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Yes, running the football still wins in the NFL

What the Giants can learn from the teams who are still playing

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots
Derrick Henry
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

There’s no secret that establishing a potent and dangerous rushing attack is a solid foundation to winning football games. Baltimore, San Francisco, Tennessee, and Minnesota are all playing in the divisional round of the playoffs, and they’re all in the top 5 rin ushing yards per game.

New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman has come under fire on Twitter recently for making statements about the benefits of rushing the football and how the teams that are still playing are the teams that lead the league in rushing. There’s an obvious correlation to causation between why teams that win football games may be leading the league in rushing; i.e. if a team has a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, they’re going to bleed the clock and rush the rock.

A lot of people are stating that Gettleman lacks the statistical acumen to not realize this basic fundamental fact about football. Despite the general manager’s lack of prowess in the analytical world, I feel he understands the correlation. I don’t feel Gettleman’s intent was to shun the passing phases of the offense or the defense (Call me glass half full). He spent a first-round selection on cornerback DeAndre Baker, a third (in the supplemental draft) on Sam Beal, a fourth on Julian Love, and other late-round fliers on secondary pieces, while signing Golden Tate to a 4-year, $37.5 million dollar contract.

I don’t believe the old school general manager was attempting to tarnish the modern passing game, instead he was stating the importance of a strong rushing attack, which is something that he has reaffirmed several times. Gettleman puts a lot of value in being able to possess the football, win in the trenches, and utilize big men with strength to defeat the other teams big men whom also possess a lot of strength. With that being said, I sincerely hope it doesn’t come at the expense of new and innovative schemes on the offensive side of the football, but we currently are not aware of the coordinators, just the architect of the roster, and I do hope the nature around the Giants will be a cohesive one that includes the coaching staff when the roster is being constructed.

Enter the exciting new head coach, Joe Judge, that preaches fundamentals, toughness, and hard-nosed football. These are all bedrocks to establishing the run, similar to coaches like Mike Vrabel of the Titans and Mike Zimmer of the Vikings. These are two teams that have ran the ball incredibly well and have had their quarterbacks utilize the play action pass in a successful manner because of the feared rushing attacks of Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook.

There are so many variations to a rushing attack and great coaches are getting the most out of their players. Coaches like Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman have implemented rushing games that are/were incredibly feared by defensive coordinators; rushing games that were built around their athletic quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson and Colin Kaepernick. Varied rushing attacks date back to the Wishbone and Wing-T offenses. But to keep it simple, we’ll talk about two specific types of rushing styles: 1). Power/Gap and 2). Zone.

Just about all coordinators incorporate both types of styles, but usually the identity of their teams is mainly just one. Power/Gap features pulling lineman and pin/pull types of concepts that have one designed hole that is labeled by a number. Typically even holed numbers would be to the right, odd to the left, so the left A-Gap is 1, right A-Gap is 2, and so on and so forth. The design of Power/Gap is to hit these holes with blockers in space. Then there are zone runs; Giants fans are very much aware of the inside zone run, for Pat Shurmur ran it to his detriment in my opinion. Longtime offensive line coach Alex Gibbs was one of the masters of the outside zone rushing attack. Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco still employs many of those types of concepts, too.

The difference between zone runs and Power/Gap is the running back may have a landmark (either a numbered hole or a tangible thing on the field like the inside leg of the guard) and the back can utilize his vision to see and find the crease that maximizes his run. There are different options on the zone run for the running back and a defense can misread the play and not execute their run fits well, which can create a crease that can be capitalized by the running back.

Above are the first three rushing plays by the Tennessee Titans against the New England Patriots in Foxboro during their wild-card matchup last weekend. These are all stretch zone blocking concepts where the mesh point is meant to horizontally expand the defense, while linebackers are picked up at the second level by interior offensive linemen that climb from their double team. These runs come against a very well disciplined New England defense that was comfortable with Derrick Henry receiving the ball 30+ times in a road playoff game. The three plays you see above are very similar, but the holes are different because the defense had to overcommit to stop the stretch plays. Henry uses great vision to find the hole and explode through it because there were creases in the defense, due to blocking and an inability to stop the stretch zone types of runs. While the type of runs are important, the personnel is equally, if not more, important. The “hog mollies” of the Titans were able to win the line of scrimmage.

Here are the Titans in the fourth quarter adapting to the Patriots. Tennessee was trying to possess the ball and bleed the clock down by going heavy personnel, but the Patriots would bring defenders to the heavy side of the formation to combat a strong side run. Easy adjustment for Tennessee, which wjust ran to the weak side of the unbalanced formation. One play Henry goes inside the tackle the other he bounces outside the tight end, but either way he was able to pick up big plays and move the chains.

Tennessee was able to run the football on a stout defensive group late in the fourth quarter. This is the type of stuff Gettleman wants for the Giants, but it’s much easier said than done. The right play-caller needs to be in place to make these types of adjustments. There has to be an upgrade with the offensive line’s physicality and effectiveness.

Above are the Vikings running some zone type of plays, utilizing Dalvin Cook’s vision and burst, during the wildcard game against the Saints. Zimmer employs a lot of Power/Gap concepts as well, but you can see the effectiveness with these zone plays here. Blocking holds up just long enough at the point of attack and the running back is very decisive with his movements. You see 97 Mario Edwards Jr. (97) attempt to set the edge against Riley Reiff (71), which would make an outside run by Cook very difficult, but Reiff does a good job isolating him away from the 5 hole. Cook obliged and burst through the 5 hole cause Edwards set the edge too far. The offense also uses the upfield burst of the defense against them; watch Malcolm Brown (90) get upfield in the second clip and is a relatively unblocked defender at the line of scrimmage, which allows for the double team on Jordan Cameron (94). That’s an excellent way to use personnel in numbers against that defensive front.

Is there a correlation and causation relationship between teams that run the football and teams that win, one that is predicated on winning teams rushing the football late in games - yes. Does that mean building a roster to rush the football and own the line of scrimmage is a poor allocation of assets - no. Football is a balanced game and having a strong rushing attack backed up by a former No. 2 overall pick is a wise investment. I hope Coach Judge and his staff are able to assemble a team that can pound the rock, but I optimistically feel that the team will not be one dimensional in this regard. Hopefully, the Giants can implement some of the ideals that the Vikings, Ravens, and Titans have shown in 2019, but they still need to get the right staff assembled, along with the correct players who this coaching staff can extract the most value from.