Secret's out: Pass-happy teams have nowhere to run

If anything reinforces the notion that this is a pass-first league, it is this: The four active members from the NFL's top-five rushing list in 2006 have been all but invisible through the first three weeks of the season.

In fact, Tiki Barber has been far more noticeable in retirement than the rest of the not-so-fabulous five has been on the field.

Remember LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL's Most Valuable Player in '06? He has all of 130 yards, putting him 33rd among the league's rushers. He is averaging a pathetic 2.3 yards per carry, which has plenty to do with the San Diego Chargers' woeful beginning to a season of sky-high expectations.

At the moment, five teams are averaging 40 or more pass attempts a game. Since 2000, and the seven seasons leading up to this year, only one team averaged 40-plus passes for the season. Are teams even trying to establish the run? More ...

How about Larry Johnson? The man who was supposed to carry the Kansas Chiefs on his shoulder pads has gained a mere 140 yards. He's averaging 2.8 yards per carry and does not have a touchdown.

Surely the name Frank Gore rings a bell, doesn't it? He has a paltry 175 yards, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. Like Tomlinson and Johnson, he has yet to crack 100 yards through the San Francisco 49ers' 2-1 start (although Gore has been playing through the grief of the recent passing of his mother).

The "star" of the bunch is Steven Jackson. He has 233 yards, nearly half of which came in the St. Louis Rams' Week 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jackson has yet to reach the end zone, and will probably miss at least one game with a groin-muscle injury.

Of the current top five -- Pittsburgh's Willie Parker, Oakland's LaMont Jordan, Cleveland's Jamal Lewis, Denver's Travis Henry and Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook -- only Lewis has had what would be considered a spectacular outing. And his 216-yard performance in the Browns' Week 2 victory over Cincinnati was sandwiched between the 35 yards he had in a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh and the 56 he gained in a Week 3 defeat at Oakland.

Of the NFL's five unbeaten teams, only Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have stayed perfect with balanced offenses. Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Brett Favre have literally thrown New England, Dallas and Green Bay to 3-0.

What happened to the good old run-and-stop-the-run formula for football success?

For one thing, it seems many offensive coordinators/head coaches have lost their patience with the running game. A number of them don't even pretend to make an honest effort to establish it, even if only to give opposing defenses a marginal reason to bite on play fakes.

Take Packers coach Mike McCarthy, for example. Granted, he has the worst running game in the league, but couldn't he have at least attempted to get something going on the ground against the Chargers in Week 3? Instead, McCarthy had Favre throw 45 passes. Worst yet, after the Packers drove to the San Diego 1-yard line (and were backed up by a false start on the first play) late in the game, he had him attempt four successive throws before turning the ball over on downs. That set the stage for the Chargers to try and run out the clock, which they failed to do after (what else?) an incomplete pass on third-and-short. With 2:18 left, the ball wound up in Favre's hands for his winning -- and NFL record-tying -- touchdown pass.

By most accounts, offensive coordinators have resigned themselves to the fact that there simply is nowhere to run when defenses insist on stacking the line of scrimmage. And that defensive tactic no doubt has become more popular than ever after Tomlinson, Johnson, Gore, Barber and Jackson were such dominant rushers last season.

Of course, defenses made a concerted effort to try and stop them before. But they are going to even greater extremes this season. For instance, the Minnesota Vikings did everything they could to challenge the Chiefs and try to beat them on the strength of Damon Huard's throwing arm. When the Chiefs accepted the dare in the second half, they were able to rally from a 10-0 deficit en route to a 13-10 win.

The Packers succeeded in shutting down Tomlinson, who finished with 62 yards, by blitzing on early downs and keeping their safeties near the line. They went so far as to leave only one linebacker on tight end Antonio Gates, who had 11 receptions but ultimately couldn't make up for Tomlinson's limited impact.

"It's different now … because people are stacking nine, 10, maybe 11 guys," Johnson told reporters in Kansas City. "That's what we're going to have to face until we prove that we can throw the ball up the field. Defenses are looking at us like they'll give up the 10- to 15-yard pass routes. They'd rather give up that than the 20-, 30-yard runs that we can get.

