NFL Handicapping: Improved Running Games
by Trevor Whenham - 8/26/2013
There are few ways for a team in the NFL to improve themselves quickly and dramatically than improving their running game. Yards on the ground often aren’t sexy, but they are so important. They slow down the game, exhaust opposing defenses, and give your own defense time to rest and be sharp when it is called on. When a team can run effectively, the quarterback has more time and space to pass because the defense can’t commit as fully to the pass as they would like. A poor running game is often one of the few things that stands in the way of making a team a true contender.
Here’s a look at four teams that really struggled last year to run the ball that are in a position to improve significantly this year. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily will reach that potential and actually improve, but if they could then that would pay real dividends for bettors:
New Orleans Saints
Last year the Saints didn’t run the ball particularly well, averaging fewer than 100 yards per game and sitting 25th in the league. That forced Drew Brees to do too much, and put too much pressure on a suspect defense — two big reasons the team struggled last year to meet expectations. What stood out most, though, was not that they couldn’t run — they averaged about 4.3 yards per carry — but that they didn’t run. Only two teams had fewer attempts than the Saints. Of course, last year Sean Payton was away from the team, and the offensive gameplanning was in different hands. With Payton back, we should see the running game given a similar focus to what we have seen in recent years — they were the sixth-best rushing team in the league in two of the three years before last year.
The biggest thing standing between the Falcons and being a serious contender is their pitiful running game. Last year they managed just 87.3 yards per game — the 29th-best total in the 32-team league. They need to improve dramatically, and they have taken steps this offseason to do so. So far the improvement hasn’t really been on display in the preseason, though the effort in the third game was decent. The addition of Steven Jackson and others and an overhaul in attitude and commitment to the running game should pay off to some extent, though, and we should see this team climb to at least some degree of respectability. It would make a big difference — and would justify the support of the betting public, which has this team as the fifth choice to win the Super Bowl at 12/1 at Bovada.
Some team has to be the worst in the league at rushing every year, and last year it was Arizona. Of course, the Cardinals were pretty bad at most things last year, and the turmoil at the QB situation certainly didn’t help. Opposing defenses had little reason to fear the pass, so they could load up against the run and effectively shut down the offense. Under Bruce Arians we should see significant improvement with the run. Though there have been personnel changes, that’s not the biggest reason I expect improvement. Arians has this team confident and believing in themselves — something they have lacked lately. He has a more competent QB in Carson Palmer than they ever had last year. He also is more aggressive and creative with his offensive line use — especially with his guards — than the previous regime was. This team will be much better on the ground simply because they will be much better overall.
The Colts weren’t a horrible running team last year, but they also didn’t commit to it in any significant way — at least not in an old school sense. They didn’t really use a fullback, and when they tried they didn’t do it effectively. Bruce Arians is the head coach in Arizona now, though, so Pep Hamilton takes over at offensive coordinator. Arians splitting time at head coach didn’t help things last year, but even at his best he isn’t a run-first type of guy. Neither is Hamilton, but at Stanford and elsewhere he has shown a commitment to power running. He’ll use a fullback, he’ll look to damage teams on the ground, and he’ll strive for better offensive balance. He worked with Andrew Luck at Stanford, so the two will try to find an approach they are both comfortable with. A jump into the top half of the league in rushing yards (they were 22nd last year) would be a big boost for the squad.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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