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The Value of NFL Run Defense

By: Jim Feist
Date: Oct 12, 2015
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Feist Facts: Oct. 12, 2015 The Value of NFL Run Defense by Jim Feist 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 9 teams at stopping the run last season? Lions, Broncos, Seahawks, Ravens, Jets, Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys and Patriots. All were in the playoffs except the Jets and two made the Super Bowl. The Jets were the only team in that group with a losing record.

For the record, as we roll into October the 2015 list of top run stuffers include the broncos, Redskins, Seahawks, Jets, Cards, Titans, Panthers, Cowboys and Rams. If that holds up, perhaps we'll see a different look in the postseason with teams like the Cardinals, Jets and Rams sneaking in. Great run defense has anchored Seattle's dominance the last three years, with a pair of NFC titles and one Lombardi Trophy.

And it's not just in 2015. Four years ago the Steelers, Bears, Jets, Chargers, Ravens were in the Top 8 - all playoff teams except one, and three met in the AFC/NFC Champion games. When the Steelers last made the Super Bowl in 2011 they were tops in run defense. Who won the Super Bowl after the 2008 campaign? Those same Steelers, a team with the No. 1 overall defense, including No. 2 against the run.

Great defensive fronts stand out in more ways than one, setting the tone for their team's style of play while forcing many opponents to game plan differently. For instance, when the Patriots play teams with great run defenses they essentially bail on the ground game and throw all day long. It's surprising more teams don't copy that.

Of course, forcing offenses to be one-dimensional is usually an asset for defenses, paring down what plays the opponent is likely to run each time. A defensive coordinator can focus on double-teaming a great wide receiver, for instance, forcing the offense to have even fewer options to go to. Many times that can all start with a strong run defense or pass rush.

A decade ago 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.

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 three games in 2015, here's a list of NFL teams allowing the most yards rushing per game:

Yds rushing allowed - SU – ATS
26th Chargers – 124 1-2 1-2
27th: Jaguars – 127 1-2 1-2
28th: Chiefs – 127 1-2 1-2
29th: Saints – 133 0-3 1-2
30th: Giants – 135 1-2 2-1
31st: Titans – 137 1-2 2-1
32nd: Browns – 142 1-2 1-2

Not a lot of wins, are there? The combined mark is 6-15 straight up and 9-12 against the number. Kansas City should actually improve but the rest have serious concerns up front. For perspective, let's look back a few years ago at the same time in the season:

Yds rushing allowed - SU – ATS
26th NY Jets – 134 2-3 1-3-1
27th: Panthers – 135 1-4 5-0
28th: Bears – 135 2-3 1-4
29th: Bills – 138 4-1 3-2
30th: Eagles – 140 1-4 1-4
31st: Colts – 145 0-5 2-3
32nd: Rams – 179 0-4 0-4

Not a lot of wins there, either! The Jets and Bears were expected to be better that year, while the biggest flop was the Eagles. The combined mark was 10-24 straight up and 13-20-1 against the number.

In 2009 it was even more stark, with four teams (Redskins, Texans, Bills, Panthers) the biggest busts early in the season. The combined record of that defenseless group against the run to start the year was 13-39 straight up and 16-36 against the number.

Yes, it is still an age of passing the football, but run defense is an excellent place to start when examining NFL strengths and weaknesses each week. History has not been kind to teams that are not stout against the run in midseason or postseason.

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