Contendors employ differing RB strategies

The NFL's Final Four each have varied opinions on the best way to incorporate their primary running backs. We also discuss a potential shakeup in Pittsburgh, the NFL coaching carousel and more.

It won't quite be a clash of running-game philosophies in the two conference title battles this weekend.

But it is interesting to note that the contests feature matchups between teams that rely on a feature-type tailback to do most of the heavy lifting in the running game versus franchises that generally employ a tailback-by-committee design to churn out yards on the ground.

In Frank Gore, San Francisco possesses a tailback who has accounted for more than two-thirds of the 49ers' attempts and rushing yards by running backs (not counting rushes by quarterbacks and players from other positions). The New York Giants will counter with the potent 1-2 punch of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, neither of whom cracked the 700-yard mark in 2011, but who are better than advertised and whose diverse styles present a compelling contrast.

In the AFC game, New England has three backs who ran for more than 350 yards each during the regular season, with only BenJarvus Green-Ellis managing more than 500 yards, while the Baltimore Ravens try to control tempo with Ray Rice, whose 291 attempts ranked as the second most in the NFL (as did his 367 "touches'), and who rang up nearly 75 percent of the team's running yards by backs.

"It's all in what you and your team are comfortable with," Rice, who ran for 1,364 yards and a dozen touchdowns during the season, and who ironically complained at one juncture of the campaign about not getting the ball enough, told The Sports Xchange last week. "I really don't mind getting 20 or 25 carries, if that's what it takes for us to win, although Ricky (Williams) has done a great job taking his share of the load. Getting the ball that many times is no big deal to me. But I can see the other side of it, too. You know, whatever works for the team."

At least in the playoffs, the numbers indicate that both approaches have some merit, despite the widely held perception that the NFL has become a time-sharing league at the tailback position. Of the dozen teams that originally qualified for the postseason, half had 1,000-yard rushers in 2011, and six of the clubs did not. Of what were arguably the three most explosive offenses in the NFL -- in Green Bay, the Patriots, and New Orleans -- none had a player among them who rushed for more than 667 yards. Only half of the NFL's top 10 rushing offenses from during the season made the playoffs; then again, so did just six of the top 10 offenses, period. In essence, the feature back/committee mix among the four franchises still playing validates the notion that both paradigms can be successful.

"I still feel like you need two backs," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who signed Williams this season to replace the departed Willis McGahee as an understudy for Rice, said last week. "It's hard to go with just one."

Still, two of the Final Four teams (both notably coached by Harbaugh brothers) feature tailbacks who posted more than 66 percent of their teams' carries and more than 68 percent of the rushing yardage. The two other conference finalists lack a back with half the attempts or yards. So it's really a mixed-bag message in a league that has evolved into one that is skewed so predominantly toward the pass.

That disparity is pretty graphically reflected in the Final Four.

"I don't know that there's necessarily a right or wrong way," Bradshaw told The Sports Xchange two weeks ago. "It's kind of in the eye of the beholder. I like the way we do it. But, hey, if you can make the other way work ..."

Clubs, clearly, have made both work.

Of the 20 teams in the last 10 Super Bowl games, nine had 1,000-yard rushers, or tailbacks who carried the ball at least two-thirds of the time. Just five of the past 10 Super Bowl champions featured a 1,000-yard rusher during the season. There were only two of the last 10 Super Bowls in which both clubs had 1,000-yard rushers. New England has appeared in four Super Bowls since 2001, but lacked a 1,000-yard rusher in two of them.

In fact, in coach Bill Belichick's 12 seasons with the Patriots, the team has had 1,000-yard rushers just three times.

Said Green-Ellis, who logged 49.3 percent of the Patriots' carries in 2011, but played in an offense that didn't have a rush of more than 33 yards: "We're more of a 'spread it around' kind of offense. Everybody has a role. Everyone seems to fit in and knows he has to contribute. That's just the way we do it."

Indeed, New England, which hasn't been to a Super Bowl since losing to the Giants in 2007, is pretty much a smorgasbord of role-playing tailbacks. As noted above, three players -- Green-Ellis, rookie Stevan Ridley, and Danny Woodhead -- all rushed for 350 yards or more. In the 17 games the Patriots have played, including last week's divisional-round victory over Denver, New England has had five different players lead the club in rushing yards. The top rusher last week was actually tight end Aaron Hernandez, who offered the Pats' latest offensive twist by lining up in the backfield much of the night.

