After watching the NFC West field some of the most prolific aerial attacks in the league throughout the years, fans and observers should take note of the dramatic transformation that is set to unfold within the division in 2009. Led by three new defensive-minded coaches intent on constructing teams built for the postseason, the NFC West will see the running game emerge as the new blueprint for success this season.
Coaches from defensive backgrounds have universally believed that a stout defense and strong running game lead to wins, and that notion has been bolstered by the fact that six of the top seven rushing offenses in the league earned playoffs berths in 2008. With that in mind, it's not surprising that San Francisco's Mike Singletary, St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo and Seattle's Jim Mora have initiated their rebuilding efforts with the ground game as the focal point.
In San Francisco, Singletary immediately changed the focus of the team's offense upon taking over the helm toward the middle of last season. He has continued to make the running game the emphasis during the offseason. Singletary dumped pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz at season's end after the team ranked 27th in rush offense (99.9) and attempts (24.8) despite the presence of Frank Gore.
In his place, Jimmy Raye steps in to install a run-first attack built around Gore's impressive talents. The four-year veteran has compiled three straight 1,000-yard seasons, including a stellar 2006 campaign when he finished as the league's third-leading rusher. As a hard-nosed runner with explosive power and pop, Gore is built to handle a heavy workload as a featured back.
Although he only had three games with 20 or more carries last season, it shouldn't come as a surprise to see Gore routinely tally 20-25 carries per game with the team's lingering questions at quarterback. With a career record of 13-3 when Gore carries the ball 20 or more times, the prospect of riding the former Pro Bowler should be the Niners' recipe for success.
For the Rams, it's obvious that Spagnuolo is making the running game the backbone of their offensive attack. With young talent abound at the skill positions, the team is depending on former Pro Bowler Steven Jackson to act as the centerpiece of the offense. The five-year veteran has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in four consecutive seasons and is one of the most talented runners in the league.
Jackson, who earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2006 after amassing 2,334 yards from scrimmage, is a big, bruising runner with deceptive speed and quickness. He has the ability to grind it out between the tackles while also flashing the burst to turn the corner on outside runs. Though he missed four games last season due to injury, Jackson is a proven workhorse who gets better with more carries. He had eight games with 20 or more carries, including back-to-back games with 30 rushing attempts to finish the season. He topped the 100-yard mark in four of those 20-carry games and had at least 90 yards in two other contests.
While Jackson's outstanding production when given the rock is part of the reason for the Rams' renewed commitment to the run, it's the blueprint that Spagnuolo learned from his time with the Giants that has the team poised to run the ball relentlessly in 2009. The Giants were built from the inside out, and their offensive line led to the success of their running game. With that in mind, Spagnuolo has made beefing up the Rams' offensive line an emphasis during the offseason. The team signed center Jason Brown during free agency and took tackle Jason Smith with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
Brown, who anchored the interior of the Ravens' fourth-ranked rushing attack, gives the team a physical presence at the point of attack. His ability to control the middle will allow the Rams to feature more downhill runs. Smith is slated to line up at right tackle, and he will team with former first-round pick Alex Barron to give St. Louis a pair of athletic blockers on the edge.
With Jacob Bell as a holdover at guard, the Rams have the big, physical frontline in place to play the smash-mouth style that could give their opponents fits.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Seahawks have long been recognized for their prolific passing offense under Mike Holmgren. But the team is poised to shift to a more ground-based attack under Mora. With new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp at the helm, the offense is overhauling its blocking scheme to feature more zone-based runs after relying on a man-blocking scheme for years. The zone-based system has been a fixture of Knapp's offenses in the past, and it has helped the savvy coordinator direct top-10 rushing offenses in each of his eight seasons as a coordinator, including three No. 1 finishes during his three-year tenure in Atlanta.
While the Seahawks lack a Pro Bowl-caliber runner in the backfield, they will use the threat of a potent passing offense to create space in the running game. The team's three-receiver sets feature a dangerous trio in Pro Bowler T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson. With three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck at the controls, opponents will defend the package with their nickel unit and concede some yardage on the ground. This tactic will not only create enough space for Julius Jones to run effectively between the tackles on a variety of inside zone plays, but it will grant the five-year veteran more opportunities to run in favorable situations.
Jones was derided for his lack of production last season, but averaged 4.4 yards per carry and put up 100-yards in back-to-back games against NFC West foes (San Francisco and St. Louis). Throw in the fact that Jones produced a career-high six runs over 20 yards in only 158 carries, and it is apparent why the Seahawks expect their rushing offense to be vastly improved over the 19th-ranked unit that took the field last season.
With the rest of the division hoping to emerge as playoff contenders behind fortified rushing attacks, the Cardinals see an improved ground game keeping them among the ranks of the elite. Last season, the team rode its second-ranked pass offense to win the division with a 9-7 record. But the team struggled running the football and finished last in the league in rush offense.
Edgerrin James rushed for a career-low 514 yards and his cohort, Tim Hightower, averaged a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. Although the running game caught fire during the team's Super Bowl run (the Cardinals averaged 91.5 rushing yards per game during the postseason), the lack of a balanced offense during the regular season led to inconsistent play and put too much of the offensive burden on Kurt Warner.
However, that is sure to change in 2009 as a couple of factors will lead the team to lean more on the running game. Todd Haley's departure means Ken Whisenhunt will serve as the play-caller, which will change the dynamics of the Cardinals' offensive approach. As the Steelers' offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt directed three offenses that finished in the top 10 in rushing, including a 2004 unit that ranked second in the league in rush offense. Though he won't turn the Cardinals into a grind-it-out unit, he will surely look to add more balance to the offensive attack with his run-heavy background.
In addition, the team's selection of Chris "Beanie" Wells will lead to more attempts in the running game. The Ohio State star replaces James in the lineup and gives Whisenhunt a big back with explosive quickness and burst. With defenses loading up to stop Warner and Co., Wells should be able to take advantage of the huge running lanes created by the team's spread offense. Last season, the Cardinals produced only five runs of 20 yards or more, but Wells' big-play ability should allow the team to easily surpass that total in 2009.
For years, this division has been ruled by the aerial circus, but 2009 may be the year where the ground attack rises to prominence in the wild, wild west.