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In the 20th century, offensive coordinators faced an imperative to call an equal number of run plays and pass plays. The logic was that a one-dimensional offense made the defense’s task too easy. An offense that could threaten opposing defenses on the ground and through the air could come from behind when necessary and grind out the clock while ahead on the scoreboard.
In 2021, every team ran more pass plays than run plays. Nine teams ran the ball in fewer than 40 percent of their offensive plays from scrimmage, according to the pro sports data website TeamRankings.com.
Through Week 10 of 2022, five teams have run the ball more than they’ve passed. The last season in which that many teams called more run plays than pass plays was 2008. Fourteen teams, meanwhile, have passed in 60 percent of their plays.
The notable jump in pass-heavy teams correlates to the spike in the deployment of two-deep shells discussed in recent editions of this column. While defensive coordinators have preferences in scheme and personnel, they must first respond to the personnel and attack of opposing offenses.
Offenses’ pass-heavy approach has bred defenses highly focused on pass coverages. Defensive coordinators, including but not limited to disciples of Vic Fangio, devote meager resources to run defense with a goal merely of limiting damage incurred rather than stifling opposing rushing attacks altogether.
The Cowboys under Dan Quinn, for example, run nickel and dime defenses nearly to the exclusion of 4-3 base sets and further run pass-rush stunts at a league-high rate. Their frequent stunting can soften the front against the run.
In Week 10, two more teams deployed three safeties nearly full-time. The Packers and Commanders each omitted the third cornerback from a significant role in search of personnel groupings effective against the pass and adequate versus the run. While both franchises incurred recent roster changes that catalyzed these moves, both evolved units delivered results on the field.
Running Games Roar Back to Life
In their most recent outings, thirteen teams ran the ball more often than they passed. Several of these thirteen demonstrated stark contrasts to their game-planning to date. The Packers and Commanders were two of several teams that significantly ratcheted up their running games. The Buccaneers, Colts, Jets, Bengals, and Steelers joined them as pass-heavy teams (57% or more pass plays) whose altered approaches supported wins. The more balanced offenses of the Panthers, Giants, Ravens, and 49ers won with run-heavy approaches (more than 58% run plays), albeit mostly in positive game flow.
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