There's been a rush away from the run game so far in 2013. Numbers are down almost across the board, despite the increased pace of offenses and high scoring.
Does this mean the run is done in the NFL?
Let's take a look at some top-line fundamentals, comparing NFL-wide stats on a per-game basis from 2012 against the first three weeks of 2013:
2012 rush yards per game (NFL average): 115.9
2013 rush yards per game (NFL average): 106.4
Per-Game Decline: -8.2%
2012 rush yards per carry (NFL average): 4.26
2013 rush yards per carry (NFL average): 4.06
Per-Game Decline: -4.7%
2012 rushes per game (NFL average): 27.2
2013 rushes per game (NFL average): 26.2
Per-Game Decline: -3.7%
That's an overall decline -- not drastic, but definite -- driven by both volume and efficiency, with decreased efficiency a notable driver.
Top-line indicators are useful for broad trends, but understanding root causes and specific teams' issues requires a deeper dive (and some assistance from Pro Football Focus' game charting stats). Let's categorize the ways that run games are going wrong in 2013 -- as well as some instances when they're going right.
Call the fire department
A few teams' seasons may have already gone up in flames, burning their ground-game prospects to a crisp.
Once the Giants' David Wilson put pig to carpet twice in Week 1, things went south fast. New York called Da'Rel Scott off the bench, and Brandon Jacobs out of the crypt to combine for a scintillating 1.4 YPC average, barely half of Wilson's average yards AFTER CONTACT. New right tackle Justin Pugh looks overmatched, but the Giants' biggest problem is Eli handing out interceptions like Halloween candy. Down early and chasing the points surrendered by a shoddy secondary, the run game is an absolute afterthought in New York.
It's a similar story for the Rams, who have their own bad running/bad blocking/score chasing troika in the works. Daryl Richardson's lead-back turn hasn't opened any eyes, and his anemic 1.6 yards after contact and 10 percent broken-tackle rate will keep those eyes shut. Roger Saffold's shift to right tackle has been disastrous thus far, while Scott Wells has been totally unable to move opposing defensive tackles. Sam Bradford has taken care of the ball, but the secondary's failure to take care of business has forced the Rams to play catch-up.
Failure is usually an orphan, but the Steelers' drastic decline has many fathers. Only David DeCastro and fill-in center Fernando Velasco are providing adequate blocking, but they're doing so for the league's most blah backfield. Playing from behind hasn't helped matters, and the whole offense has predictably reverted to "Ben, shake off these three tacklers and save us!"
The Jaguars ... just, ugh. The league's most dire offense is running at about the same clip, because blowouts in 2013 aren't terribly different from blowouts in 2012. The results are even worse, as a slow-starting Luke Joeckel and a badly-regressing Eugene Monroe can't create space for a rapidly-aging MJD. Once you're down 21 points, it's Cecil Shorts garbage time.
Call the personnel department
Some of 2012's best backs are off to slow starts in 2013 due to shoddy shows from the boys up front and a touch of their own regression. These squads are coping with decreased efficiency despite a generally steady or increasing volume of carries.
Ravens tackles Michael Oher and Bryant "Captain Steuben" McKinnie have been outright dreadful to start the season, boasting PFF run-blocking grades of -6.3 and -5.2 respectively. Combined with a slow start from new center Gino Gradkowski, neither Ray Rice nor Bernard Pierce has found much room to roam.
The Bucccaneers face the inverse problem: The outside blocking has been fine, while guards Davin Joseph (-5.9) and Gabe Carimi (-2.3) have been atrocious. Doug Martin's 2.3 yards-after-contact mark is pedestrian, but the box is more frequently packed thanks to Josh Freeman's foibles. Maybe a fresh start with Mike Glennon and a staph-free Carl Nicks on the interior can un-gum the works.
The Chiefs' Jamaal Charles was a missed-tackle machine against the Eagles, but he's having to make people miss in the backfield thanks to some rookie hazing for new right tackle Eric Fisher and some "you've been around awhile, but we still enjoy paddling you" beatings for perpetually overwhelmed guard Jeff Allen.
