Every year, NFL teams undergo philosophical changes on both offense and defense. Most of the time those changes coincide with a new coaching staff coming in and wanting to install their own systems, however that’s not always the case.
The NFL is a copycat league and when teams have success with a scheme or philosophy, others often try to duplicate it. Teams also decide to shift philosophies based on personnel on both the coaching and player levels.
This year, there are four teams making changes for each of these reasons.
Four NFL Teams relying on the running game in 2015
New York Jets
Thanks to a locker room sucker punch during training camp, the Jets have moved from Geno Smith under center to Ryan Fitzpatrick, which can be viewed as a lateral move.
The Jets not only have a different starter this season, but they also feature a different regime. Rex Ryan has moved to Buffalo, and Todd Bowles has come from Arizona to take over as head coach. With Bowles, comes former Bills head coach Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator.
Gailey find himself in a familiar position as Fitzpatrick was his quarterback in Buffalo and has to manufacture offense with two running backs. Zac Stacy was nearly a 1000 yard rusher with St. Louis in 2013, and Chris Ivory had 800 in ’13 and ’14.
Stacy and Ivory are the keys to an offense that is going to need to eat the clock and keep Bowles’ defense fresh. Bowles defense in Arizona kept the Cardinals in a lot of games and helped them get to 11-5 last year.
Gailey’s offense is going to need to run the ball and set up play-action so Fitzpatrick can get the ball to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. If Bowles can put together a great defense and Gailey can put together an offense more competent than the mess that was Arizona’s last season, the Jets have a chance to compete in the AFC East.
Rex Ryan lost his job in the Big Apple and migrated North to upstate New York this season. It’s tough to imagine a Bills’ defense scarier than last year’s squad which finished 4th in overall defense.
Like any team coached by Rex Ryan however, the offense is where everything is questionable, but by all accounts it seems like this year’s iteration of the Bills are going to feed the ball to their running backs.
The Bills brought in former 49ers offensive co-ordinator Greg Roman to run the offense in Buffalo, and the ground game is Roman’s expertise. In his first year as OC, he coached the team to a top ten finish in rushing yards per game, and once Colin Kaepernick took over the Niners finished in the top four each year.
Roman’s running game was based off of power runs and counters. Frank Gore ran a lot of power tosses, as well as following a lot of guards on designed cutbacks.
Buffalo doesn’t have nearly the offensive line talent that the 49ers have had in the past few years but a well-planned ground attack could make up for some of those deficiencies.
LeSean McCoy was also brought in from Philadelphia in a trade to make up for the lack of offensive line talent and add what Buffalo believes will be a playmaker on offense.
The last two years for McCoy have been polarizing.
The former Eagles running back dazzled in Philadelphia, leading the league in yardage in 2013 while displaying elite patience and agility. Last year McCoy finished with over 1300 yards, but finished ranked last out of 23 backs that took at least half of their team’s snaps by Pro Football Focus and only scored 5 touchdowns. He didn’t look like the same McCoy that ran rampant over the league the year before.
If McCoy displays the vision and explosion he had in 2013, he might have a shot at getting through the few holes that open up.
Buffalo brought in Jerome Felton to lead the way for McCoy at fullback. Felton has been Adrian Peterson’s fullback for the past few years and made the Pro Bowl in 2012.
Greg Roman might not have a great offensive line to dominate the trenches like in San Francisco but he does have a dual threat quarterback. Tyrod Taylor won the starting job and part of that probably has to do with his athleticism and experience with the read option that Roman ran with the 49ers.
Taylor fits in perfectly with what Greg Roman has been most successful with, and Roman’s game planning fits with the Rex Ryan mould: Strong ground game, great defense, and limited quarterback impact.
New Orleans Saints
The offseason trades of Jimmy Graham for Max Unger and Kenny Stills for Dannell Ellerbe signified a major shift in philosophy for New Orleans from offensive explosiveness to a balanced attack on both offense and defense.
Which team made a fortification on the offensive line, put a bigger concentration on the ground game, all with a great but aging quarterback in 2014? The Dallas Cowboys. Which team went 12-4 and controlled games? The Dallas Cowboys.
New Orleans is looking to make the same changes this season. Mark Ingram has shown the ability to get the yards needed to be a workhorse back. Football Outsiders listed Ingram as having a DVOA of 2.7% and an efficiency rating of 50%, what this essentially means is that he got the yards needed but didn’t get more than needed.
That is why the Saints brought in C.J. Spiller from Buffalo. Spiller led the NFL in Pro Football Focus’ breakaway percentage in 2013, turning almost 44% of his rushes into gains of 15 yards or more. Spiller also was top five in that statistic in 2012, and the Saints are hoping he can return to form in 2015.
Max Unger is the final addition in this equation. Unger is one of the best run blocking centres in the league, and was a huge part of the Seattle rushing attack that has dominated the last few years. Unger brings not just his run blocking ability, but the leadership capabilities of a Super Bowl Champion and six year NFL Veteran.
Much like Dallas last year the Saints are looking to make Brees a more effective passer, even if he passes for fewer yards. For New Orleans, the yards are much like empty calories if they don’t come with a division crown.
The Bengals are going to be reliant on the ground for two reasons: one positive, one negative.
The positive: Jeremy Hill showed every ability required of a franchise back during the second half of last season. He wasn’t being featured heavily in the Cincinnati offense until week nine, when he had 154 yards on 24 attempts. In every game he got 20 carries, he had at least 100 yards. Cincinnati finished 6th in rushing last year because of a very good run blocking offensive line. On Monday Night Football against Denver in week 15, Hill broke out an 85 yard touchdown run on the Bengals first offensive play. The 238 pounder displayed patience, power, and explosiveness.
The Bengals are going to ride Jeremy Hill on the ground, and complement him with Giovani Bernard on 3rd down and on screens and passes to the flats. A.J. Green will still be a huge factor in the offense, but the Bengals will be more two dimensional.
The negative: Andy Dalton’s lack of progression. Dalton has four playoff appearances and 10 wins in his first four seasons as a starter, but he hasn’t been able to lead the team to a playoff victory. The offense averaged 39.5 passing attempts per game in his four playoff games, and he’s thrown six interceptions in those games.
The Bengals organization isn’t going to be satisfied with another one-and-done playoff appearance. One of the best ways they can avoid it is to deliver body blows on the ground and give Dalton something to lean on.