NEW YORK — Run, baby, run.
All those runners who seemed to be ignored while passing numbers flew off the charts earlier this season are resurfacing — in a big way. Joining the always reliable Adrian Peterson and the resurgent Arian Foster this weekend were the likes of DeMarco Murray, Matt Forte, and Shonn Greene. With injuries hitting a bunch of starters, some new names could join them as the ground game has even more impact in the NFL.
The emergence of Murray was the most notable and spectacular development. His first touch was for a 91-yard touchdown, and he built on it through the Cowboys’ rout of the Rams, finishing with a team record 253 yards rushing. Yes, Murray outdid even the best production for one game by Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.
“I never thought in a million years that I’d ever have a day like this,” Murray said. “This is what I’ve been working hard for since my Pop Warner days.”
Pop Warner-style offenses, where teams run, run and then run some more, never will resurface in the NFL. Pro football is a passing game, and the record-setting stats early in the 2011 schedule prove that.
But running backs are undergoing a revival and Sunday underscored it.
We’ve come to expect big showings from Peterson, who despite playing behind a rookie quarterback making his first start, Christian Ponder, and facing the defending Super Bowl champs, had 175 yards and a touchdown in a 33-27 loss to Green Bay. Foster led the league in rushing in his breakout 2010 season and, after battling injuries this year had a huge game in a 41-7 romp past Houston: 115 yards rushing and two scores, 119 receiving and another TD.
Supporting Foster was Ben Tate with 104 yards on the ground. Like Foster the previous year, Tate is making up for a lost season. A second-round draft pick in 2010, he broke his right ankle in the preseason and didn’t play again. Foster wasn’t used much in his rookie season of 2009, appearing in only six games and gaining 257 yards rushing.
With the re-emphasis on running, three players who surpassed 100 yards on the ground Sunday will take on added importance for their teams: Atlanta’s Michael Turner, Chicago’s Forte and the Jets’ Greene.
Turner has rushed down this road before and is an established star. Forte, in a bitter contract impasse with the Bears, needs to be special because the quarterbacking and receiving are unpredictable. And, of course, they play in Chicago, where Soldier Field is anything but a passer’s paradise late in the season.
Greene, who went for 112 yards in New York’s 27-21 win over San Diego and was particularly effective in the second half when the Jets rallied, is a key to the team’s “ground and pound” philosophy. If the offensive line gets its act together, it is one of the more formidable blocking units around. Greene needs to capitalize on their work.
“Now this, it came together for the most part,” Jets guard Brandon Moore said of the running game. “We’re just kind of streaming along, staying with that physical attack and style on offense, getting downhill runs . and moving people off the ball.”
Some of the guys who will be toting the ball came into the season as backups or backups to the backups. Tim Hightower’s left knee buckled in Washington’s loss to Carolina and rookie Roy Helu takes over with Hightower gone for the season. Darren McFadden, the league’s leading rusher, went down against Kansas City and his sub in Oakland, Michael Bush, isn’t an every-down back, meaning speedy rookie Taiwan Jones could see some time.
Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is having back issues and Justin Forsett is one of his replacements. Tampa Bay’s Earnest Graham, a solid and versatile back who was filling in for LeGarrette Blount (left knee) left the loss to Chicago in London with a right ankle problem. Next up for Tampa: Kregg Lumpkin.
At least Denver has a former starter to take over for Willis McGahee if his broken right hand sidelines him. Then again, Knowshon Moreno has been a disappointment, which could lead to Lance Ball getting the ball.
Regardless, considering the weather hasn’t even gotten bad anywhere in the NFL, running backs will be prominent the rest of the way, especially when the elements become a factor.