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The Importance Of Defending The Run In A Passing League

The ongoing collision between football analysis and advanced statistics has led to the premature proclamation of several uncovered 'truths' - among them the authoritative denouncement of the importance of the running game to team success.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent article, I discussed the Cowboys' defensive scheme, with the intention of ascertaining which position group requires exceptional individual talent for the team to be successful.

Along the way, I mentioned my three priorities for a successful defense. They are, in order:
1A) Rush the passer
1B) Contain the receivers
3) Stop the run

There seems to be unanimous agreement that the two most important things for any defense to do are to rush the passer and cover the receivers; which is more important is an open debate.

Stopping the run is really the only other thing that a defense can do, so occupying the third slot really doesn't indicate its importance or lack thereof. The gap in importance between rank two (1B) and rank three, then, is the source of most disagreement over defensive philosophies.

My argument is simple: Any team that consistently fails to perform any of the three tasks outlined above will likely lose many football games.

The Stats Suggest that Running is Irrelevant

The advanced statistics crowd (which is a collective noun that I'm using to refer only to the extreme few who voice this opinion) often claims that running the football, and thus stopping the run, is statistically irrelevant and therefore should have minimal impact on any team's gameplan.

There's a large volume of support for this argument. The correlation between significant passing metrics (yards per attempt and its variants, quarterback rating, etc.) and winning is often very high and positive, which indicates that successful passing teams (and successful passing defense teams) often win games.

On the contrary, significant rushing statistics (yards per carry, line yards, yards after contact, etc.) often have statistically insignificant or even negative correlations with winning football games. This leads some to conclude that good running could actually hurt teams' chances of winning.

Clearly, some context is needed. I can't imagine a situation in which a more potent rushing attack, all else equal, would be a detriment to any football team.

Advanced statistics obviously fall short of explaining the importance of the running game.

Winning on Offense

In order to contextualize defensive plays, we need to look at the offensive phase of the game of football.

The broad, overarching goal of any offense in any game is to score points. On any particular drive, the goal is a touchdown. On a set of downs, the goal is to earn a new set of downs. On the level of the individual play, the goal is to not be stopped (preventing a defensive stop, which means earning at least 45% of the yards-to-gain on first down, 60% on second down and the full balance on third or fourth down).

One can easily determine that meeting the goal on every play would in turn fulfill the more general goals as a matter of course. If you're never stopped on offense, then of course you'll score plenty of points.

Now let's give you control of a hypothetical team. This team is endowed with magic powers that allow it to gain exactly 3.5 yards on every rushing play called. As the head coach of this team, what would your strategy be?

If you focus on the goal of winning every play that I outlined above, you probably would not be willing to run the ball on first down. 3.5 yards on first-and-ten falls a full yard short of a successful offensive play.

Broadening the view, however, shows that on the level of the set of downs, running the ball on every play is actually the optimum method. 3.5 yards per play over three plays yields a total gain of 10.5 yards, which is enough to gain a first down on any penalty-free drive. In fact, if the gain is truly guaranteed, 2.5 yards-per-play would be sufficient to generate an unstoppable offense, as there would be no risk of faltering on the fourth-down rushing attempts.

We all know, of course, that there is no magical team capable of guaranteeing rushing yardage. Of all players with rushing attempts so far this season (including quarterbacks tackled at the line of scrimmage or kneeling to seal victories), however, 79 of 111 players averaged at least 2.5 yards-per-carry.

The fact that teams don't simply run the ball on every play and assume they'll average 2.5+ yards-per-carry and become unstoppable is obvious: the defense will adjust (I mean, they might not, but if they don't then they'll almost certainly lose).

Adjusting on Defense

Let me start by saying that it isn't easy to be successful on defense in the NFL. There are so many diverse possibilities of what an offense might do on each individual snap of the game, and the repercussions for mistakes are grave.

Going back to our previous example, how might a defense hold an offense to under 2.5 yards-per-carry? If the offense was, as I described, guaranteed to run the ball on every play, then defensively the solution is to put all eleven men in the box. The run will be (most likely) completely stifled.

That's an extreme sell-out to defend the run. It doesn't happen often in real life (just like we don't often see teams held below 2.5ypc) because that particular defensive strategy would be easily negated with any type of passing play.

In the same way, teams don't drop all eleven into pass coverage (in most scenarios) because the formation would be useless against the run. Consistently surrendering the run, as we've already covered, is a very sure way to lose a football game.