"It's tough right now because that's what defenses are thinking."

Monday night takes

Assorted observations from the Tennessee Titans' 31-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football:

» It's easy to get so carried away with the greatness of Brady, Peyton Manning and Favre that you forget there are other quarterbacks in this league who you would gladly pay to watch play. Add Vince Young to the list. He used the national stage to demonstrate just how remarkably talented he is in all aspects of his position. Even after suffering an injury to his throwing arm that caused him to miss the final series of the first half, he still was able to perform well enough in the second half to put together a solid night (14-of-22 for 164 yards and two touchdowns, and five carries for 21 yards). Young's mobility is, of course, his calling card. Combined with his considerable size and strength, it makes him a threat for game-breaking plays every time he decides to run. However, Young is rapidly blossoming into an excellent passer. He has a strong, accurate arm, but also shows superb touch. He makes consistently good reads and decisions with the ball.

» With Young, the Titans always have a chance to win. With Young and the NFL's ninth-ranked defense, the Titans are a legitimate playoff contender. On face value, beating up on the lowly Saints might not seem like a tremendous accomplishment. But doing so a week after an emotional loss to the Colts, and doing so in front of a highly charged crowd in the Louisiana Superdome is something about which the Titans can be extremely proud. This game not only allowed the nation to get a good look at Young, but it also showcased the dominance of a hard-hitting, playmaking defense. Tennessee ranks second in the league against the run, and that helps create the sort of opportunities that allowed linebacker Keith Bullock to intercept three Drew Brees passes. Titans center Kevin Mawae said it best when he told reporters after the game, "The secret is out of the bag now. We are a lot better than probably a lot of people thought we would be."

» I don't see much hope for a Saints turnaround. It seemed pretty clear after two games that this team needed to start playing with more power than finesse on offense. That never happened against the Titans. If coach Sean Payton had even considered trying to take that approach by hammering away with Deuce McAllister, he lost that chance after his big running back limped off the field with a season-ending knee injury. With McAllister done for the year, so are the Saints. Reggie Bush does not provide enough versatility to help bring balance to the offense. Bush is an explosive outside runner and a good receiver, but he is less effective without McAllister establishing a true between-the-tackles rushing force in order to keep defenses from keying on him on the perimeter.

» The free fall of Drew Brees is astounding. It has raised all sorts of ugly questions that were forgotten a year ago when he had the most productive season in Saints history. Is everything still OK with the shoulder on which he underwent major reconstructive surgery, prompting his departure from the Chargers? Is the fact he is a smaller quarterback posing a problem with his ability to see defenders, many of whom are able to use lateral quickness to block the throwing lanes he attempts to create with lateral movement? Is he or Sean Payton's scheme simply dictating too much of where he is trying to go with the ball? Something is terribly wrong, because Brees has become as much of an accident waiting to happen as the quarterback he faced in the NFC Championship, Rex Grossman. After throwing four interceptions against the Titans, Brees has seven for the season, two of which have been returned for touchdowns (giving him one more scoring throw to opponents than he has to teammates).

Random thoughts

» I'm not sure I can be sold on the idea of "situational" quarterback substitution. Baltimore and Arizona used it in their Week 3 game that the Ravens won, 26-23. Their coaches appear comfortable with using it again.

Kyle Boller made a late-game relief appearance for Ravens starter Steve McNair, who is still nursing a sore groin muscle stemming from an injury in the first game of the season. Boller deftly led the Ravens to their winning field goal, and coach Brian Billick is open to turning to his backup again because "that's 20 fewer plays, five fewer hits, whatever it may be" for McNair to endure.

Kurt Warner emerged from the bench in place of Cardinals starter Matt Leinart, and led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. Warner did an excellent job of engineering the no-huddle offense, something Leinart is far from mastering. As a result, new coach Ken Whisenhunt has thrown open the possibility that Warner could again step in at times to run the no-huddle when Leinart returns as the starter.

"We're lucky to have the latitude with Kyle," Billick told reporters in Baltimore.

