Ever since the NFL listened to the Indianapolis Colts’ complaints about the contact from the New England Patriots’ defensive backs in the mid-aughts, it has felt like passing in the league went to a new level. No longer was a 25-touchdown season with a 60 percent completion percentage good enough. And 3,000 passing yards, with the officials looking for illegal contact like highway patrol in a rural section of the interstate for speeding, that’s almost a baseline satisfactory number.
Then Tom Brady suffered the only serious injury of his career and a few years later the world found out that head injuries are actually just as serious as the phrase “head injury” would lead you to believe. More rule changes resulted in more points by offenses deciding to rely on the passing game. As a result, nickel backs became a necessity, and the inside linebackers needed to be able to cover running backs in the passing game more often than thump them in the B gap.
At just under a quarter of the way through the 2022 NFL season, passing games are struggling league-wide. Those 400-plus yard passing games with three and four touchdowns are becoming much less common, as are teams putting up big scores. Through four weeks — no team on a bye — only 14 games have resulted in a team scoring 30 points or more.
There are a handful of teams putting in work on the offensive side of the ball. The team averaging the most points per game is the Hard Knocks darling Detroit Lions. They’ve only won once this season, but are leading the league in scoring at 35 points per game, and their lowest-scoring game of the season is 28 points. QB Jared Goff is playing well, but the statistic that sticks out is D’Andre Swift leading the NFL in yards per carry at 8.6. He was injured for their most recent game, but RB2 Jamaal Williams averaged 5.7 yards per rush in a 48-45 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
All of a sudden, the running game is once again a crucial element to a successful offense. Of the teams with the five best Expected Points Added (EPA) in the NFL, three of them are in the top five in yards per carry — the Lions, Seattle Seahawks, and Cleveland Browns. Of the top 10 teams in Offensive DVOA, six of them are also top-10 in Run DVOA — the Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles, Browns, Lions, Green Bay Packers, and Atlanta Falcons. It appears that the run game that had been window dressing for nearly a decade is now paramount. It likely happened because defensive coaches were faced with the task of slowing down the ultimate passing attack.
Patrick Mahomes forced defensive coaches to adjust after they had already adjusted. They were putting out extra defensive backs, but still not always leaving two players deep in coverage. It leaves too few bodies to stop the run, and also not enough people deep in coverage. After three seasons of Mahomes putting the ball wherever he wanted, an adjustment was made.
If you listened to a good football podcast, or watched NFL Live or NFL Network with any regularity, you heard about the two-high safety looks that teams decided to use against the Chiefs in 2021. It resulted in Mahomes’ worst season as an NFL starter — the Chiefs still earned the top seed in the AFC — and the team’s collapse in the second half of a conference championship loss against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Trends start quickly after any success in the NFL. Two-high looks are way more usual, and it’s working. Per NFL football operations, “pass plays have been less efficient than in any of the previous 10 seasons.” Defenses are determined to make offenses work the field chunk by chunk and hope that a mistake is made. It’s the best that they can do against the modern NFL passing game.
The New England Patriots showed it for years. Get all skill position players involved in the route tree and a three-yard completion can quickly turn into seven.
But what if the opposing quarterback isn’t Tom Brady, and the defense stays content? They keep the two safeties back knowing that the offense doesn’t want to run the football. Sure a running back can average four-plus yards per carry, but is an offensive coordinator going to be satisfied with those slightly positive runs?
For those who are capable, the game has gone back in time 20 years. It might be harder to get to 20 points, but at least your team has the football. With only seven players in the box defending the run, you likely won’t regularly record a 20-plus yard play, but it’s consistent positive yardage. The linebackers are smaller because they need to be strong in pass defense, and your offensive linemen get to indulge in the reason why they participated in football in the first place. They don’t have to catch freak defensive athletes in the chest as they kick-slide. Instead, they get to push forward and bring the pain.
Offenses will adjust to some extent this season, but for now, let’s enjoy football the way that it was meant to be played. Creating some seals here, and some there, and running the football in the alley.