It doesn't stop at just 'run' and 'pass,' either. Variations of both all must be defended well at times in order for a team to find defensive success.

Football is a Strategy Game

Most of us are likely familiar with the concepts behind the game Rock Paper Scissors. It's is an ideal example of a perfectly balanced strategy game (with the strategy, of course, largely absent). Football is not Rock Paper Scissors; it is, however, a strategy game.

While the simple three-way system isn't replicated in football, there still exists a well-defined set of schemes and counter-schemes for both offensive and defensive football. Want to stop a dive play? Stack the box. Looking to contain the counter, toss, or sweep? Have a defensive tackle chase the pulling lineman into the backfield.

There's often talk of offenses 'taking what the defense gives them' and defenses 'taking star players out of the game.' The reality is that these events are simply the byproducts of the strategy game that is football. Every single called play is a calculated risk - eleven fists tossed out indicating some combination of rock, paper and scissors and matched to the opponent's corresponding calls.

You send a linebacker on a blitz because you believe he'll get there. You drop a safety back deep because you believe somebody's going to attack the defense vertically. The success the offense finds isn't typically something that is ceded to them all game long by the defense, but rather is the result of a few successful play calls (a combination of both luck and successful pre-game study of the opponent).

Similarly, the defense must make the proper gambles with their play-calling in order to find success containing most NFL offenses. The Chiefs feature Jamaal Charles. When we eventually decide that we need to bet on a passing play (meaning we want to stop it, and so we commit defenders to covering the pass), we must hope that the called play is not a run. The simple fact is that if we devoted additional personnel to containing Charles on every single play, that defense, like the run-it-every-play offense, would be doomed to failure once the opposing team adjusts appropriately.

Beyond the Run and the Pass

Defensive coordinators can't succeed by merely predicting whether the offense will run or pass the ball on a certain down. If it's a run, what hole is it going to? Will it be a play-action pass? Who can we commit to taking away the playaction bomb while still filling that rushing lane? There are a large number of eventualities that must be considered and input into the play-calling strategy.

What about the screen plays? Halfback left, right, middle? TE screen? Bubble screen? How about the route combinations on standard passes? Coryell deep attacks or West Coast shallow tosses?

The offense can move the ball in far more than two ways, with important variations in each of them that could mean the difference between wins and losses for the playcallers.

When you get into these specifics, team strengths in each individual facet of the game go under the microscope. Perhaps the upcoming opponent has questionable talent behind their top wideout; the defense could choose to frequently call for single coverage on the lesser receivers, thus freeing up additional players for support in areas of need.

A Successful Running Game

In order for the running game to effectively increase a team's likelihood of winning, the unit has to be threatening enough to alter the defense's plan in some way.

Consider a team with a reputation for successful running. That team, headed into a game, draws headlines reading 'if the opponent can contain their rushing game, they'll be in trouble.'

At the conclusion of the game, the team finishes with 10 runs for 20 yards, but wins the game anyway. What happened?

The reputation for tough running caused the opposing defense to overcommit to stopping the run. The shift in playcalling that the perceived threat of the run created opened up opportunities for other modes of attack (screens, play-action passes, etc.). Although one might observe the game and say 'wow, that team really controlled their opponents' running game!' the truth is that the threat of the running game was actually controlling the defense, forcing them to commit personnel to stopping the run.

This sort of fatal defensive adjustment can also be made in-game. This is what happens when a team finds unexpected success with the running game and 'uses it to set up the pass.' In reality, the defense is forced to stop the run (again, 2.5 yards is all it takes to be unstoppable), or at least discourage it, while also maintaining a sound defense behind the run-stuffing.

This doesn't only apply to running the football, either. If you have an amazing option quarterback, teams might overcommit to stopping that quarterback and carelessly leave the pitch man uncovered (okay, so that's technically a run). If you have incredible deep-threat receivers (perhaps this Dallas Cowboys team), you have the potential to draw the safeties away from your tight ends.

As a defense, you have to prove that you can stop every play. If you fail, you'll continue to see it until you succeed. Ignoring the run, or any other threat, is an admission of defeat.

As an offense, you only need the defense to respect the threat you pose in every situation, increasing the likelihood that the defensive coordinator will make the wrong call or expose new weaknesses.

You won't find any statistics to support this reality. It's an intellectual battle played out, for the most part, on clipboards and chalkboards rather than the gridiron.

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