The modern NFL is a pass-driven league, but there will always be a place for the running game.
San Francisco and New England have the most potent offenses of the remaining playoff teams, and each team finished in the top seven in the league in rushing during the regular season. Both will rely on the ground game to set up play-action passing and vertical routes for some very talented receivers.
Baltimore finished just outside the top 10 in rushing this year, though the promotion of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator toward the end of the regular season has breathed new life into the Ravens rushing offense. Ray Rice had a terrific game last week in which he saw 30 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown.
Atlanta is the outlier of the group. The Falcons finished the regular season No. 29 in the league in rushing, but with such a potent passing attack and arguably the most talented trio of receiving threats in the league, the Falcons managed to get this far without a solid running game.
Being able to effectively run the football has many benefits apart from wearing down opposing defenses and moving the chains. Running the football well forces opposing safeties into the box and out of position to make plays in the deep passing game. It also sets up play-action passing and keeps defenses guessing.
The teams that manage to run the ball well this weekend will punch a ticket to the Super Bowl. We’ll take a look at the top running back for each team and predict how they will fare this weekend.
Rice’s resurgence is a great sign for a Baltimore offense that lacked balance during its rough stretch toward the end of the season.
He’ll face a tough test this Sunday, though. New England has not been historically good against the run, but the Patriots were No. 9 in rush defense during the regular season, and their switch to a 4-3 front is a big reason for the team’s success against the ground game.
Baltimore will rely on its running game early to open up the vertical passing game with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Each receiver is incredibly fast and has the ability to get behind coverage when safeties creep up too close to the box in run support.
Rice may not have a high yards-per-carry average by the end of the game, but he’ll be called upon to shoulder the offense and keep New England off balance. If Baltimore can keep the game close and not resort to airing it out early in the game, Rice will have a productive game.
Production prediction: 28 carries, 109 yards, one touchdown
“The Burner” is starting to wear down, and he certainly doesn’t look all that agile anymore. What Turner lacks in speed, he more than makes up for with the ability to get yards after contact.
San Francisco has been terrific against the run this year, but with so much attention sure to be paid to Atlanta’s receivers, Turner will have an opportunity to take advantage of less San Francisco defenders playing at the line of scrimmage.
The Falcons may find themselves in a shootout this Sunday, though, which means Turner probably won’t see consistent touches, especially if the 49ers jump out to an early lead.
With Jacquizz Rodgers stealing touches and an offense that revolves around the vertical passing game, Turner may not have much of an impact on Sunday.
Production prediction: 15 carries, 52 yards
It’s hard to tell which back is No. 1 in New England right now. Ridley had a terrific season, but it was Shane Vereen who saw a lot of action last weekend, particularly in the passing game.
Ridley and Vereen have different running styles, and Ridley will likely see most of the work between the tackles against Baltimore. Part of neutralizing the Ravens’ attacking 3-4 front is being able to work between the tackles, and Ridley should see his share of carries.
Baltimore’s rushing defense this season has been much more porous than in years past. Ridley still won’t rip off big runs against Ray Lewis up the middle, but he’ll work to wear down Baltimore’s linebackers and set up the play-action passing game.
With a timeshare situation in New England, Ridley likely won’t top 20 touches, but he’ll have a big impact on the game.
Production prediction: 18 carries, 72 yards, one touchdown
Of all the backs in action this weekend, Frank Gore stands the best chance of having a monster game.
Some thought Gore’s age would show this season, and that he would lose work in favor of youngsters Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. Gore was extremely productive, though, leading the 49ers in rushing with 1,214 yards on 4.7 yards per carry.
Gore faces a Falcons defense that ranked No. 21 this year against the rush, allowing 4.8 yards per tote during the regular season. With John Abraham banged up and extra attention being paid to shutting down Colin Kaepernick, Gore could be in for a huge game.
Considering Kaepernick’s mobility and the lack of size on Atlanta’s interior defensive line, Gore will see a lot of work both between the tackles and off the edge.
Production prediction: 28 carries, 135 yards, one touchdown