Really? I can't be convinced that the two-platoon system works at quarterback, because it's the one position that should have an unquestioned starter. If two players fill it, then a team doesn't have anyone worthy of the No. 1 role. Two players filling it is awkward and confusing, especially for the other players on offense.

"It's a little bit weird," Warner told reporters in Arizona. "But at the same time to be in a backup role and have somebody say, 'Here's an opportunity for you to play weekly,' that excites me as well. In this position, you usually don't play unless something happens to the guy in front of you."

Exactly.

» Throw a flag on me for underestimating the Packers' run defense. I honestly expected Tomlinson to have his best game of the season against a unit that, I erroneously concluded in a Sept. 21 column for NFL.com, was loaded with quick and talented athletes but not stout enough to deal with the run.

The Packers' ability to effectively deal with Tomlinson was the result of some outstanding scheming by defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. Sanders did some early-down blitzing, while also using safeties near the line of scrimmage. Most of all, however, he leaned heavily on his defensive tackles (including Corey Williams, who made his first start of the season in place of Johnny Jolly) to control the inside gaps. That forced Tomlinson to try and run outside, where the Packers' speedy linebackers were usually ready to greet him.

"Our run defense was excellent, especially when they came in and tried to establish the run from the first series of the game," McCarthy told reporters in Green Bay. "It wasn't like they tried to run the ball, then got away from it, and tried to come back to it. They really pounded away at it."

» The NFL is quickly catching onto the notion that Tony Romo is hard to catch.

Romo's elusiveness was a huge factor in his ability to lead the Cowboys to their Week 3 pounding of the Chicago Bears. He did not register a single rushing yard, but he did an outstanding job of avoiding Bears pass rushers in the pocket. He not only showed a great feel for the pressure, but also staggering quickness to step away from trouble on the way to throwing for 329 yards and two touchdowns. And even at that, the Bears managed to sack Romo three times.

Nevertheless, Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher, who sacked Romo twice, shared a telling observation about the Cowboys' quarterback from an unnamed Miami defensive player who no doubt had been left frustrated by an inability to control Romo in Week 2.

"He said, 'He's surprisingly quick so try and not take it for granted; make sure you're ready to go,'" Urlacher told reporters before facing Dallas.

» A recommendation for your football reading list: The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches, and Moments in NFL History. As the title suggests, this is a bold offering of opinions from one man, ESPN national correspondent Sal Paolantonio (with writing assistance from Reuben Frank). Some pages will have you nodding in agreement and others will have you shaking your head and yelling out loud with no one around you.

I did that when I saw Marv Levy listed as the most overrated Hall-of-Famer of all time. Paolantonio put far too much weight on Levy's Buffalo Bills losing four consecutive Super Bowls by a combined score of 139-73 and not enough on his ability to keep a roster of players with some massive egos together and grounded enough to make that unprecedented run. In fact, earlier in the book, the Bills of the 1990s are among the most underrated Super Bowl teams in NFL history.

But it's that kind of book. You won't agree with everything, but you will find it interesting and extremely well researched.

Short yardage

» At first glance, I hated the Eagles' throwback uniforms. Now, for some strange reason, they're growing on me. Maybe it's time for new glasses.

» I don't think Lovie Smith should give a second thought toward damaging Rex Grossman's confidence if he, as expected, announces a quarterback switch. Staying confident is what a starting quarterback worth his salt is supposed to do, regardless of the circumstances. Grossman has played poorly enough to merit a seat on the bench.

» For the many critics who were ready for Trent Edwards to supplant J.P. Losman as the Bills' starter after only two games: be careful what you wish for. Edwards got to play nearly a full game against New England after Losman exited with a knee injury. After a couple of impressive series, Edwards looked exactly the way one would expect a rookie to look facing the best and most complex defensive scheme in the league. He will get a chance to redeem himself against the Jets, and it will be interesting to see how much better he will perform with a full week of preparation for an opponent. Losman's injury might force the Bills to stick with Edwards for a while, which, if the kid shows rapid progress, leaves open the distinct possibility of a permanent change.

Have a question for Vic on anything NFL related? Don't just sit there -- send it to AskVic@nfl.com, and the best questions will be answered throughout the season right here on NFL.com!

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