By Danny O’Neil
The threat of a running quarterback works both ways.
That has become apparent this offseason as defensive coaches across the league have sent out a not-so-subtle warning to any team that chooses to involve its quarterback in the running game.
Russell Wilson mostly avoided big hits while rushing for 489 yards last season. (AP)
“We’ll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said back in March.
Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham made a follow-up to Tomlin’s brushback pitch.
“The problem is for those quarterbacks, one of these days one of them is not going to walk off,” Cunningham said last week, according to the team’s website. “It’s a lot of pressure on him to physically do that.”
The option offense is hardly new, and this current trend has been kicking around the league for a few years now going back to Michael Vick in Atlanta and Vince Young in Tennessee in 2006. But now, the roots have spread from Carolina with Cam Newton to Washington’s Robert Griffin III to the West Coast, where Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick are dueling dual threats.
That tough talk from defensive coaches around the league this offseason shows where teams are going to be aiming this season: the opposing quarterback.
Better not miss then, said Tom Cable, Seattle’s offensive line coach.
“If you’re going to do this, you better have the answers,” Cable said last month. “Because all we’ve heard all spring is every defensive coach in the NFL has said, ‘Man, I’m going to go to Texas A&M, I’m going to go to Clemson and I’m going to go to Oregon and see the new coach, figure this thing out.”
Russell Wilson was one of four quarterbacks to rush for more than 400 yards last season.
|Robert Griffin III, WSH|
|Yards per carry:||6.8||Touchdowns:||7|
|Cam Newton, CAR|
|Carries:||127||Yards per carry:||5.8||Touchdowns:||8|
|Russell Wilson, SEA|
|Yards per carry:||5.2||Touchdowns:||4|
|Colin Kaepernick, SF|
|Yards per carry:||6.6||Touchdowns:||5|
He did everything but say, “Bring it on.”
Now understand this: Cable has some experience in these matters. He coached in Atlanta while the Falcons featured Vick and had the league’s top rushing offense. He built Oakland’s ground game without a running quarterback, and now in Seattle, he’s got one of the league’s emerging stars in Wilson.
There’s no mystery why NFL teams have generally kept their quarterbacks from running the ball. You don’t want an opposing defense full of 250-pound mouthbreathers getting chances to knock your starter out of the game, especially if that starter happens to be a cornerstone of the franchise.
But there are ways to minimize those risks, too. The quarterback can slide feet first. He can step out of bounds. He can stay out of the no-man’s-land that is the middle of the field.
Now, not everyone is doing that.
“If you look at what Washington is doing or Carolina, the quarterback is part of it,” Cable said of those running games. “He’s going to go in there and keep it and run down there in what we call the briar patch.”
That’s not in Seattle’s plans. Never has been. Because even when Wilson became a larger part of the run game over the final month of the season – averaging 52 yards rushing and scoring four touchdowns over the final five regular-season games – there were limits to his freedom. He wasn’t to go up in that briar patch.
“We weren’t going to run him up in the there because in my opinion … that’s foolish,” Cable said. “We’re fortunate enough to have a franchise guy. Those are special dudes, so take care of him, and that’s what we’ll do.”
The question of just what opposing defenses can do to stop that is one of the most compelling questions for this NFL season.