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Running backs collaborating to press their franchises for higher pay was the story of the preseason. The opening refrain of the 2023 season has only dampened their resolve. The last five NFL rushing champions – the only five still in the league – have either struggled to gain ground or even to get on the field. Several other prominent names at the position have already lost significant time to injury.
Total rushing yardage throughout the league is down almost ten percent year over year after three weeks. All of this is happening while NFL defenses devote more resources to pass coverage. Blitzes are less frequent as well. Media coverage often describes these trends as indications that NFL defenses are playing more conservatively, but that's not necessarily so.
As Ted Nguyen noted for The Athletic in 2022, defensive coordinators seek to limit explosive plays in both phases. More are willing to take their lumps from running backs versus their light boxes (typically six defensive linemen and linebackers) and rely on defensive backs to string out runs.
Entering 2023, Nguyen observed that teams are moving away from one-and-a-half gapping, an important component of the defensive formula he wrote about just one year prior. Instead, edge rushers are getting upfield with reckless abandon. Quarterback sacks are up more than seven percent year over year.
The lack of success by NFL running backs versus increasingly pass-centric defenses has been a conundrum for two or three seasons now. The outlines of an answer from NFL run-game coordinators might have finally emerged in Week 3 of the 2023 season.
A Historic Turning Point?
The Miami Dolphins rushed for more yards than any team in three years, since the Ravens steamrolled a Bengals team that lay down in the final week of Lamar Jackson's MVP season. Three Miami running backs combined for 441 yards rushing and receiving in a historic defeat of the Broncos. According to Doug Farrar of USA Today, the Dolphins' formula includes motion, misdirection, personnel diversity, speed, and more speed.
The casual fan might believe that Miami, with all of its speed and undersized players, runs an Air Raid offense. Instead, the Dolphins exposed the Broncos with tighter offensive sets and 21 personnel versus base defenses. Footballguy Matt Waldman illustrates:
The Broncos' pitiful pass rush was a known quantity entering Week 3. An edge group that looked mediocre on paper before the season started – Randy Gregory, Frank Clark, Nik Bonitto, and Jonathon Cooper – gave new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph comfort with a four-man rush. According to Sports Info Solutions Data Hub, the Broncos have blitzed the least of any NFL team. Desperate to get upfield, Denver's edges routinely overplayed the edge in Week 3, contributing to De'Von Achane's grand debut.
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