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For some coaches, the jury's still out on the effectiveness of the one-back offense, although it's fashionable now, since Washington and John Riggins bludgeoned people to death with it last year. Both Meyer and Parcells did their hammering out of a two-back set, reasoning that a big, tough back is a better blocking weapon than a swerving and swooping extra tight end.
New one-back converts, though, such as the Browns' Sam Rutigliano, feel it's a more versatile formation, and the blocking is better with the extra man on the line. Pruitt, Cleveland's one-back, says he can see the holes better out of this setup. The formation is a product of the fertile brain of San Diego Coach Don Coryell, who first used it at St. Louis in the mid-'70s, then took it with him to San Diego, using Keller) Winslow as the slotback/tight end. It was primarily for passing, but he could run from it, too, as Coryell's former offensive assistant, Joe Gibbs, proved in Washington.
"The run from the one-back is basically a four-or five-yard gain," says Walsh, who's more of a two-back man. "The whole trick for the defense is to attack the motion tight end before he can position himself correctly."
But, boy, has the one-back produced some fancy running stats. The theory is: Give your keynote runner the ball and don't mess around with the other guys. In the first five weeks of this season, there were 38 100-yard performances, including 10 of 150 yards or better. In the first five weeks last year, the numbers were 24 and two; in '81, 20 and five.
Offensive linemen say the emphasis on running has forced them to work on their drive-blocking skills again, techniques that had grown a little rusty. "I've got to admit," says 49ers Right Tackle Keith Fahnhorst, "that this year was the first time I'd worked on my run-blocking in a long time. After last year [the 49ers were 28th in the NFL in rushing], I figured, O.K., just don't get beat on pass protection and you'll last forever; but getting Wendell Tyler changed that. When you've got a good runner like that, you know damn well that if he's not getting his yards it's not his fault. So you'd better shape up." After three games this year Tyler already had more yards than the leading 49er rusher had all last season, but when Tyler separated his shoulder early in the fourth game, against Atlanta, the 49ers blocked just as aggressively for the other guys, and the rushing totals read 157 against the Falcons and 174 against the Patriots, both wins.
Oldtimers like 49er Linebacker Jack Reynolds say there's an even deeper reason why rushing yardage is up this year: Run-stopping skills are eroding. "It takes a whole new set of techniques to stop linemen coming out and grabbing you," he says. "Linebackers nowadays are blitzers and coverage guys or blown-up strong safeties. They don't rely so much on technique; they count on physical ability, which means their careers will be shorter. An older player can always fall back on technique, but these new guys, once they've lost a step, there will always be a younger, faster guy to replace them."
"I see a loss of basic run-stopping technique among defensive linemen," Walsh says. "Psychologically, they are into sacks, ravaging the quarterback. They learn to slip blocks, to rely on speed. And their skills against the run erode. But I see the running game coming back, and when that happens, the defense will adjust. Players like Jack Reynolds and Mel Blount will be valuable again."
And then maybe some bright young offensive coach will look at all those rugged, sturdy defenders and say, "Hey, I've got an idea. Let's throw the ball."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]