In the Pats' niche-tailback design, the team manages to blend in longtime third-down specialist Kevin Faulk as well.

New England had only one individual 100-yard rushing performance, when Green-Ellis went for 136 yards against the New York Jets, on Oct. 9. By comparison, Rice himself had six outings of 100 yards or more. But here are the Pats, who rated only No. 20 in rushing offense during the season, facing the 10th-ranked Ravens for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVI in two weeks. This more stark comparison can be made in the NFC game: The Giants statistically were last in the league in rushing offense and had the NFL's worst yards-per-carry average. But they will match up with a San Francisco running attack that was rated No. 8 in 2011.

As noted here in recent weeks, the Giants are probably better than their numbers. They are the only offense in the Final Four with two backs who each ran for more than 500 yards, the lone franchise playing in the conference title games on which two players logged at least 150 carries. Ironically, New England is the only one of the Final Four teams that didn't have two backs with 100-plus attempts.

If the Pats make do with a cadre of role-players, the roles of Rice and Gore are to serve as human battering rams. "We try to pound away at people," Rice said.

Even with Bradshaw still somewhat gimpy because of a lingering foot injury, the Giants can also pound at defenses, particularly when they get a lead. It has become Eli Manning's team, and the vertical passing game he has unleashed is paramount, but New York still brands itself a physical offense.

In recent years, the running back position has been somewhat devalued in the draft, in part because so many offenses now utilize two players to share the load. And such an approach probably will continue in this year's lottery. But as Sunday's conference championship games reflect, success in the running game -- even in a league that seems to measure the ground attack in various ways -- can be achieved anymore in a variety of manners.

"Like people say, there are a lot of ways to skin the cat," Jacobs told The Sports Xchange. "The key is to be one of the last cats standing."

Around the league

--Last week in this space, The Tip Sheet hinted that New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams could join longtime buddy Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, also reported by several other media venues, and that was, indeed the case.

But we also noted that the Saints' organization was prepared to offer Williams, whose contract expired at the end of the New Orleans season, more money to stay. A big swallow, given that Williams was already one of the highest-paid assistants, and perhaps the highest paid, in the league. Now league sources tell The Sports Xchange that New Orleans never really had a chance to make an offer to Williams, who was set on reuniting with Fisher, and that the team might not have thrown more money at him anyway after the divisional-round defeat at San Francisco.

The rumblings are that several Saints' officials, and a few players, as well, had become less than enamored with Williams the past few weeks, and with the inability to create turnovers, long a hallmark of his defenses. There was also a feeling among some players that Williams was too quick to lay blame on the personnel, not the scheme, and that he didn't always defend his charges to the critics.

The Saints' brass know what it's getting in new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the deposed Rams' head coach and former Jim Johnson protege in Philadelphia, and a guy who loves to turn up the pressure. But the feeling is that Spagnuolo's blitz packages won't be as ambitious as those of Williams, who blitzed more than 50 percent in 2011, a league high, and that they will be fundamentally sounder, especially in the back end. Spagnuolo will retain the 4-3 front the Saints have been playing as their "base," and may utilize some more zone coverages in the secondary.

It might be interesting to see what Spagnuolo has planned for strong safety Roman Harper. The three-time Pro Bowl defender was used as an "in the box" and blitz safety (7.5 sacks in 2011) by Williams, and that camouflaged some of his coverage deficiencies. Spanguolo used his safeties to blitz some during his two seasons as coordinator of the Giants, but not to the extent that Williams did.

--With four franchises still without head coaches as of this writing -- Indianapolis, Miami (expected to name its choice on Friday), Oakland, and Tampa Bay -- it's tough to assess the new sideline bosses for the 2012 season.

But it is worth noting that all three of the teams that have made hires so far have filled their vacancies with "repeat" (we cringe at the "retread" term) head coaches: Mike Mularkey (Jacksonville), Romeo Crennel (Kansas City), and Fisher (St. Louis).

Only once in the previous five firing-and-hiring cycles, in 2010, were there three "repeat" men hired for head coach gigs.

