Very true. For years people figured the way to play pass defense was to rush three people and drop everyone else back into coverage. As those three poor souls on the defensive line spun their wheels, trying to fight through five blockers, sacks dropped sharply, and the passers set new records. In 1976 there were 9.98 sacks for every 100 passes, and then for five seasons the number showed a steady decline, reaching a low in 1981 of 7.19, a five-year decrease of 28%. The proliferation of designated blitzers, like Cleveland's Chip Banks, the Giants' Lawrence Taylor and Pittsburgh's Robin Cole, reversed that trend in '82, upping the figure to 8.48, and through the first five games this year, with nickel backs and corner-backs and safeties blitzing, sacks were up to 9.45 per 100 passes, the highest they've been since '77.
And one way to attack those sack-happy defenses is to run at them. Clubs are now running power sweeps on third and long, against five-and six-back sets with their blitzes and gimmicks.
"You're seeing more runs on third down than you used to," Chicago Wide Receiver Brian Baschnagel says. "I've even seen play action on third-and-long. You never used to see that."
Play action, meaning a pass play that starts out looking like a run. "It doesn't mean a thing unless you make the defense respect the run," says San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh. "Now defenders know they might see a run on third-and-long, so in a sense the run is setting up the pass again. But first, you've got to let 'em know you're not afraid to run."
"Defensive backs aren't as big and physical as they once were, due to the emphasis on the pass," says Baltimore Cornerback Larry Anderson, a 5'11", 188-pounder, "and the running game takes a big toll on us. I broke my foot on a running play [on Sept. 25; he won't be back until at least November]. I had to take on a pulling guard."
Indeed, the big, strong, run-forcing cornerback, like Pittsburgh's Mel Blount, is becoming obsolete. The heavier running game may bring him back. "Defense is so specialized today," Blount says, "that a lot of backs don't have force responsibility. They just run up and down the field covering receivers."
Early use of extra-back defenses, like the nickel, certainly is the No. I reason the run is becoming fashionable, and it has produced some strange drives. Against Denver on Oct. 2, the Bears had a 15-play, 89-yard touchdown drive on which they passed on every first down and ran on the other downs.
There are some teams, however, that seem to have gone back to a general pound-away theory, basically as a more sensible way of doing things. New England Coach Ron Meyer, noticing that the Jets couldn't stop Seattle's running game and figuring that perhaps all that Sack Exchange publicity had turned the Jets' attention away from the good run-stopping techniques, ran the ball 28 times on 28 first downs in New York. The result was a 23-13 Patriot win and 328 yards rushing, including 212 for Tony Collins, the most by an AFC runner since O.J. Simpson ran for 273 in 1976.
In their second game, the Giants ran the ball on each of their 11 first downs in the first half and on each of their first six in the second half, and beat Atlanta. The following week the Giants tried the same tactic in a hard-fought loss to Dallas—12 for 12 at the start of the first half. The book always has been throw against Dallas on first down—"Teams have been doing that to Dallas since the days of Bart Starr and John Unitas," Cowboy Middle Linebacker Bob Breunig says—but Giant Coach Bill Parcells decided to hammer away. "Two reasons," Parcells says. "To keep our defense off the field and to set up the play-action passes in the second half."
Keep the defense off the field? You hear that all the time, but what does it mean, really? The defense is going to have to play eventually, both clubs are going to have roughly the same number of possessions, and the whole idea is to score more times on your possessions than the other guy does on his. Unless your defense is injured or tires easily, keeping it off the field with long, grinding drives will hold the score down but won't guarantee a win. It's strange, but you hear it again and again.