NFC South Competes Well Among the NFL's Top Running Games

Eric QuackenbushSenior Analyst IJuly 7, 2009

In the precursor to 2008, the NFC South was a division that many experts and fanbases failed to take seriously.

It's a Jekyll and Hyde division of worst-to-first, fans are fair-weather, it's a wishy-washy division; I heard it all. My blood boiled. I even yelled at Adam Schein and Solomon Wilcots on Sirius NFL Radio.

In '07, the South had it rough overall. The Bucs lost Cadillac Williams, while the Falcons were just in shambles without Michael Vick. Then Atlanta head coach Bobby Petrino, who had no business being in the NFL, split on the team like the Colts did when they left Baltimore.

The Panthers had an overrated, overpaid running back in DeShaun Foster, and DeAngelo Williams was having a hard time coming out of his shell. Then of course, the whole team got decimated by injuries, even having to dig Vinny Testaverde out of the grave.

The Saints were the only light of hope for the division in '07, and a dim light at that.

In 2008, the Panthers' tandem of "Double Trouble," Williams and Jonathan Stewart, combined for 2,351 yards rushing and averaged five yards per carry.

This year, the Panthers will meet those numbers with the addition of running back Mike Goodson. I aptly name this group of backs the "Trio of Trouble."

The Falcons unearthed a real gem in Michael "Burner" Turner, signing him from the San Diego Chargers in the offseason.

In 2008, Atlanta's duo of Turner and Jerious Norwood combined for 2,188 yards rushing, averaging a nice 4.8 yards per carry.

Atlanta brings back that same running game, plus a strong offensive line to make way for Turner and Norwood while giving Matt Ryan time to dissect the opponent's defense in passing situations. Atlanta should easily break 2,000 combined yards rushing.

Tampa Bay ranked third in the division with their running game totals. Their three backs, Warrick Dunn, Earnest Graham, and Cadillac Williams, combined for 1,582 yards rushing, averaging four yards per carry.

This season the Bucs are without Dunn, but they have replaced him with the Giants' Fire. Fire, Derrick Ward, the guy who burned my Cats in overtime last December, is among the ranks of division rival Tampa Bay.

For the G-Men, Ward had a solid 1,025 yards rushing, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Adding his experience and production to the Bucs backfield is an immediate improvement. Tampa Bay easily hits the 2,000-yard rushing mark with Ward, Graham, and Williams in '09.

The Saints finished last in the division in rushing. Their trio of Pierre Thomas, Deuce McAllister, and Reggie Bush combined for a paltry 1,447 yards rushing, averaging a straight four yards per carry.

The Saints cut McAllister this offseason, but they return Thomas and Bush to the starting lineup and have a couple potential bright spots in newcomers Herb Donaldson from Western Illinois and P.J. Hill out of Wisconsin.

Depending on what kind of impact the newcomers make, Thomas should break 1,000 yards rushing, and Bush will probably get between 800 and 900 yards rushing. So effectively, the Saints have the potential to come very close to 2,000 yards rushing, perhaps even break the mark.

The NFC East had monster rush statistics last year, all of those coming from the New York Giants, who fielded two 1,000-plus-yard running backs in Brandon Jacobs and Ward.

The biggest news from the NFC West last year was the Cardinals. Not even the Rams' Steven Jackson was able to make that division's running stats competitive with the rest of the league. Seattle was decimated with injuries, and the 49ers were and are still finding their way through the mire that is the NFC West.

The NFC North had the lone bright spot in Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, another monster back, but if they keep pounding him as an every-down back, his career might very well be shortened.

The AFC's bright spots came from the Ravens, Dolphins, Colts, Chargers, and Titans—all playoff teams. Pittsburgh's not on the list because their running game couldn't stay healthy long enough to make that big of an impact.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (I need a dictionary to spell his name) threw for almost 3,500 yards during the regular season and in the end was ranked 14th in passing stats, one spot above Panthers QB Jake Delhomme.

I digress. The AFC's strongest rushing division was the AFC South. The rest of the divisions in the AFC had one dominant team.

This goes to prove that the NFC, as a whole, is far superior to its AFC counterparts when it comes to the running game.

Experts beware: The NFC South is on the rise.