Check out the NFL's top five in rushing attempts through 11 weeks: Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch (page 37), Doug Martin (page 43), Adrian Peterson (page 40), Stevan Ridley. What do they have in common? Their quarterbacks—in Houston, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and New England, respectively—haven't missed a start (and barely a snap) all season. Concussions and rib injuries and bad shoulders have sidelined nine QBs this year for at least one game, and smart coaches know that if they want to keep their triggermen intact, they'd better have a credible rushing attack to slow the tide of body-slamming pass rushers.
"Every time I see Andrew [Luck] sitting back there, waiting to throw, I cringe," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson says about his rookie quarterback. That's why Indy will keep handing off to the pedestrian Vick Ballard and Donald Brown, even if they've had but one 20-yard rush in 197 carries between them.
Just look at what a quarterback can do when he has a strong running game. In his three previous seasons with the Bucs, Josh Freeman had never had more than two straight games with a passer rating of 100 or better. This year he had five straight from weeks 6 through 10—at the same time that the rookie Martin was finding his footing, gaining 6.0 yards per carry in those games. Martin is a huge reason that, even though Freeman has averaged 35 drop-backs per game this year, he has been sacked just 14 times. It's not Freeman's mobility that's keeping him clean. It's that defenders, on second-and-seven or third-and-four, can't automatically think pass. Last year the Bucs threw 87% of the time on third-and-three or third-and--four. This year: 67%.
Football is a game of move and countermove. As quarterbacks have spread the field in recent years, defenses have become hell-bent on getting to passers before they can release. If Bill Belichick could protect Tom Brady well enough, there would be nothing to stop the All-Pro QB from throwing 750 times a year, and the Patriots might put up 40 points a game. But if Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead can combine for five yards a carry, Belichick would be stupid not to take advantage of that—and take the pressure off Brady. Now, Brady still may attempt 600 passes this season, which exposes him to a lot of risk. But on maybe half of those throws some very good pass rushers are going to think, I need to worry about a run to my side or a play-action. And that half second of hesitation will buy Brady enough time to find Wes Welker or Aaron Hernandez.
And so the chess game goes on, dictated in part by which team can best do that thing everyone thought was passé—archaic, even—way back in, oh, 2011: running the ball.
Photograph by THOMAS B. SHEA/GETTY IMAGES
ALL EYES ON ME Credible threats like Houston's Arian Foster keep their QBs upright by keeping defenses honest.