By Steve Silverman
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The return to balanced offensive football in NFL has begun in earnest.
A year ago, the Packers, Saints and Patriots were lighting up the scoreboard and putting the football in the air on nearly every significant play.
For most of the regular season, these were the three best teams in the NFL.
This was supposed to be the new NFL.
There was little need to run the football. There was little need to play overpowering defense. The only thing you had to do was hold on to the football and then throw it in the endzone.
The NFL was well on its way to becoming Arena Football. If you aren’t familiar with the football played on a floor the size of a hockey rink, think tennis.
In tennis, the idea is to win your serve and if you can steal one game when your opponent is serving, you win the match.
The NFL was a scorefest when played by those three teams.
The game was changing and two of the basic elements – the running game and defense – were being thrown out.
None of those three teams won last year’s Super Bowl.
The Giants had trouble running the ball during the regular season, but they found the semblance of a running attack in the postseason.
They rolled in the postseason, thanks to Eli Manning, the defense and at least a small but significant contribution by the running game.
They beat the Pats in the Super Bowl. New England had a little bit of a defense in the postseason and also attempted to run the ball.
The Saints and Packers did neither of these and got dumped ignominiously.
The 2012 season has not been so kind to those three passing teams. As Week Four dawns, the Saints are looking for their first win, while Green Bay and New England have one each.
Teams have re-discovered that the running game can be important. Many are relying on solid ground games where they have a big-play running back.
The best of these team may be the Baltimore Ravens, who have the best running back in the league in Ray Rice.
Rice is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and is at least as big a threat to opposing defenses as quarterback Joe Flacco is, and Flacco is rapidly emerging as an elite quarterback. Rice is not the leading statistical running back in the league, but there is nobody you want carrying the ball on an important play more than Rice. That includes Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.
The Ravens also have a pretty good idea on how to play NFL-caliber defense.
John Harbaugh is thrilled with his team early on, even though they lost a Week Two game against the Eagles.
The Kansas City Chiefs were being laughed at after the first two weeks of the season, but they rebounded with a Week Three win over the Saints. The play that triggered a comeback from a 24-6 deficit was Jamaal Charles’ 91-yard run.
The Chiefs came back to record an impressive overtime win. It does not mean the Chiefs are coming back, but all opponents know that the first thing that must be done to stop them is heading off Charles and the running game.
The 49ers are another team that does not simply try to overwhelm opponents with the passing game. Frank Gore is a hard-working and hard-punching running back who wears down opponents.
It’s a good thing, because Alex Smith is a good-but-not-great quarterback. He can win games, but not on his own. He needs Gore’s power running to get the job done.
The Bears have designs on toppling the Packers and taking the NFC North title this year. They have tried to upgrade their passing attack but enigmatic Jay Cutler is off to an unimpressive start. What can the Bears do? They can play defense and they want to run the ball. Matt Forte has a slight knee injury, but when he is healthy, he is the most versatile running back in the league.
We will not see a return to 1960s and ‘70s power football, but we are seeing a return to sanity where defense and the running game are beginning to matter once again.
Who do you think will step up in the running game for the Giants and Jets?