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Stop that Run!

   by Bryan Leonard - 09/12/2006

The Patriots made an interesting trade this summer, sending WR Bethel Johnson to the Saints for DT Jonathon Sullivan. It was a swap of disappointments but was a bit curious from the Patriots standpoint as they had already lost several wide outs to free agency, Deion Branch was holding out, and the team was thin at wide receiver. Bill Belichick later pointed out that in his estimation, potential run stuffing linemen have more value, and are tougher to find, than wide receivers.

I bring this up because of a simple winning formula, both straight up and against the number, in football: The ability (or inability) to stop the run. Simply put, if a team has success running the football, they won't need to pass much. Taken a step further, a successful running game makes the passing game that much more effective. In addition, a run of 3 or 4 yards on first down creates a better success ratio on offense with numerous second-and-sixes, as opposed to too many second-and-9 or 10s.

Let's look back a year ago at the worst run defenses in the NFL. Those teams were the Texans, Bills, Browns, Jets, Rams, Saints, Falcons, Raiders, Lions, Packers and Titans. None made the playoffs or had a winning record. Houston, the worst team against the run, also had the worst record in the league (2-14), and a losing spread mark.

In addition, only ONE of those teams had a winning record against the spread! Several of those teams had some of the most abysmal spread marks in 2005, like the Jets (6-10 ATS), the Rams (5-11 ATS), the Saints (5-9-2 ATS), the Raiders (5-11 ATS), the Packers (5-10-1 ATS) and the Titans (6-10 ATS).

The bottom two teams, the Bills and Texans, allowed a whopping 4.5 yards per carry, while two others (Falcons and Rams) allowed 4.7 yards per attempt! That is some poor tackling! Last month Falcons coach Jim Mora asked management to help shore up the run defense and they immediately signed free agent nose tackle Grady Jackson. So what happened in the opener? Jackson already paid big dividends as Atlanta stuffed the Carolina running game in a 20-6 upset.

It's also an important element in the college game. On Saturday, I gave out Rutgers, a team playing at home against Illinois. One reason for this was run defense, or lack thereof, from Illinois and coach Ron Zook. I noted in my pregame analysis, â€쳌Illinois was outscored on average 40-17 last fall. Illinois allowed 5.5 yards per carry last year, the worst mark in all of division 1-A football. Good old number 119 out of 119. We don't see a whole lot of improvement. Last week Rutgers ran all over a North Carolina defense that permitted a full 2 yards less that Illinois per attempt on the ground a year ago.

“The Scarlet Knights completely dominated the line when they had the ball. Out of all the games we watched last week we came away more impressed with Rutgers than any other. A great running game with Raymell Rice and the always popular Brian Leonard make the Scarlet Knights a play on team this year. If you have one team that can't stop the run and another that excels at it we have what you refer to as a mismatch.â€쳌

So what happened? Rutgers had close to a 3-to-1 edge in total yards and an edge in rushing 166-60. Rice ran for 107 yards averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Oh, and the Scarlet Knights easily got the money in a 33-0 rout. Looking for mismatches is a key way to identify spread covers and examining run defense is one way to find them.

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