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Pro Football Weekly Updated Draft Guide

NFL: Running to daylight still important

Published: Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012 1:02 a.m. CDT
San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore runs against Buffalo during the third quarter of a 45-3 victory over the Bills last Sunday in San Francisco.

Vince Lombardi and Woody Hayes would love what the 49ers, Patriots, Texans, Chiefs and Giants have recently been doing.

It might be longer than 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but those teams have run to daylight enough to make the ground game viable in the NFL again.

Only Kansas City has been losing among those five teams showing a strong commitment to the run. And for the others, particularly the Patriots and Giants, the balance provided by successful rushing attacks can only make their prolific passing games even more dangerous.

Nowhere is that more stark than in New England, where during the Tom Brady era that’s now in its 12th season, only very early on when Brady replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe was Bill Belichick’s bunch not a passing team. As Brady developed into a championship quarterback, the Patriots’ devotion to the run waned.

Not so in 2012. New England ranks third in yards rushing and ninth through the air. Second-year back Stevan Ridley is fifth in the NFL with 490 yards on the ground and already has four TDs.

“We’re getting a lot of nickel defense,” Brady explained. “When they put little guys out there, we have to take advantage of it. I think we’re playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football.”

Through five games, New England is averaging 38 rushes. And it’s not even cold and snowy in Foxborough yet.

“It’s awesome, man,” Ridley said of the rushing opportunities. “I just have to say, it takes a lot of pressure off Brady. And that’s our leader; that’s our team.”

The Giants needed tons of work done on their running game, which once was their calling card, even with Eli Manning at quarterback. Even as they surged to the NFL title last season, it was Manning’s passing and a sack-happy defense that carried them – not the guys carrying the ball, who ranked last in yardage.

While they’re still primarily a throwing team, especially when Hakeem Nicks is healthy to combine with Victor Cruz at wideout, the Giants’ devotion to handing the ball to Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown has paid off.

“They can give me the ball all they want,” Bradshaw said.

The 49ers basically run it down opponents’ throats with the most diverse rushing plan of any NFL team. Frank Gore is the main man, and he’s shown a nice burst to go with his usual power. Gore is averaging a hefty 5.4 yards a carry and has four touchdowns.

His backup, Kendall Hunter, has supplied the perfect change of pace with his shiftiness and speed to the outside. He, too, is gaining 5.4 yards a carry.

Plus, quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick can run, with Kaepernick showing what the wildcat can do when used properly.

That variety presents a daunting challenge to the opposition, which this week happens to be the team that beat the 49ers for the NFC championship in January, then won the Super Bowl: the Giants.

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