Something is compelling about which teams are off to a good start and those who might already have one eye on the 2024 NFL Draft. The best teams in the league are the ones who have the most rushing attempts this season. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, some consider running the ball a four-letter word.
The six teams that lead the league in rushing attempts through the first three weeks are the Eagles, Cowboys, Browns, Ravens, 49ers, and Dolphins. They are a combined 15-3.
On the other side of that coin are the teams that rely on passing the ball the most. The top six teams in the NFL in passing attempts are the Vikings, Panthers, Rams, Patriots, Chargers, and Bengals. They have a combined record of 4-14.
Running the ball as we head into the fall and winter months, especially for the northern teams, will become even more critical to a team’s success. That is unless the team plays in a dome. Thank you, Pat McAfee, for the practice bubble. Maybe you can work on getting a retractable roof for Paycor Stadium. Good luck with that. What!
Several things are contributing to this. First, the NFL is cyclical. Before, the running backs were the stars. As teams trotted out with Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, Correy Dillon, Marshawn Lynch, and Derrick Henry, defenses had to adjust. So, the teams stacked their rosters with Sam Adams and DJ Reader-type defensive tackles.
In turn, teams began to run the ball less and throw more. Organizations moved away from power backs to fast, explosive runners who are good receivers out of the backfield. The offenses were adjusted to the adjustment.
Today, we are in a new era where some linebackers and safeties are the same size and speed. Teams have emphasized linebackers who can cover running backs and tight ends in pass coverage.
Defensive linemen are faster and lighter. Few players like Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, or Myles Garrett can play with speed and power from the interior of the defensive line.
Teams have also added pass rushers whose sole responsibility is to rush the quarterback. This is so much so that we have changed the name of the position from defensive end to edge rusher.
The result could be that offensive-minded coaches are returning to the “good old days,” where immensely huge and powerful offensive linemen moved smaller defensive linemen off the ball easier. It also helps that many of these offensive behemoths are just as athletic as some of the pass rushers they are charged with blocking.
Another possible contributing factor is poor scouting and talent evaluation regarding drafting offensive linemen. Evaluators have seemingly made run-blocking their main point of emphasis while tailoring their team around pass-first offenses.
If an offensive lineman wants to be a first-rounder, he needs to have an athletic run block where he gets to the edge and crushes a defensive back. A few of those blocks and several Twitter highlights, coupled with a subjectively elevated Pro Football Focus grade, make for a high draft pick.
Some scouts and General Managers are seemingly willing to overlook woeful pass blocking or perhaps not even notice it, depending on which games they scout. Afterward, the organization is dismayed that their high draft pick can’t protect the franchise. Thus, offenses have to scheme around what their personnel do best and what gives the team an advantage on game days. For some, that means leaning on the run game.
Furthermore, the running back position may have been devalued to the point where even defensive coordinators could underestimate opposing backs. And why not? If a defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run could almost be an afterthought. The idea is that you will collide with the rusher on your way to the quarterback.
Teams with the most rushing attempts remaining at the top of the standings may not hold up throughout the season. However, the heavy-running teams have an enormous head start.
It is a copycat league. The Bengals are not a heavy-rushing team. Perhaps it is not time to completely flip the script, but to become more balanced than 49 passes with an injured QB to 20 rushing attempts.
The counterargument will be that the team does not run the ball well. That is correct. The Bengals rank 24th in the NFL with an average of 3.6 yards per carry as a team. Mixon averages 4.0 yards per attempt.
However, to give up on the run when we can see that the best teams early this season are running the ball at an exponentially higher rate is akin to saying Burrow should give up on throwing the ball to Tee Higgins because his catch percentage when targeted is at 35.7. No one would argue that. The same can be said of the Bengals running the ball.
Furthermore, as an unnamed American philosopher once uttered, “Don’t knock it until you try it.” It is difficult to judge how well the Bengals can execute in the run game if they are so quick to abandon it. Despite Burrow being limited, the team has the second-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL.
No, Cincinnati should not give up on throwing the ball. Nevertheless, running the ball more should be a realistic option with a healing quarterback and what is supposed to be the best offensive line the team has had since drafting Burrow.