It's not just the Steelers: There's nowhere to run in the NFL
November 23, 2013 11:49 PM
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell isn't the only rusher finding little room to run in the NFL this year.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When they meet today for the first time this season, the Steelers and Cleveland Browns share much in common. Each has the same record, each had an inexplicable second-quarter meltdown last week and each has a malaise that has become something of the norm in the NFL -- they can't run the football.
The Steelers and Browns are turning the clock back to the more ignominious days of their franchise when it comes to running the football. But they are not alone. The other teams in the AFC North -- the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens -- can't do it, either.
The four division teams are among the 11 teams in the league that average fewer than 4 yards per rush attempt, the number that is considered the acceptable standard in the NFL. The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, who average 3 yards per attempt, are the worst of the four.
But the ground shortage is not limited to the AFC North. All around the league, teams are not just running less, they are running less efficiently.
One year after Minnesota's Adrian Peterson became the eighth player in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards, the NFL is posting some of its lowest rushing totals in years. At the current pace, the 11 teams that average fewer than 4 yards per attempt would be the most since 2007. The number of teams that average fewer than 100 yards per game -- 11 -- would also be the most since 2007.
Sure, the advent of the passing game and the rules that benefit the quarterback and wide receivers are the biggest reason for the decline. But with the decline in production has come a reduction in 100-yard performances, 20-yard runs and, in some instances, even short-yardage touchdowns.
Why is this happening? Any number of reasons have been advanced by players, coaches and former players. Among them: Bigger, faster athletes on defense, more spread offenses, an increased emphasis on blocking schemes rather than on individual technique and even fewer padded practices that limit the opportunity to improve.
Whatever the reason, the balance that offensive coordinators seek between throwing and running the ball has become more tenuous and less attainable than ever.
"I think if you're comparing it to years ago, probably so," Browns rookie coach Rob Chudzinski said when asked if it has become more difficult to run the ball in the NFL. "The players are just so big and so strong. I think the number of players you get in the box -- there are ways to stop the run or slow it down enough. It seems like everybody is geared, at least in this division, to do that. So you have to be able to do both, and at the end of the day, the teams that can do both well are the ones that have the most success."
Change in philosophy
Despite their emphasis on trying to run the ball more efficiently, the Steelers have not had a 100-yard rusher in 18 games, since Isaac Redman ran for 147 yards against the New York Giants in Week 8 last season. Not only is that the second-longest drought in the league -- Jacksonville has gone 23 games without a 100-yard rusher -- it is the franchise's longest in 43 years.
The previous time the Steelers went a longer stretch without a 100-yard rusher was from 1968-70 when John "Frenchy" Fuqua ended a 24-game drought with 119 yards Nov. 22, 1970, against the Bengals.
They had a similar 24-game streak from 1965-67 that ended when Willie Asbury ran for 107 yards in the season opener against the Chicago Bears.
It's so bad in Jacksonville that star running back Maurice Jones-Drew has failed to gain more than 75 rushing yards in any of the past 13 games. Before that, Jones-Drew had 75 or more rushing yards in 17 of 19 games.
"As we move into late November and December, you got to be able to run the football effectively when they know you're running it," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "We're obviously showing some splashes at times, but we've had to work for every yard."
However, 100-yard rushing games are declining everywhere, not just with the Steelers and Jacksonville.
After 11 weeks of the season, there have been only 55 100-yard rushing performances in the NFL. Projected over a 16-game season, that means the total for 2013 would be 88, which would be 32 fewer than last season (123) and 40 fewer than 2011 (131).
The previous time the league had fewer than 100 100-yard rushers in a season was 1994 when there were 82.
Only five running backs have three or more 100-yard games. The leader is Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, who has four. San Diego's Ryan Mathews has at least 100 yards in three of his past five games. Minnesota's Peterson, who had 10 last season including two with more than 200 yards, has three.
Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs is the only running back to have rushed for at least 50 yards in every game.
"They just don't try," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "Teams that try to run the ball, run the ball well. Teams that have guys, run the ball well. I think we've started to run the ball extremely well because we focused on it. Minnesota always runs the ball well because they have a guy. Seattle runs the ball well because they have a guy. The Buffalo Bills, they run the ball well because they have guys.
"The way the league is now, it allows you certain freedoms in the passing game -- you can't get touched after 5 yards, defenseless-player rules, the quarterback is protected. He might as well wear a flag. All these things put you at lesser risk of anything bad happening when you pass the ball now. That's why people pass it. That's why quarterbacks make this money."
