By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There’s a quiet change going on in the NFL this year.
Instead of merely being a passing league in which the team that can light up the scoreboard with the most prolific offense is the most dangerous team in the league, teams seem to be getting back to the running game.
No, they are not playing meatball football and simply trying to establish the run as they did in the 1960’s and ’70’s, but seven of the eight teams leading their divisions are reliant on the running game.
The only division leader that is struggling to run the football is the NFC West’s Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals shockingly started the season with four straight wins, but they are being chased by the San Francisco 49ers, and Jim Harbaugh’s team is definitely run-dependent with Frank Gore carrying the football.
Last year the New England Patriots were one of the three most passing-dependent teams in the league. Nothing figured to change this year with Tom Brady remaining at quarterback and receivers like tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd.
But Bill Belichick made a decision that his team was going to do a better job of running the football and stopping the run – sounds a lot like Doug Buffone’s old philosophy – this season.
In the Patriots’ Week 4 52-28 victory over the Bills, the Patriots got 100-yard rushing games from Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley. At the same time, no Buffalo running back had more than 33 rushing yards.
The Baltimore Ravens are tied for the AFC North lead with the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Ravens have perhaps the best all-around running back in the league in Ray Rice. The Bengals’ BenJarvus Green-Ellis can’t match Rice in terms of talent, but he has rushed for 286 yards and forces defenses to account for him.
The Houston Texans are running away with the AFC South and Arian Foster is clearly a vital part of Gary Kubiak’s offense. The Chargers are off to a somewhat surprising 3-1 start in the AFC West and Jackie Battle’s 5.1 yards per carry average is quite impressive. He has also scored three rushing touchdowns.
In the NFC, the Eagles have a one-game lead over their three NFC East foes and they have perhaps the most dangerous running attack in the conference with LeSean McCoy and quarterback Michael Vick’s ability to run the football. McCoy has 384 rushing yards and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The Redskins will try to run down the Eagles with power back Alfred Morris (376 yards, 4.6 yards per carry) helping out rookie sensation Robert Griffin III, who is one of the most dangerous backs in the league.
In the NFC North, Adrian Peterson made it all the way back from his ACL surgery and is as punishing as ever in the Viking backfield. The Bears are obviously dependent on Matt Forte’s versatility from the running back position.
The Falcons are playing like they are a legitimate Super Bowl contender through the first four weeks. It’s hard to buy into Mike Smith’s team until the Falcons win a playoff game, but Michael Turner takes much of the pressure off Matt Ryan with his bowl-’em-over style of running.
The NFL appeared to have thrown out the running game a year ago. Green Bay, New Orleans and New England were the best regular-season teams in the league and none of them could run the ball.
The Saints haven’t changed and they haven’t won a game. The Packers are barely a .500 team. The Pats have changed their philosophy and they appear to be back in the AFC East driver’s seat.
The Neanderthal style may just start to come back into vogue.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.