RICHMOND — The NFC North was long known as the black-and-blue division, full of stout defenses and run-first offenses committed to grinding out long drives and bruising yards. Now it’s stacked with star quarterbacks, part of a leaguewide obsession with the passing game.
“It’s kind of the way it’s been built,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said. “You look at the history of the NFC East, usually the team that runs the ball the best is the one that wins it, and the one that stops the run the best is the one that wins it.”
Teams across the division have invested heavily in their run games and loaded up on defense.
The Giants took Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft, and he was the NFL’s second-leading rusher as a rookie. The Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 pick in 2016, and he has led the league in rushing twice in three years, including last season. The Redskins added future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson last year, and he ranked No. 8 in rushing. The Eagles traded for Jordan Howard, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in two of his first three seasons, and will pair him second-round pick Miles Sanders.
“That’s smash-mouth football,” Redskins cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “... The game changes, you’ve got to change with it.”
The sources of the philosophies aren’t difficult to trace. The Giants are led by General Manager Dave Gettleman, who built the Carolina Panthers into a Super Bowl team with a bruising run game and bulky defense.
The Cowboys have always been most successful when they run the ball with a strong offensive line. Emmitt Smith won three Super Bowls and became the NFL’s career rushing leader running behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. Then Dallas ended a four-year playoff drought when DeMarco Murray was named offensive player of the year in 2014. The team fell to 4-12 without Murray in 2014 but has been to the playoffs twice in three years with Elliott.
Gruden wants a balanced scheme in Washington, which drafted running backs Derrius Guice (second round in 2018) and Bryce Love (fourth round this year), a Heisman Trophy finalist two years ago. The Redskins jumped to a 6-3 record last season by running the ball and playing strong defense.
Gruden’s roots can be traced to his father, Jim, who coached running backs at Notre Dame and Indiana and with the San Francisco 49ers. Jay’s brother, Jon, won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thanks in large part to a commitment to “pound the rock.” Jon Gruden even put a piece of granite in the locker room during that season.
In an age when the league has tweaked rules to benefit the passing game, the NFC East has moved in the opposite direction. Whether that has been a conscious decision from a particular decision-maker or a product of draft position and coincidence, the change is clear — and, predictably, it has also produced an emphasis within the division on stronger front sevens to stop all these backs.
The Redskins have clearly done so in taking Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat in the first round of the past three drafts. In addition, Washington added safety Landon Collins, who is adept at playing physical in the box.
The Eagles feature Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry up front.
The Giants traded away space-eating defensive tackle Damon Harrison but have invested high-draft capital in Dexter Lawrence, B.J. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson.
“We’re trying to match their aggressive nature with their offensive line in Dallas and the Giants and the Eagles,” Gruden said, “with our share of good players on defense. And conversely on offense, the same thing [with the offensive line] and having the running back stable that we have, we can be able to run the ball with great balance.”
NFL teams must take care of their division first before concerning themselves with playoff foes. It’s likely, however, that in the postseason they’ll be lined up against opponents that take advantage of the pro-passing rules. That’s where NFC East teams will need to be versatile enough to adapt.
“These teams can run the football,” Fox analyst Charles Davis said. “It’s still a part of the game. It’s still a huge part of it. But come playoff time, you’ve got to be able to ring that bell. You’ve got to be able to have someone to make a play for you downfield that opens things up for you, because otherwise … that’s what defensive coordinators do. They’re going to take away what you do. Now beat me with someone else. It’s not regular season; now this is for real. Now what?”
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