The Browns are having their worst rushing season in 14 years and are on pace for 1,338 yards. That would be their lowest total since the first two years they re-entered the league -- 1,150 yards in 1999 and 1,085 in 2000. As a team, they average 3.8 yards per attempt, but their leading rusher, Willis McGahee, averages just 2.6 yards per rush. Worse, the Browns have just one rushing touchdown, and that was a 1-yarder -- the shortest distance possible -- by McGahee.
The Browns have so devalued the running game that they traded last year's No. 3 overall draft pick, Trent Richardson, three weeks into the season. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas understands why.
"I came from Wisconsin that ran the crap out of the ball, so I always felt you had to run to win," Thomas said in an interview with ESPN Cleveland. "But even since my rookie year, I feel the league has changed. I don't know if it's because of the rules, or just because of the talent at quarterback, or the talent at defense, but honestly I feel you have to be a throwing team to be successful in the NFL now."
Thomas added: "You run if you're not very good at passing. The Vikings are [2-8]. They've got an excellent running back and it's not winning them a lot of games. The NFL today is all about the quarterback and all about the passing game."
A pattern forming
Part of the reason the Steelers have not run the ball better -- or more efficiently -- is because they have not had many leads in the second half this season. They have spent more time throwing the ball in an effort to play catch-up -- one of the reasons Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for more than 350 yards in five games this season.
The Steelers have started the second half with the lead in just three games. Not surprisingly, two of those have produced their best rushing performances -- 141 yards against the Ravens and 136 against the Bills, both victories. Curiously, the game in which they had their best yards per attempt average (5.2) was New England, when they rushed 20 times for 108 yards. However, 55 of those yards came on two runs -- 30 yards by Jonathan Dwyer and 25 yards by Le'Veon Bell.
Last year, when they finished with their worst rushing average (3.7 yards) since 2003, the Steelers rushed for more than 100 yards only five times. They held or shared the lead in four of those games, all victories. But the Steelers also held or shared the lead to start the second half in eight other games and never managed to rush for more than 100 yards in those.
"We're making progress," Haley said. "Even with some of the moving parts and different people we've had to plug in, our backs are getting closer and closer.
"What we need are a couple breakout runs. We're earning every yard, and when your long run is 13 [yards], it's hard to get your total up there very far. You need one of those to break out and everyone is chasing him down the sideline. We're going to keep pounding, keep working, keep working technique and hopefully it will happen."
Lack of technique
How hard is it for some teams to run the football in the NFL?
Consider: McGahee has had 13 rushing attempts in which he had 5 or fewer yards to go for a touchdown, the third-most opportunities in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. On those 13 carries, he has rushed for minus-2 yards and just one touchdown. Conversely, Green Bay's Eddie Lacy has converted five of his six rushing attempts with 5 or fewer yards to go into touchdowns. That is a rate of 83.3 percent, highest in the league for those with four or more attempts in that situation.
Washington's Alfred Morris has nine carries of 20 or more yards, which is the highest total in the league. Only two other backs have more than five. Last year, Peterson had a league-high 27 runs of 20 yards or more. Three other backs had more than 10 and three more had nine.
Even Peterson's numbers are down appreciably from his 2012 season when he rushed for 2,097 yards. After 10 games, he is fourth in the league with 851 yards and averaging 4.4 yards per attempt -- numbers that, for him, pale compared to what he did last year. However, he is tied for the NFL lead with nine rushing touchdowns.
There are still teams that like to run the football, and do it well. But they are also teams whose rushing production is enhanced by having a running quarterback. All of the top five rushing teams in the league -- Washington, Philadelphia, Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco -- have quarterbacks who can and will run the ball.
Still, the art of running the ball is slowly eroding. And according to former Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin, that's because run-blocking technique has eroded, too.
"The goal is to take the line of scrimmage, to snap [a defensive lineman's] head back, get into him, get your hands into him violently and take him off the ball," said Ilkin, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who teaches technique to a number of NFL offensive linemen. "They don't do that anymore. Offensive linemen today will take a position step before they come off the ball. If you take a lateral step first and the defensive line is attacking, then you're not getting a push. Nobody does that anymore. Nobody comes off the ball."
Ilkin said part of the reason is because NFL coaches are more concerned with teaching schemes than technique.
"You only have two to 2½ hours of practice time. If you're spending all that time on looks, technique sometimes takes a back seat. When you're throwing the ball all the time, you get used to pass blocking all the time. You don't the run the ball as much, you don't run the ball as well."
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.