The three this year, with four more openings still to fill, as noted, is half as many as the league totaled in the past four years. The trend in the NFL has been toward newer and fresher faces, and that may well be the case for the franchises still seeking new coaches, but the re-emergence and resurfacing of some second-timers has been somewhat surprising.

"We tried the other way," a St. Louis executive told The Sports Xchange, referring to the fact that the Rams have had first-time head coaches (full-time) since Dick Vermeil exited after the 1999 season, "and it hasn't worked out. We wanted some stability and a track record, and that what we got (with Fisher)."

--It's still a long shot that Payton could lose his "other" coordinator in New Orleans, offensive chief Pete Carmichael, but it could happen.

In each of the last two weeks, the Tip Sheet has suggested that Carmichael might be a viable candidate for some of the head coach vacancies in the league.

Despite the perception that Carmichael is only the titular coordinator, and that Payton really oversees the offense, the veteran assistant is garnering some interest.

Indianapolis and Oakland both have him on their radar screens, and there is a feeling now that Carmichael is more engaging than his rather colorless mien makes him out to be.

Carmichael took over much of the play-calling when Payton was laid up by an injury and, as noted here in the past, he has the Drew Brees endorsement.

--One of the several dicey personnel decisions confronting Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith in the offseason is the fate of tailback Michael Turner.

There are whispers that the Falcons will at least dangle Turner, who rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011, on the trade market. But dealing Turner will be difficult.

He turns 30, the death-knell age for running backs, in about four weeks. In three of his hour seasons in Atlanta, he carried 300-plus times, and averaged 337.0 attempts in those years, with the only season logging fewer than 300 rushes in 2009, when he was injured. So there is plenty of tread rubbed off the tires. And Turner is noticeably a step slower than a few years ago.

So the market figures to be tepid. Plus, the Falcons really don't have a replacement. The coaches seem to like youngster Antone Smith, but he has one carry in two years. Jacquizz Rodgers, a rookie in '11, is more a situational back who probably can't handle an every-down workload.

And Turner is due to make only $5 million in base salary for 2012 (cap charge of $7.5 million) and of $5.5 million in 2013 (cap hit of $8 million), actually pretty palatable numbers.

With those salaries, and the lack of depth at the position, it might be easier to hang on to Turner for another season than it would be to replace him. Still, Atlanta needs to start planning for the future at the position.

--The emphasis when studying offensive lines generally is directed at the tackles, but this weekend's game will cast some focus on the interior blockers as well.

There are plenty of terrific inside defenders in the conference championship games -- 49ers end/tackle Justin Smith, Baltimore tackle Haloti Ngata, New England's Vince Wilfork, the New York ends when they sink them down inside against guards in their "NASCAR" pass-rush scheme -- and the centers and guards of the offensive units will have to play well for their respective teams.

The Ravens plan to try to exploit the middle, to exert pressure inside against Tom Brady, and the Patriots will have to be alert to that tactic. As much as in any week of the season, protection this weekend will have to be from the inside out.

--Pittsburgh president Art Rooney II suggested this week in his season-ending session with reporters that the Steelers face an offseason of change, and there will certainly be at least a minor facelift, with the team about $25 million over the projected 2012 salary cap.

There will be some reshaping of the Steelers, for sure, and that might be most evident on the offensive and defensive lines.

For the latter, the Steelers may strongly suggest to end Aaron Smith, who has missed much of the past two seasons with injuries and has lost 20 pounds the last few months, that he retire. Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton might have to be sacrificed.

But there could be big changes as well on the offensive line, where coach Sean Kugler has had to shuffle a lot of bodies because of injuries for two years. It seems that center Maurkice Pouncey is about the only guy guaranteed a starting spot.

It's thought that tackle Willie Colon will return from the Achilles injury that sidelined him, and he could move into the right-side spot.

Second-year pro Marcus Gilbert, a starter at right tackle in 2011, might slide to the left side, if free agent Max Starks doesn't return. Former starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu will likely be a cap casualty. And the team, for whatever reason, seems reluctant to anoint Ramon Foster as the starter at right guard.

Rooney hasn't been happy in the past with the struggles of the running game, and this week pointed out that the unit must protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger much better, so Kugler has his work cut out for him.

--One of the unheralded influences on the conference championship games might be former NFL defensive end Chuck Smith, who played nine seasons in the league (1992-2000), all but the last one with the Atlanta Falcons.

