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The endangered running back not so endangered

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Jeff Fisher hasn’t lasted so long as an NFL coach without being a risk taker. He likes aggressive defenses, and when he was a coordinator, he loved the blitz.

Fisher also builds his offenses around the running game, which goes against current NFL philosophies — at the club and league level — that passing is the most effective way to keep fans intrigued. And, oh yeah, the surest way to win.

Fisher put the Rams’ first-round draft choice where his mouth is in May, taking Todd Gurley of Georgia 10th overall.

Sounds like heresy in an era when running backs sometimes don’t go anywhere in the opening 32 picks, especially ones coming off knee surgery and with uncertain prospects for when they might make their NFL debut.

Week 7 of the schedule showed the validity of Fisher’s thinking. Gurley was one of 11 runners to gain at least 110 yards. Two others, Adrian Peterson (98) and Ryan Mathews (97) came close.

Gurley has rushed for 442 yards in his three starts, which brings back some memories for Fisher of his days as the Oilers/Titans coach.

“And I’ve been around some really good ones,” Fisher says. “Chris Johnson was outstanding early. Eddie George was outstanding early. I don’t recall them having the numbers that they had after three full games like Todd has.”

The numbers were superb this week, with more RBs surpassing the century mark than in any other week this season.

Considering the emphasis on the air game and how 300-yard passing outings are commonplace, those runs to daylight become even more impressive.

Miami’s Lamar Miller led the way with an astounding 12.5-yard average, gaining 175 yards on 14 carries in a romp past Houston. Miller broke free for an 85-yard TD that was the longest run in the league this season.

Miller also had 61 yards receiving, including a 54-yard TD reception.

Darren McFadden, apparently back from career doldrums that have lasted since 2010, gave Dallas a boost with 152 yards on 29 carries in a loss to the Giants.

Dallas has been one of the true run-first teams in the league going all the way back to Emmitt Smith, and prospered last season with DeMarco Murray running away with Offensive Player of the Year honors. When he left as a free agent for Philadelphia, the Cowboys claimed they could plug in anyone behind that solid offensive line and still ram the ball through and past opponents.

With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant injured, that’s about the only choice Dallas has, and it worked pretty well Sunday.

“I thought we ran the ball really well,” coach Jason Garrett said. “(Joseph) Randle went out with a back sprain and Darren went in and I thought he did an outstanding job. We controlled the line of scrimmage, ran the ball a lot of different ways. We controlled the game for the most part because of that.”

Control generally is what the running game is all about. Not for the Patriots, perhaps — their short passing game, unstoppable at times, can substitute for ground and pound, which is also something they can occasionally do. But for many other teams, particularly those with suspect defenses or inconsistent quarterbacks, it’s a good way to run down the clock and keep things close.

The exception is Seattle, which looked like, well, Seattle last Thursday night at San Francisco in great part because Marshawn Lynch was healthy enough to power for 122 yards and a TD.

But Kansas City and Pittsburgh were smart enough to recognize that staying on the ground was prudent with the Steelers starting third-stringer Landry Jones at quarterback and the Chiefs, on a five-game slide, desperate to find a replacement for injured star Jamaal Charles. So Le’Veon Bell rushed for 121 yards, and the Chiefs’ Charcandrick West had 110 and a TD.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid knows all too well his team must have a semblance of a running attack to succeed.

“My hat goes off to Charcandrick and the job that he did,” Reid said. “We’ve known what he can do, it was just a matter of getting enough opportunities. I mentioned that after last game that he needed a few more opportunities. He got those today. You saw what he did with it.”

Adding to the noteworthiness of the rushing numbers this week: Green Bay, ranked fifth in that department, was off. Matt Forte, Chicago’s brilliant halfback and the NFL’s leading rusher, was off. So was Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard, who was eighth in the NFL in rushing, and the Jets’ Chris Ivory, the AFC leader, was hobbled by a hamstring problem in a loss at New England.

And when the cold/nasty weather hits, running the ball can pay extra dividends. Who knows, maybe Fisher will have plenty of converts to his way of thinking.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.


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