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Is Running The Ball Back?

For the first time since 1970, the top four passing teams by yards missed the playoffs, while the top four rushing teams made it. On Saturday in the wild-card round, the Tennessee Titans needed barely any passing game whatsoever to knock out Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, becoming just the fourth team this century with fewer than 75 passing yards in a postseason win.

Of the teams left in the playoffs, only one finished the regular season among the top 12 passing teams: the Kansas City Chiefs, who gained just 25.9 percent of their yards on the ground, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. The seven other remaining playoff teams gained 36.9 percent of their total yards on the ground. The Baltimore Ravens, the first team ever to average at least 200 yards rushing and passing per game in a season, clocked in at 50.5 percent of total yards rushing — and they were the first team since the Tim Tebow-led 2011 Broncos to run for more yards than they threw. The 22 teams who’ll be watching the weekend slate of games in their living rooms were decidedly more pass happy, gaining 30.8 percent of their yards on the ground.

Most of the remaining playoff teams like to run the ball

Divisional-round teams by share of total yards gained through rushing during the 2019 NFL regular season

Team Total yards Rush yards Share Rush
Baltimore Ravens 6,521 3,296 50.5%
Tennessee Titans 5,805 2,223 38.3
San Francisco 49ers 6,097 2,305 37.8
Minnesota Vikings 5,656 2,133 37.7
Seattle Seahawks 5,991 2,200 36.7
Houston Texans 5,792 2,009 34.7
Green Bay Packers 5,528 1,795 32.5
Kansas City Chiefs 6,067 1,569 25.9

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

It wasn’t only the Titans and their bulldozing back Derrick Henry who took the air out of the football over the weekend (like back in its melon-shaped days). All four winning teams ran more on first down than they threw, combining for 75 runs versus just 32 passes, while the four losing teams ran 45 times and passed 71 times. And this was on a playoff weekend with every game decided by one score, the first such wild-card weekend since 1991.

So is running the football back just in time for the playoffs?

Let’s look at the winning team that ran most efficiently, not just on first down but on all downs in Week 18: the Titans. Tennessee tallied a weekend-high 201 rushing yards (182 by Henry on 34 carries). But the end result was a measly 14 offensive points. It was as if Bill Belichick took a page out of his own history book and instructed his defense to let Henry run, like he did three decades ago in Super Bowl XXV against Buffalo Bills great Thurman Thomas. As with Thomas, who ran for 135 yards on 15 carries in that 20-19 loss to the New York Giants, Henry’s performance looked a lot better on the stat sheet than on the scoreboard. His plays came at the expense of passing plays by Ryan Tannehill, the league’s top-ranked quarterback in yards per attempt and passer rating.

And note that, by expected points added, passing is so much more important than running that Tannehill still added more win probability with his meager stats than Henry did with his his historic ones.

The good news for Tennessee is that, historically, teams with 100-yard rushers like Henry (the only back in the wild-card round to achieve the feat) generally do not struggle to score in the postseason. This century, playoff teams with 100-yard rushers have averaged a very healthy mark of just under 30 points per game (and are 60-22) — though that may be more a function of teams running the ball once they’ve built a lead, rather than teams building a lead by running.

Can Henry carry the Titans on his broad shoulders for another week, this time against a Ravens defense that was 21st in yards allowed per rushing attempt during the regular season? Only 11 times this century has a back had multiple 100-yard rushing days in a single postseason. (Marshawn Lynch pulled off the feat in back-to-back postseasons for the Seahawks, whom he rejoined in December.)

Among the top rushing teams still playing, only the Titans have a conventional attack led by a bell-cow back like Henry, who gets virtually all of the Titans’ carries. The Ravens don’t rely on a single rusher and neither do the NFC’s top seed, the San Francisco 49ers. Each had three players rush for more than 500 yards. (The one other team to do that in 2019 was the Bills.)

And all these supposed rushing teams — including the Vikings, who were sixth in rushing yards during the regular season — are efficient at passing, too. In net yards per pass attempt (which includes sacks and sack yards), the 49ers ranked third, the Vikings fifth and the Ravens 10th among all 32 teams. The Seahawks, whose running game has been decimated by injuries, ranked 12th. Of the remaining teams, only Aaron Rodgers’s Packers were below the NFL average in passing efficiency.

So despite the apparent throwback to bull-dozing backs and prolific running performances, the best strategy for the playoff defenses may actually be to follow Belichick’s lead, letting their opponents flex their running muscles rather than making them throw. With passing, the yards are still much easier to come by, and the points are more certain to follow.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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