A former defensive line coach at the University of Tennessee, his alma mater, and a man who has worked with several NFL teams, Smith for several years has tutored league players on some of the finer points of pass rushing. Over the past several years, he has worked with more than 125 players in the offseasons.

The Sports Xchange has confirmed that he has tutored one-on-one several players in both championship games, most notably Osi Umenyiora of the Giants and the Ravens' Jarret Johnson, and serves as a pass-rush consultant for several of the franchises that were in the playoffs.

Smith, who had 58.5 sacks in his career, including three seasons with double-digit sacks, has long studied rush techniques and emphasizes nuances such as get-off, vision, the use of hands and importance of hips, leverage, and countering.

"It's an art, and one that people just think they can pick up," Smith said. "Not true."

He'll have a special view of the AFC and NFC title games, and will take considerable interest in how the teams attack the pocket, and the individual and collective performances on the pass rush. One element he hopes he doesn't see much: Three-man rushes.

"All you do against the good quarterbacks, when you rush three, is guarantee them a first down," said Smith, now 42. "If coaches keep using a three-man rush, they'll keep losing games." Smith also contended that the offensive line play in the league is "the worst" he has ever witnessed in a season.

--Remember the old mid-1980s TV show, "Spenser: For Hire," starring Robert Urich?

Well, the NFL is likely to have a sequel of sorts, albeit with a different spelling of the surname -- call it "Spencer For Hire -- this spring.

Dallas five-year veteran and former first-round choice (2007) Anthony Spencer is eligible for unrestricted free agency, and the Cowboys seem to have little or no intention of pursuing an extension.

Unless the organization's take on Spencer changes dramatically in the next month or so, he'll be on the market, team sources acknowledged to The Sports Xchange.

Noted one Dallas staffer: "The guy plays (opposite DeMarcus) Ware, a sack machine who always draws double teams, and he can't get to the quarterback more than he has? There were some flashes last season, but he really took a step back this year, and I can't imagine him being back."

In his three years as a starter, Spencer totaled 17 sacks, never more than six in a season, and Ware posted 46 in the same stretch. It will be interesting to see what transpires with Spencer in free agency.

He's still only 27 years old and some 3-4 team might take a shot, but it doesn't seem like anyone will pay him big money.

--The Pro Football Hall of Fame typically does a terrific job of keeping the results of its votes private -- the balloting on the original list of 100-plus candidates to reduce the pool to 25 semifinalists (26 this year because of a tie), the reduction to the 15 modern-day finalists, and, of course, the vote on inductees -- and this year certainly has been no different.

Word from a fairly reliable source, though, is that former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a semifinalist since 2007, was 16th in the voting for a finalist berth this year, one slot short of qualifying for formal discussion by the 44 selectors.

"Tags" was a finalist three straight years, 2007-2009, but failed to receive the 80 percent vote required for induction. This marks the third straight year in which Tagliabue was among the pool of semifinalists, but did not advance to the finals. Selectors will convene in Indianapolis on Feb. 4, the day before Super Bowl XLVI, to elect the Class of 2012.

--The aforementioned Green-Ellis was the only team-leading rusher in the league in 2011 who didn't have at least one gain for 20 yards or more. Green-Ellis' longest run of the season was for 18 yards. In fact, New England had only five 20-yard runs -- the Giants, with four, were the only club with fewer -- and Ridley had all of them. Green is the first player since Peyton Hillis with Denver in 2008 to lead a team in rushing yards and not have at least one 20-yard run. The Patriots were one of only six teams with no 40-yard rushes, and they also had no 40-yard rushes in 2010.

--As Dana Carvey and his character, "The Church Lady," used to say, "Well, isn't that special?" It has been, special teams play that is, for the four teams in this week's championship games.

Because of the performances of kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee, the San Francisco special teams have garnered plenty of attention. But one of the common denominators among the four clubs playing Sunday is their excellent overall special teams play.

Worth noting is that all four teams have at least one coverage player in the top 10 in special teams tackles, and the Giants have two. The players: linebacker Jacquian Williams and safety Tyler Sash (both from New York), safety C.J. Spillman (49ers), wide receiver Matthew Slater (Pats), and defensive end Albert McClellan (Ravens).