The Bills made noises about being "fine" with their guards after the departure of Andy Levitre, but Bills fans are making noises of revulsion at the play of replacement Colin Brown. His -11.2 Run Blocking grade through three games is an apocalyptic pace, and combined with center Eric Wood's effort, it has ravaged Buffalo's interior. C.J. Spiller is still breaking tackles at an outstanding 23 percent clip, but most of them are coming three yards deep in the backfield.
The Bears' new-look offensive front has been upped Jay Cutler's survivability while (presumably) decreasing his cussing. Outside of rookie tackle Jordan Mills they're also getting it done in the ground game. There has been some efficiency drop-off due to 16 plodding carries from Michael Bush, but strong peripherals from Matt Forte (notably an excellent 20 percent broken-tackle rate) indicate that this ground game could grow wings in the near future.
It's been personnel out wide that have caused the biggest problems for the Patriots, as a young-pup receiving corps has thrown the entire offense somewhat out of whack while precluding clock-killing opportunities.
The Vikings' Adrian Peterson has gotten predictably bad blocking from guard Charlie Johnson, but most of the blame for Peterson's regression lies with Peterson himself. That's no knock, as he was simply inhuman last year while serving as a merely badass human so far in 2013. Of course, the return of fullback Jerome Felton could have him leaping tall buildings come Week 4.
The Dolphins' something old/something new tackle tandem of Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo has been terrible during the season's first three games, and neither Lamar Miller nor Daniel Thomas has resembled a competent replacement for the departed Reggie Bush.
Speaking of Bush, both he and Joique Bell have been busting tackles and running well in the Lions' backfield. They've frequently shared the backfield with whoever Rob Sims (-4.1) and Corey Hilliard (-1.2) have been attempting to block, but overall the arrow is probably pointing up for the Lions' ground game.
Call the analytics department
Sometimes a deep, rigorous root-cause analysis is required to understand a team's run-game troubles.
Other times, it's easier.
Both the Bengals and the Saints can trace poor efficiency to simple poor choices: continuing to hand serious carries to runners like Mark Ingram and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Differences in yards BEFORE contact among backs in the same backfield speak to both vision and speed to the hole, and both Ingram and Green-Ellis laughably underperform backfield-mates like Gio Bernard, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. Saints and Bengals fans should stop asking "Who Dat?" and "Who Dey?," and start asking "Why Him?"
Call it circumstance
A few struggling-to-middling ground games may have as much to do with circumstance as anything else.
While the Browns' ground game could end up being low comedy with the departure of Trent Richardson, through the first three weeks, things were improving on 2012's run efficiency. The Browns were still choosing to take to the air instead. With Brandon Weeden on the bench, at least the take-to-the-air thing looks a tad more hopeful.
The Falcons' ground game has taken off after rightfully interring Micheal Turner and handing the ball off to non-Walking Dead extras. Unfortunately, a leaky defense has them playing catch-up rather than kill-the-clock-with-the-undead so far in 2013.
The Texans are also enjoying an uptick in run efficiency despite chaos on the line (thanks in large part to Ben Tate's absurd 5.0 yards-after-contact average). Total production is still down, however, as two dogfights and a beatdown from the Ravens have conspired to keep the ball in Matt Schaub's semi-capable hands.
Call it fortune
Just as some ground games have luck conspiring against them, others are getting a lift from Dame Fortune.
The Titans are laboring to produce on the ground, as a rebuilt line has yet to live up to the hype. But slow and steady has been winning the race for erstwhile boom and bust king Chris Johnson. A suddenly competent defense is letting Tennessee keep the ball where it belongs -- namely, out of Jake Locker's hands.
The Panthers' ground game is still figuring out what it wants to be (did we see an actual read-option carry last week?), but they've figured out that they want to keep pounding it while Cam Newton continues to grow as a passer. With Star Lotulelei and Luke Kuechly anchoring an improved defense, they'll have the luxury of pounding it all the way up until Ron Rivera's inevitable last-minute gaffe.
Bilal Powell's 149-yard effort was like watching one of the all-time great rushing performances at roughly three-quarters speed. Even with that majestic tally, the Jets' ground attack is plodding along, but the QB paradigm change from "active saboteur" to "occasional hindrance" should provide them with many more opportunities to plod than they enjoyed last year.
