnati

A: The backs seem to be running better, but the offensive line clearly hasn't come together. Andrew Whitworth was hurt throughout the summer and is just getting back along the line. The line has been inconsistent. I'm sure teams aren't afraid of Dalton's deep arm and might be playing closer to the line of scrimmage to contain the run. For most teams, though, the run game is slow at the start of the season. I think the Bengals will be fine the more they use Giovani Bernard.

Q: Alex Smith's touchdown passes have generally been short. They have gone for 5, 3, 2, 12, 5, 2 and 34 yards. Excluding his 34-yard TD to Dwayne Bowe vs. the Giants, all his TDs have come in the red zone. Is this a product of the system Andy Reid is running, or is Smith's natural tendency to put his offense in that position?

Tristan in San Francisco

A: I call that great coaching. Jim Harbaugh tried to make sure Smith didn't throw too many low-percentage passes. Reid is doing the same with Smith. It's working. Smith isn't turning over the ball and the Chiefs are getting a little bit out of their passing offense. Smith is averaging 6.6 yards an attempt. Anything below 6.4 is a hindrance. When you are throwing that short, the quarterback has to make sure defenses don't cheat up near the line of scrimmage and jump routes. As the season goes along, the Chiefs might try more downfield passes, but they don't have to force it. Peyton Manning is working the short passing game and is putting up 44.8 points a game.

Q: I agree with you on the fact the league might end up eliminating kickoffs for safety reasons. However, this would create a problem: Without kickoffs, how would a team that is trailing in the closing minutes recover possession after scoring? This could be corrected by having kickoffs after, say, the two-minute warning, but I might have a better idea: Throughout the game, kicking off would be optional for the scoring team. If it defers, the other team starts at, say, the 25. In this way, kickoffs would be mostly eliminated (I believe teams would generally defer to kick out of fear of getting the kick returned), but teams would be able to kick when needed.

Gonzalo, in Guanajuato, Mexico

A: I hope kickoffs stay in the game because they are exciting plays as long as there are great returns. You'd hate to see that level of excitement eliminated. As I pointed out, though, you can see the league moving in the direction of eliminating the kickoff for safety reasons. I like the idea of having kickoffs being added in the final two minutes. Maybe they can have the point differential determine when kickoffs are allowed. If a team is behind by, let's say, 10 points, the kickoff would be allowed.

Q: It happened: Josh Freeman was finally benched by Greg Schiano for Schiano's pick in the draft, Mike Glennon. So what does this mean for Freeman? Will he get the same respect as Smith did in San Francisco and get a trade to a team where he will be able to start? I'm trying to think of a couple of teams who could use him, and currently it's a short list: Jacksonville, Cleveland, Tennessee, Denver (backup to Manning of course) or St. Louis. I'd hate to see a guy like Freeman be forced to sit after the potential he flashed in his rookie year.

Arneet in Seattle

A: Smith got his respect. Freeman didn't. The leaks coming out of Tampa Bay have made him look like a nonleader who has trouble making meetings and is in the NFL drug program. To his credit, Freeman has battled those charges. He said he passed 46 of 47 drug tests and is legally taking Adderall because of an attention-deficit problem. He said his failed test came when he took Ritalin by mistake well over a year ago. If Smith was the standard of a starting quarterback traded for a second-round pick, the Bucs have played it to a point in which they would be lucky to get a seventh-rounder. Freeman's current salary eliminates half the teams because they don't have room under the cap. His play may have taken his value to a fifth-round pick, but the fact the Bucs are calling all teams indicates he's probably going to be released before Tampa Bay's fifth game. If he is released, Freeman can sign for an NFL minimum $715,000 and the Bucs would be on line for the rest of his current salary because his $8.45 million price tag was guaranteed once the regular season began.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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