While strong run games are the current rage in the NFL, much of it has been made possible by the sudden declines in three of the dominant passing teams of the last, and now departed, decade: the Patriots, Seahawks, and Packers. Let’s start there.
Brady, Wilson, and Rodgers
New England started out the season 8 and 0, and then it all started to fall apart. In his last eight games, Brady had three passer ratings in the eighties, one in the seventies, two in the sixties, and one in the fifties – and this was despite playing five of those eight games at home.
Brady finished the regular season with a rating of 88.0, nineteenth best in the league. The Titan’s defeat of the Pats on Saturday evening was no upset. In completing only 20 of 37 throws, with no touchdowns and one interception, Brady’s passer rating on the night was a dismal 59.4.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson was red-hot for the first half of the year. His passer ratings were in triple digits in seven out of his eight first games, including a 151.8 rating against division rival Rams. He also had three games in the 130’s. Over the last eight games, however, he had two games in the nineties, one in the eighties, two in the seventies, and one in the sixties. His overall average of 106.3 was good for fifth best in the league, but that number didn’t accurately reflect how he was playing as the postseason approached (but see below).
Aaron Rodgers managed to keep his passer rating over 100 for most of the year, but he too wore out as the season wore on. In his final eight games, many of which featured inferior competition, he had one rating in the nineties, two in the eighties, three in the seventies, and one in the sixties. Overall, he limped across the finish line with a 95.4 rating, 12th best in the league. It dropped his career rating to 102.4.
The New RB Standard Bearer
The Titan’s massive running back, 6’ 2 5/8” 247-pound Derrick Henry, has unmistakably established himself as the league’s most feared running back. While Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey were dominant in the early going, by season’s end Henry emerged as the top rusher, with 1,540 yards gained in 15 games – a 102.7 average per game. His 303 attempts, or just over 20 per game, two more than Ezekiel Elliott, also was tops.
In the New England fog, Henry was unstoppable: 34 carries, 182 yards. By contrast, Titans’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 8 of 15 passes, for all of 72 yards. Ryan’s passer rating on the year was an astonishing 117.5, the league’s best. I say astonishing, because his career rating, encompassing seven years (six with Miami) is only 89.8. It’s RB Derrick Henry who powers the Titan’s offensive engine.
The Patriots must be wondering why it took so long for Henry to be appreciated. He was a round 2 pick (45th overall) in 2016 – after being awarded the Heisman Trophy. In his third and last year at the U of Alabama, he amassed an incredible 2,219 rushing yards in 356 attempts (5.6 ypc). And yet, Derrick only started two games is each of his first two years at Tennessee.
Interestingly, the Titan’s play caller a year ago was Matt LaFleur. Though Henry was healthy all year, he only got 215 carries, finishing with 1,059 yards and an average gain of 4.9 yards per carry. The Titans finished that campaign at 9-7, and out of the playoffs. How far might they have gone if Henry had been more heavily used?
Texans 22, Bills 19
What this overtime thriller demonstrated is that strong run games can be established when you have quarterbacks who like to run. The Texans’ leading rusher was QB Deshaun Watson, with 55 yards in 14 carries, and one touchdown. For the Bills, Josh Allen ran nine times for 92 yards, and he also caught a pass from receiver John Brown, for 18 yards and the Bill’s first touchdown.
Both young QBs are blue chippers. Watson was the 12th overall selection in 2016, while Allen was the seventh overall pick in 2018. Watson was a college star at powerhouse Clemson, while Allen labored in relative obscurity at Wyoming. Though Allen’s inability to complete a pass surfaced as the game went into overtime, his future is bright. During the regular season, he was the third-leading rushing QB – behind only the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray – with 510 yards.
Vikings 26, Saints 20
The two passing attacks produced nearly identical net yardage, neutralizing each other. Though Vikings stud Dalvin Cook had a substandard yards per carry (3.4), the Vikings delivered 40 runs, compared to the Saints’ 17. They also moved the chains effectively, as they were 10 of 18 on third down tries.
The result, an overtime win for the underdogs, eliminates the dangerous Drew Brees from the playoffs – surely a good result for the Packers.
Seahawks , Eagles
With the Eagles’ Carson Wentz succumbing to injury after only one pass completion, this should have been a blowout win for the Hawks. It wasn’t, but the arm of Russell Wilson was enough in itself to subdue the mortally wounded home team.
Well, that and DK Metcalf, who the Packers should have selected with the 44th overall draft pick. Back on December 8, I ended a post this way: “Mark my words: D.K. Metcalf will become an All-Pro, and this Seahawk will come to haunt the Packers for the next decade or more.”
Packers Versus Seahawks
Even if the rest of the country is unaware of it, Total Packers readers well understand that Green Bay has its own dynamo running back. Does Coach LaFleur finally get it that the Packers’ best prospects for moving forward rest on heavy usage of Aaron Jones – who will have head two weeks of rest? I hope so. I’m looking for at least a combined rushes and receptions total of 30 for Jones.
It’s pretty amazing that Aaron Rodgers would come right out and say he doesn’t think the problems with the passing game can be fixed this late in the going. But if that’s where his head is at, that’s all the more reason to rely on Jones’s tackle-breaking talents next Sunday.
You heard that right. I keep hearing smatterings about Aaron’s broken-tackles prowess. Well, Pro Football Reference tracks what it calls advanced rushing stats, and it includes a broken tackles summary for the 2019 regular season. Guess who’s on top? Aaron Jones is credited with 32 broken tackles, tied at the top with the Browns’ Nick Chubb. Jones, however, wins the tie-breaker because he breaks a tackle every 7.4 carries, whereas the more-heavily used Chubb, with 62 more carries, breaks a tackle only every 9.3 carries.
The rest of the top 10 in this category are: Derrick Henry (TEN), Phillip Lindsay (DEN), and Alvin Kamara (N), all with 29; Chris Carson (SEA) and David Montgomery (CHI), with 28; Josh Jacobs (OAK) with 26; and Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) and Joe Mixon (CIN), with 24 each.
As for the Seahawks, the game against the Eagles featured two teams battered by injuries – and they played like it. Despite the un-retirement of Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks’ run game has been in a world of hurt since Chris Carson suffered a fractured hip and C.J. Prosise broke his arm, both in the Week 16 loss to Arizona. They also lost RB Rashaad Penny late in the season due to a torn ACL. Substitute rookie Travis Homer was called into action, but Homer and Lynch combined wound up with 17 carries for 19 yards.
Russell Wilson, aided by several deep completions, threw for 325 yards. But the Seahawks were also aided even more by playing all but nine minutes of the game against a 40-year-old backup, who himself was injured in the waning minutes of the game.
QB Russell Wilson is always a tough opponent, but the Packers should be pleased to be going up against an offense that is without a viable run game.
It looks like it will be the Packers run game versus the Seahawks’ pass game next Sunday. Mike Pettine will undoubtedly formulate a game plan dedicated to denying Wilson from taking control of the game with his passing.
Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have to carry the load. As long as he can pick his spots and efficiently gain around 200 yards through the air, the Packers run game, as it has in most of its five-game win streak, should prove to be the difference.