Call it a resurgence
While some 2012 stalwarts are struggling, a few of last season's laggards have shoved their way to the forefront.
The most eye-opening run game display of the young season was the Colts' physical beatdown of a proud 49er front. Colts fans should be salivating at Trent Richardson's prospects once he's fully up to speed. The offensive line is still hit or miss, but if the young bunch can continue to gel, then Andrew Luck should be in for some badly-needed support.
It's possible that DeMarco Murray is from Krypton, and his own personal yellow sun is the St. Louis run defense. While that one-game outburst might not necessarily portend continued success for the Cowboys' run game, there are some legitimate reasons for hope. The addition of Travis Frederick at center provides at least one island of competence in the interior, there's room for growth from youngster Ronald Leary, and Dallas discovered that Doug Free is, in fact, a stick player. Cut his salary in half, and he'll start earning $3.5 million rather than outright stealing $7 million.
If Indy had the season's most eye-opening performance, the Packers hold the most eye-popping stat with two consecutive 100-yard rushers after wandering in the desert since 2010. Tackle David Bakhtiari is enduring a baptism by fire, but the rest of the group is at least firing out and opening holes, which should bode well once the delayed product launch of Eddie Lacy finally gets underway.
You can't fall off the floor, and both the Cardinals and Chargers seem to be at least up on one elbow and eating a cheeseburger. Both squads still aspire to mediocrity on the ground, but at least mediocrity may be a legitimate aspiration this year.
Call the plays that work!
Have we forgotten anyone? Oh, that's right -- the three biggest run-game stories of the 2012 season! The Seahawks, Redskins and 49ers have all seen drastic declines in their per-game rushing totals, and the knee-jerk reaction has been that the league figured out that gimmicky read option after all.
Someone in the league office really needs to get that memo to foes of the Eagles and Raiders, though, as both squads have launched their ground games to new heights with read-option runs as a significant component. Despite limited (Philly) or direly limited (Oakland) passing threats, the willingness to use the quarterback as a run threat has added serious pop to both teams' attacks. The rushing yardage for Terrelle Pryor (198) and Michael Vick (172) place them 12th and 19th among ALL RUSHERS so far, to say nothing of the room they've opened up for Darren McFadden (186, 17th) and LeSean McCoy (395, No. 1 with a bullet). Some of the QB yardage has come on scrambles, to be sure, but the fundamental advantage of the read option is alive and well on both squads -- namely, how tough it makes life on defenders.
Last year's read-option darlings are making themselves much easier to defend by paring back their usage of the concept. A quarterback is going to take extra hits running read-option plays, so if you can win without them then maybe that's a good idea. Fair play to the Seahawks, then, who could beat teams right now with three kneel-downs and the occasional fake punt thanks to their man-eaters on defense.
Washington seems wholly incapable of winning without them, but they are behind the 8-ball thanks to RGIII's still-balky knee. They mixed in a few more looks against Detroit, but are wisely taking the long view in a down division and not throwing Griffin to the wolves ... or Lions.
The 49ers are an interesting question. They did what they wanted against Green Bay and couldn't do ANYTHING against Seattle. Then San Francisco broke out an extremely passive game plan against Indianapolis. With little in the way of downfield passing threats, the Niners still ran maaaaaaybe five read-option looks against Indy. One of them in the third quarter was an ugly five-yard loss, but it featured several blocking busts that highlight the value of guys like the departed Delanie Walker. They rarely even lined up in the kind of pistol sets that make defenses nervous, and a couple of those were used for a weird boundary-side pop pitch play that needs to go back on the shelf. Don't be surprised if the read option sees a resurgence this Thursday against the Rams.
The bottom line
The decline in the ground game this season has been real, but not as dire as it might seem at first glance. The read option is dormant in some spots but thriving in others, and the drastic fall-off experienced by some squads can be explained by the cruel storms that overtake every team from time to time.
Ground game aficionados (and RB-RB fantasy drafters) take heart -- while the game is ever-changing, that doesn't mean that the run is done.