Punts

--Another common thread among the Final Four franchises is that all of them ranked in the top half of the league in fewest missed tackles. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers missed the fewest tackles in the league during the season (61), and New York and Baltimore also were in the top 10.
--By the time you read this, Mike McCoy could be the new Miami head coach. McCoy was so confident of his chances with the Dolphins that he removed himself from consideration in Oakland. But there are still some people in the league who contend that the Broncos' offensive coordinator actually had less to do with installing the read-option offense in-season than did quarterback Tim Tebow.
--It's expected that Buffalo will continue to use multiple defensive fronts in 2012, even though new coordinator Dave Wannstedt is basically a 4-3 proponent.
--The Dolphins, who expect Chad Henne to return from injury and feel that Matt Moore can be a capable backup, are not expected to try to move up in the first round for a quarterback prospect.
--One team that might consider taking a quarterback earlier than expected in the 2012 draft is Dallas. The Cowboys have quietly shown interest in several quarterbacks and placed a claim for Kyle Orton when he was waived by the Broncos in November. With Jon Kitna retiring, the Cowboys are looking for a quarterback to compete with Stephen McGee to back up Tony Romo.
--Former Buffalo starter Trent Edwards, who was out of the league in 2011 and who has started only 10 games since the end of the 2008 campaign, worked out this week for Philadelphia, and might be a candidate as a backup quarterback to Michael Vick. The Eagles' staff is high on two-year pro Mike Kafka, but might not be ready yet to declare him the No. 2 guy, and could be seeking a more experienced alternative. . . . There currently are two franchises, Washington and Buffalo, which have finished last in their respective divisions for four consecutive seasons. Since the '02 realignment, just two other clubs, Cleveland (2003-2006) and Oakland (2004-2007), had four straight divisional last-place finishes.
--Both Manning and Joe Flacco of the Ravens have compiled four postseason wins on the road in their careers, and could set a new league record with a victory on Sunday.
--The Giants' Tom Coughlin has six playoff wins on the road, just one shy of Tom Landry's record.
--Look for San Francisco offensive assistant Bobby Engram and Giants defensive quality control coach Al Holcomb to join the staff of new Pitt haed coach Paul Chryst when their respective teams have finished their seasons.
--Somewhat overlooked in the comments this week by Rooney II was the nugget that his father, Dan Rooney, likely will step down from his post as ambassador to Ireland sometime this year and return to the Steelers, at least in an advisory capacity.
--In his first two seasons in Washington, coach Mike Shanahan is just 11-21. Jim Zorn (2008-2009) and Steve Spurrier (2002-2003) both were fired despite each winning one more game in their two seasons with the Redskins.
--The Giants are 4-0 in NFC championship games.
--It appears that, had Mularkey not landed the Jacksonville head coach job, he would have been dismissed as offensive coordinator in Atlanta. His successor, Dirk Koetter, should have more freedom than he had with the Jaguars, where his efforts at having a vertical passing game and even some of his weely game plans were thwarted by then-boss Jack Del Rio. The Falcons may consider some outside candidates to replace deposed offensive line coach Paul Boundreau, but the front-runner for the job might be incumbent assistant line coach Paul Dunn.
--Speaking of the Falcons, Koetter has pledged more emphasis on the screen pass, a play that was essentially non-existent under Mularkey, and that could mean Atlanta makes a big play for free agent guard Carl Nicks of New Orleans. The two-time Pro Bowl blocker is a road-grader in the running game, but very adept at getting downfield on screens as well, and quite accustomed to the chore having played for Sean Payton and the Saints, one of the top screen-pass teams in the league.
--Of the 11 head coaches hired in 2009, only two, Jim Schwartz in Detroit and the Jets' Rex Ryan, still have their jobs.
--The Steelers may be forced, for one of the few times in their history, and only the third time in about the past 20 years, to go outside the organization for an offensive coordinator after Bruce Arians "retired" amidst pressure from the top this week. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who might have moved up into the role, continues his long recovery from burns over 45 percent of his body, suffered in a recent home accident.

The last word
"This is not going to be a cute football game. It's not going to be for the meek and mild. This is going to be a bloodbath, that's what it's going to be." -- New York Giants' defensive tackle Chris Canty, per multiple New York-area newspapers, on Sunday's NFC championship game against San Francisco.


Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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