Winning in the NFL isn’t all about having the best players, the best coaches, and the best team chemistry. Every team in the league is geared to maximize the chance of winning on Sunday. Having the best players is a big part of being successful on Sunday, but with 32 teams vying for the same players, finding great players is easier said than done.
Until recently, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the few teams in the league to run a 3-4 defense. The reason for this was that the 4-3 defense consists of players that are typically bigger than those that play in a 3-4 system (except at the NT position). The common cliche during this period was that you had to run the ball and stop the run to win games. The Steelers used the frenzy to acquire 4-3 players to their advantage.
The Steelers’ defense has always been one of the most dominant groups in the league. They built their defensive dominance by picking players from a different talent pool than most of the other teams. The 3-4 players they signed wouldn’t have worked as well in 4-3 systems. Consequently, the Steelers had the best 3-4 players in the league year after year, leading to consistent playoff births.
I believe we may begin to see a similar trend with some teams on the offensive side of the ball. In today’s NFL, the defense is constantly focusing on stopping the pass. This has led to the development of smaller, faster players that can close gaps in coverage quickly in an effort to slow down guys like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford. The obvious answer for offenses facing tight windows in coverage is to simply shove the ball down the defense’s throat.
I don’t believe that every team in the NFL is going to begin building huge, powerful offensive linemen that simply push the defense back, but for teams without established passers, the option of running the ball could be viable in securing enough wins to make a playoff push. Teams like the Saints, Patriots, Broncos, and Lions won’t be taking the ball out of their quarterbacks’ hands, but teams like the Jaguars, Browns, and Titans may be willing to run the ball against weaker defensive alignments in an effort to make up for the lack of a true franchise quarterback.
The NFL is all about adapting to an ever changing environment, and I can see the return of the running game as a way of beating fast, non-physical defensive groups.