The NFL has a lot of terrific defensive tackles: Jerome Brown of the Eagles, Ray Childress of the Oilers, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael of the Bears, Keith Millard and Henry Thomas of the Vikings, Michael Dean Perry of the Browns and the Jets' well-kept secret, Gerald Nichols. They're simply too good for the guards blocking them. They create too much havoc.
And there's another factor working against the running attack. No other part of the game requires everything to be so much in sync. "It's always the last thing to come around," says Skipper. "It can take almost until the last part of the season until the offensive line understands what's going on."
It used to be you lined up five guys and they played forever. The Bears, with a line that has been together for six years, is the NFL's best rushing team (158.3 yards per game). But now offensive lines are being crippled by injuries: This is the steroid era—nagging injuries don't heal.
This is also the era of training-camp holdouts. A linebacker can step right in after missing camp. For an offensive lineman, it's not so easy. "In the world of offensive line play, the holdout is the mortal enemy," Bresnahan says. "It takes awhile for the timing to come back."
The timing seemed to be there for Buffalo in that 30-7 victory over the Jets in which Thomas got those 214 yards, and for Chicago in that 19-16 win against Minnesota in which it had those 215 yards. Both teams might have opened a small window. Both played against defensive schemes that rely on constant stunting and looping and deep penetration by gap-shooting linemen. Viking defensive coordinator Floyd Peters has a theory that is shared by Pete Carroll, a former Minnesota assistant who is now the Jets' defensive coordinator: Turn your linemen loose to rush the passer, and if they're good enough athletes, they can pick up the run on the go.
The Bears obviously ran effectively against this Viking alignment, as did the Tampa Bay Bucs in a 23-20 victory on Sunday in which they rushed for 186 yards. The Bills broke up the Jets' eight-man defensive front by coming out in a three-wideout set, hoping to move the extra man, the safety, outside into coverage. Then Buffalo ran the ball, catching the New York linemen in between loops and stunts. "Yeah, I know, it's a way to attack the eight-man front," says Robinson. "And it works if you have good players."
Miami coach Don Shula has livened up the Dolphins' running game with three draft picks and a key veteran acquisition. In 1989, Miami's No. 1 draft choice was running back Sammie Smith. This year's first two picks were tackle Richmond Webb, who has been sensational, and guard Keith Sims, who plays next to him on the left side. But Shula also landed a much-neglected key to the ground game, a blocking fullback, in Tony Paige, who had been cut by the Jets and set free under Plan B by Detroit. "A vicious little pit bull," Raider defensive end Howie Long once called Paige.
And this kind of vicious backfield blocker is necessary for a good ground attack. Says Giddings, "The Steelers' running game never would have worked if they hadn't had a Rocky Bleier in the backfield with a Franco Harris."
For any running attack to succeed, a team has to be committed to it. Trouble is, says Pittsburgh defensive line coach and Hall of Fame tackle Joe Greene, "A lot of teams just don't practice it much, and that's why they can't run. Everyone's looking for the big passing yardage, glamour, the quick fix."
Pass-blocking linemen are drafted high, while the run-blockers go in the fifth round. Blocking backs come in as free agents. Tight ends are chosen for their speed and niftiness. "If Dave Casper came into the league now," says Raider scout Dan Conners, "he'd be a pass-rushing linebacker."