In rush toward NFL playoffs, teams getting back to the run

Running backs producing prolific stats as offenses adapt to new defenses

December 20, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Wide receivers do provocative celebrations, quarterbacks do magazine covers and running backs do the dirty work, right next to offensive linemen.

This year, running backs have done the dirty work more than in most years.

Look at Clinton Portis, for instance. The Denver Broncos running back has had six consecutive 100-yard rushing games. He has averaged 173 yards the past four games, three of them wins. Tomorrow night, he'll try to play in Indianapolis with a high ankle sprain - incurred only Sunday - in a game the Broncos need badly.

"I think the team, the past few weeks, learned to lean on me and I kind of put it on my shoulders," Portis said in a news conference this week. "I'm trying to carry this team into the playoffs. Hopefully, I'm out there Sunday continuing."

The Broncos need Portis for their playoff push, just as the Ravens need Jamal Lewis, the Green Bay Packers need Ahman Green and the New Orleans Saints need Deuce McAllister.

As every playoff contender knows, you need a good running back for the stretch run. This year, there are plenty to go around.

In a season when Lewis is threatening the 2,000-yard barrier, the league could have an unprecedented seven 1,500-yard rushers. The group of four backs who have already reached that milestone - Lewis (1,747), Portis (1,591), McAllister (1,542) and Green (1,538) - matches the league's previous single-season high.

The three other backs who could join the group are Stephen Davis (1,387) of the Carolina Panthers, Priest Holmes (1,315) of the Kansas City Chiefs and LaDainian Tomlinson (1,311) of the San Diego Chargers.

A year ago, quarterbacks dictated terms of the regular season, throwing for prolific sums. This year is, at least partially, about a return to the running game.

More numbers: Through 15 weeks, there have been 56 300-yard passing games. That projects to 63 with two weeks left, 16 off last year's total of 79. Likewise, there have been 133 100-yard rushing games, projecting to 151. That would easily topple the league's 1998 standard of 143.

What sparked the rushing revival?

Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese lists three factors beyond the obvious - "There is a good group of young running backs out there who have the potential to be very productive for a number of years." They are:

(1) Fewer marquee quarterbacks. Passing averages are down this season, in part because five teams had to start their third quarterback and 14 more had to start their second. Plus, said Reese, "You're seeing a lot of young [quarterbacks] who look like they'll be good. But you have a void of six-, seven-, eight-, nine-year quarterbacks who have star caliber."

(2) Two-deep zone coverages. The proliferation of this defense followed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl victory last season with the same defense. "Tampa made two-deep coverage the coverage of the year," Reese said. "That gives you one less guy in the box [close to the line of scrimmage] to stop the run. If you see two-deep and can't run, you're really struggling up front."

(3) Shrinking defensive players. Not across the board, but at end and outside linebacker, the pass-rush positions. Teams, following Tampa Bay's lead, are putting quicker, smaller players at those positions to pressure the quarterback. Those players aren't as good in run defense.

The Panthers have ridden Davis to their first division title since 1996. The running game is an integral part of coach John Fox's stunning two-year turnaround.

"I think controlling the tempo of games is very important, because there isn't a great difference in talent between the first team and the 32nd team," said Panthers general manager Marty Hurney.

"The way to control it, people believe, is by running the ball and playing good defense. A very good running back sets the tone for a team in a game, and I think people have realized that."

Spreading the field with three and four receivers and then running the ball - as the Chiefs like to do with Holmes - is another reason the rush has become more effective this season.

Reese traces the jump in 1,500-yard rushers - they have to average 94 yards per game to get there - to big plays.

Of the 14 running backs who've gained 1,000 yards this year, only two (Holmes and the New York Giants' Tiki Barber) have not had a run of 40 yards or more. Seven of the 14 have had runs of 60 yards or longer, topped by Lewis' 82-yarder.

"One of the things people will look for now to make a difference is the ability to break off a long one," Reese said.

A run of success

With two weeks left in the season, the NFL has four 1,500-yard rushers, tying a league high, and 14 1,000-yard rushers. Here are the league's most productive running backs.

Rush. Player, team yards Avg. Skinny

Jamal Lewis, Ravens 1,747 5.2 Broke NFL's single-game record with 295 in Sept.

Clinton Portis, Broncos 1,591 5.5 Second-round draft pick in 2002

Deuce McAllister, Saints 1,542 5.0 Had league-high nine straight 100-yard games

Ahman Green, Packers 1,538 4.9 Broke Jim Taylor's club rushing record

Stephen Davis, Panthers 1,387 4.5 Free-agent addition this season

Priest Holmes, Chiefs 1,315 4.7 Scored 22 rushing touchdowns

LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers 1,311 5.0 Leads NFL in scrimmage yards with 2,011

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