St. Louis Rams: The Importance of the Running Game

Michael Thomas

How important is the running game to the fortunes of the St. Louis Rams? Jeff Fisher believes it's the single most important thing. The running game, and stopping Houston's Arian Foster, may hold the keys for the Rams when they face the Texans on Sunday.

The NFL is now a passing league. The St. Louis Rams have added many explosive wide receivers since Jeff Fisher arrived in St. Louis: Chris Givens, Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and Brian Quick. In a pair of lopsided losses to Dallas and San Francisco, the Rams rushed for 53 yards, while allowing 412 yards rushing. Amid calls for a hurry-up, no huddle, or spread offense, Fisher had this to say about getting the offense back on track:

"Well, obviously as a football team, we have a lot to work out considering what's happened in the last five days and we're going to have to take advantage of some opportunities here through the weekend and early next week and try to get these issues fixed, namely our inability to run the football. We had two less carries than they did at halftime for no yards and that's pretty much the issue we're facing right now because everything spins off of that."

Those comments seem to fly in the face of today's pass-happy NFL [and conventional wisdom]. Is Fisher a faded anachronism, looking to repeat his own history as a coach, reverting to his age-old comfort zone of pounding the ball? Although not an ideal barometer, in the win against Jacksonville last week the Rams had 143 rushing yards [while allowing 96]. The more balanced attack benefited the Rams on many levels, as did containing the Jags' rushing game.

Being able to run the ball, and defend against the run, are paramount to Jeff Fisher and his notions regarding playing winning football:

"In order to win football games and control the clock, convert third downs, we’ve got to get better running and defending the run."

The accompanying chart presents the 13 teams having at least 10 wins in 2012, their rushing yards-per-game, and NFL ranking rushing the ball:

Team 2012 Record Rushing Yd's - Game NFL Rank
Washington 10  6 169.3 1
Minnesota 10  6 164.6 2
Seattle 11  5 161.2 3
San Francisco 11  4  1 155.7 4
New England 12  4 136.5 7
Houston 12  4 132.7 8
Chicago 10  6 123.1 10
Baltimore 10  6 118.8 11
Denver 13  3 114.5 16
Cincinnati 10  6 109.1 18
Green Bay 11  5 106.4 20
Indianapolis 11  5 104.4 22
Atlanta 13  3 87.3 29

Nine of the thirteen teams ranked in the top half of the league in rushing yards-per-game [7 in the top 10]. The remaining four teams also had at least ten wins. Green Bay, Atlanta, and Indianapolis had exemplary passing games, to compensate for the lack of a rushing game [and fine quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Andrew Luck]. How important was rectifying the lack of a rushing attack for these four teams? In the off season, Cincinnati drafted RB Giovani Bernard in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft. Green Bay doubled-down by drafting RB's Eddie Lacy in the 2nd round and Johnathan Franklin in the 4th round. On September 18, Indianapolis acquired RB Trent Richardson from Cleveland for a 1st round draft pick. Finally [and most notably for Rams fans], Atlanta signed RB Steven Jackson as a free agent in the off season. It's evident that each of these 4 teams saw the importance of balancing their offenses with a healthy running game.

Controlling the clock and converting third downs allow an offense to stay on the field and move the sticks, as noted by Jeff Fisher. The best way to achieve that is by having a balanced attack. The accompanying chart presents the 2012  top three offenses, the bottom two, and the St. Louis Rams. The chart breaks down the passing and rushing attempts for each team, and their combined rushing attempts plus completions-per-game. It's evident that the more balanced an offense was, the more efficient and productive it became.

Team Pass Attempts Pass Attempt % Rush Attempts Rush Attempt % Completions + Rush Attempts/Game
New England 642 55 523 45 57.8
Denver 589 55 481 45 55.2
Houston 554 52 508 48 53.9
St. Louis 557 57 410 43 46.4
Arizona 608 63 352 37 43.1
Jacksonville 586 62 358 38 42.9

There are 7 teams in the NFL who have won at least 4 games this season. The accompanying chart presents their won/loss record, rushing yards-per-game, and NFL ranking [plus the Rams for comparative purposes]:

Team Record Rushing Yd's/Game Rank
Denver 5  0 116.1 15
Kansas City 5  0 120.6 12
New Orleans 5  0 77.8 26
Indianpolis 4  1 142.1 4
New England 4  1 116.4 14
Seattle 4  1 159.1 2
Chicago 4  2 108.3 16
St. Louis 2  3 66.4 30

Six of the seven teams rank in the top half of the league in rushing yardage-per-game. The other team [the New Orleans Saints] rank 26th; fortunately for them, they have one of the elite quarterbacks in the game - Drew Brees - to compensate for the lack of a rushing attack. The St. Louis Rams rank 30th in the league in rushing yardage-per-game, and rank 28th defensively against the run.

Perhaps the running game, on both sides of the ball, is the biggest reason the Rams are 2-3 heading into their game against Houston. Maybe the losses of Steven Jackson, Quintin Mikell, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar [the first 4 games of this season] were more significant than first imagined. All three played very important roles in the running game, both offensively and defensively.

As Howard Balzer notes:

"Good NFL defenses will stop one-dimensional offenses. Play-action is useless, and opponents can take away a lot of the passing game, especially an inexperienced one, when there is no threat from the ground attack. The pass rush then comes in waves, and the green running backs also display their problems in pass protection. It's apparent there was a stunning miscalculation with the decision to let Jackson leave and then go forward with a committee approach led by Daryl Richardson."

From S.I. - MMQB - "Pass At Your Own Peril" [link]:

"The NFL is a passing league, we all know this. When you combine more talented passers and receivers coming up from the college ranks with the quarterback protection and defensive contact rules that put defenses at a disadvantage, it makes sense. It’s been almost too easy to throw."

"But the feeling I’ve gotten the past couple of weeks is that some teams have gotten too pass happy, to their own detriment. Teams used to pass because it was advantageous, either because of personnel or scheme—that’s what the defense gave them. Now, teams throw just to throw. And it’s hurting the teams that don’t know their own limitations."

The Rams play the Houston Texans this weekend, and there can be little doubt Jeff Fisher will be emphasizing the running game offensively, and keying on stopping Arian Foster defensively. As noted in my Thursday article "Dub's Pigskin Picks and Preview - Week 6 [link]:

"Houston has the number one ranked defense in the NFL, in yards allowed-per-game. They're also ranked number one in passing yards allowed. However, the Texans only rank 29th in rushing yards allowed. It's imperative for the Rams to establish the running game, as passing yards may be hard to come by in this game, and Houston has demonstrated susceptibility in defending the run."

Maybe Jeff Fisher knows what he's talking about after all...and why the Rams are struggling this season...

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