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The Value of Run Defense

   by Jim Feist - 10/19/2010

Like a giant leak on a sinking ship, one of the first signs of a poor pro football team is weak run defense. Stopping the run is essential to building a championship team. The Top 8 teams at stopping the run last season? Packers, Vikings, Steelers, Cowboys, Ravens, 49ers, Bengals and Jets – all playoff teams except two.

Who won the Super Bowl after the 2008 campaign? The Steelers, a team with the No. 1 overall defense, including No. 2 against the run. In 2007, the eventual champion NY Giants were No. 8 against the run.

The year before that the Colts had the worst run defense in the NFL, yet won the Super Bowl. That is true, but it also was an aberration. Even that doesn't tell the whole story, as the Colts' run defense was suddenly dominant in the postseason. The mid-season addition of DT Anthony McFarland, moving LB Rob Morris inside and the return of hard-hitting safety Bob Saunders all coincided with the Indy playoff run, led by their defense. Their Super Bowl opponent, the Bears, were No. 1 in total defense and eighth against the rush.

In 2005, the Carolina Panthers were 4th in the league at stopping the run behind its fearsome front foursome. They made it to the NFC Championship game. The team just ahead of the Panthers was the Steelers, who won the Super Bowl. In 2003 the Patriots finished No. 3 against the run with the addition of NT Ted Washington. In 2004 they let Washington walk, but added Keith Traylor and rookie Vince Wilfork to the line and finished No. 6 overall against the run. Both those teams won the Super Bowl.

Back in 2001 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the No. 1 overall defense, a solid 6th against the run and celebrated a title. Stopping the run in some capacity is essential for success in football. Think about how many third and short situations you see over the course of a game. If a team can't stop the run, opponents can simply run the ball all day long, picking up first downs and controlling the clock. After five games in 2010, here's a list of pro teams allowing the most yards rushing per game:

Yds rushing allowed - SU – ATS
26th Lions – 133 1-4 4-1
27th: Panthers – 134 0-5 1-4
28th: Cardinals – 140 3-2 2-3
29th: Colts – 142 3-2 3-2
30th: Bucs – 143 3-1 2-1-1
31st: Raiders – 147 2-3 2-3
32nd: Bills – 182 0-5 1-4

The combined mark is 12-22 straight up and 15-18-1 against the number. The Colts have a winning record, but haven't been great, getting run over badly on the ground in their two losses to Jacksonville and Houston. The Cardinals may have a winning record, but it's hard to picture them keeping that up with so many problems against the run while done to their third-string QB. It shouldn't surprise that two of the three winless teams are on that list.

Three of those teams come off their bye week searching for answers. The Bills don't have any solution right now for the pitiful state of their defense, as they acknowledged after a 36-26 loss to the Jaguars. This is the first time in Bills history they have allowed 30 points in four straight games. Jacksonville racked up 216 rushing yards, on the heels of the New York Jets' 273-yard rushing total and New England's 200-yard rushing day the previous two weeks against the Bills.

"Everything's bad right now," linebacker Andra Davis said. "I don't really have any answers," defensive end Marcus Stroud said. "It's embarrassing," said defensive end Dwan Edwards. "We aren't stopping nobody."

Let's look back two years ago at the same time in the season:

Yds rushing allowed - SU – ATS
22nd: Redskins – 119 2-3 1-4
23rd: Rams – 125 0-5 1-4
24th: Falcons –127 3-1 3-1
25th: Chiefs – 132 0-5 1-4
26th Texans – 140 2-3 2-3
27th: Chargers – 151 2-2 1-3
28th: Bucs – 152 0-5 1-4
29th: Bills – 154 1-4 2-3

30th: Panthers – 155 1-3 0-4
31st: Raiders – 161 1-4 2-3 32nd: Browns – 170 1-4 2-3

Only one of those teams had a winning record straight up or against the number. Four (Redskins, Texans, Bills, Panthers) were the biggest busts early in the 2009 NFL season. The combined record of that defenseless group against the run was 13-39 straight up and 16-36 against the number.

Go back to 2008, the worst teams against the run were the Lions, Raiders, Chiefs, Rams, Browns, Broncos, Packers, Falcons, Colts, Texans, Bills and Bengals. What stands out? Only two playoff teams, but not a single postseason victory among the group.

By contrast, of the 11 worst teams against the pass in 2008, the list includes the Falcons, Cardinals, Dolphins and Chargers. All made the playoffs, plus two other teams (Broncos, Jets) that were in the race on the final day of the regular season.

It is more important to stop the run first. That is why talented run stuffers are in high demand, such as nose tackles Casey Hampton, Wilfork and Haloti Ngata. Run defense is an excellent place to start when examining strengths and weaknesses each week, and for potential future bets as history has not been kind to teams that are not stout against the run in the postseason.

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