Rushing Is Up as NFL Teams Run Their Way Into Playoff Contention

by Team Del Genio

More teams are running the football, and there is interesting evidence that it is this commitment to the ground game that is leading to their success. Let’s dive into some numbers.

Last season, there were four teams to run the ball 30 or more times per game: Tennessee, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans. Three of those teams made the playoffs. 

This year after twelve weeks in the regular season, nine teams are averaging 30 or more rushing attempts per game.

Chicago: 35.8 rushes per game; Philadelphia: 34.4. rushes per game; Atlanta: 35.7 rushes per game;  New York Giants: 32.5 rushes per game; Cleveland: 31.8 rushes per game; Baltimore: 30.8 rushes per game; Dallas: 30.5 rushes per game; Washington: 30.4 rushes per game; Tennessee: 29.5 rushes per game (rounding up the decimal). 

The combined record of these nine teams is 58-43. Six of these nine teams have winning records. All six of those teams would make the postseason if the playoffs started this weekend. 

Critics of teams that commit to establishing the running game argue that running game statistics are fluffed by fourth-quarter numbers where teams with the lead on the scoreboard decide to run the ball more to burn time off the clock. This deserves consideration. Yet that observation does not explain why the teams that are running the ball 30 or more times a game have doubled from last season since the number of victories remains the same (by definition). 

With the success of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, more defenses are using 4-2-5 defenses. When defenses rely more on nickel and dime defenses, their roster may see an additional defensive back instead of another linebacker. Depth charts are impacted. Teams are using smaller and quicker linebackers since they are more agile to defend against passing attacks.              

In a league that adapts and evolves, it makes sense that some teams would choose to double-down on rushing attacks that are heavier with two running back or two tight end looks that trade wide receivers on the field for skill position players who can block. 

From the above list of nine teams running the ball 30 or more times a game, do any of them look like pass-first teams who only run the ball when they have the ball in the fourth quarter? Teams like Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, the New York Giants, and Baltimore are all offenses where the quarterback plays a prominent role in the rushing game with designed runs. Cleveland, Dallas, Washington, and Tennessee are all teams who commonly deploy two tight ends or two running backs with a full back. 

If it is a copycat league, it is interesting to observe even more teams running the ball over the last month. Winning teams running the ball in the fourth quarter does not explain this recent phenomenon. Thirteen teams have averaged 30 or more rushing attempts per game in their most recent three games.

Washington: 42.0 rush attempts per game; Dallas: 36.7 rush attempts per game; Carolina: 36.7 rush attempts per game; Chicago: 35.0 rush attempts per game; Baltimore: 35.0 rush attempts per game; Pittsburgh: 34.3 rush attempts per game; Philadelphia: 34.0 rush attempts per game;  San Francisco: 32.7 rush attempts per game; Detroit: 32.0 rush attempts per game; New York Giants: 31.3 rush attempts per game; Cincinnati: 30.3 rush attempts per game; Buffalo: 29.7 rush attempts per game; New York Jets: 29.7 rush attempts per game.

That list does not include Atlanta which is averaging 29.0 rushes per game in their last three games. The combined record for those thirteen teams running the ball 30 or more per game in their last three games is 83-63. Nine of those thirteen teams have winning records, and all nine of those teams would play in the playoffs if the postseason started this weekend. 

Certainly rushing numbers rise for teams winning on the scoreboard. Yet it seems naive to simply explain the rise in running the football to teams winning games. Half the teams win their games each week (excluding the occasional tie). More teams are running the football this season, and they look like they are running their way into the playoffs.

Good luck - TDG.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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