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In today’s NFL, where perennial contenders like New England, Green Bay, Indianapolis and New Orleans rely so heavily on the passing game, the importance of stopping the run often can be overstated.
When the Dolphins face the Cleveland Browns in their season opener Sunday, it won’t be.
There’s some hope in Cleveland that the team could make a jump in Rob Chudzinski’s first season as head coach, and a lot of that hope is related to running back Trent Richardson. Quite simply, the Browns and their fans are hoping for a huge season from Richardson, who was the third overall pick in the 2012 draft — the highest a running back had been taken since 2006 when the New Orleans Saints selected Reggie Bush second overall.
Richardson had a decent rookie season in 2012 with 11 rushing touchdowns and close to 1,000 yards, but he also was slowed by some nagging injuries, shaky quarterback play and an offensive scheme that was criticized for lacking imagination.
With the start of the regular season at hand, Richardson is healthy, Brandon Weeden has shown improvement at quarterback, and there’s a new offensive coordinator in town. That man is familiar to Dolphins fans: Norv Turner.
Based on Turner’s track record, Richardson could be in line for some big numbers this season.
Between his head-coaching stints with the Redskins, Raiders and most recently Chargers, Turner spent seven seasons as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. In those seven seasons, his teams’ rushing numbers were simply staggering.
Let’s break it down:
1991, Dallas, Emmitt Smith, NFL-best 1,563 yards
1992, Dallas, Emmitt Smith, NFL-best 1,713 yards
1993, Dallas, Emmitt Smith, NFL-best 1,486 yards
2001, San Diego, LaDainian Tomlinson, 1,236 yards
2002, Miami, Ricky Williams, NFL-best 1,853 yards
2003, Miami, Ricky Williams, 1,372 yards
2006, San Francisco, Frank Gore, 1,695 yards
OK, Turner clearly has had the benefit of working with some quality backs, but also consider that since rushing for that 1,695 yards in his second season in the NFL, Gore has never gone above 1,214 yards. Or that Williams not only broke the Dolphins’ rushing record in 2002 with Turner as the offensive coordinator, he smashed it by almost 600 yards and his total in 2003 is the second-highest in franchise history.
As for Tomlinson, he was a rookie in that 2001 season.
So, yes, Richardson could be in line for a big season for the Browns and his ability to stay healthy is huge for Cleveland considering his backups are second-year player Bobby Rainey and undrafted rookie free agent Dennis Johnson, who have combined for exactly zero NFL games.
On Sunday, the Dolphins should expect a heavy dose of Richardson.
And, based on recent history, Richardson should expect to find the going difficult.
In the past two seasons, only three running backs have rushed 100 yards on the ground against the Dolphins. Houston backup Ben Tate did it in Week 2 of the 2011 season, and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson and Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller reached the plateau last year.
Between the 100-yard games by Tate and Johnson, the Dolphins went 22 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
During that stretch, the Dolphins corralled quality running backs like Arian Foster (79 yards, 3.0 average), Darren McFadden (22 yards on 11 carries), Ahmad Bradshaw (50 yards on 13 carries), Fred Jackson (17 yards on seven carries) and LeSean McCoy (38 yards on 27 carries).
The Dolphins ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2012, but were 10th in terms of rushing yards per attempt. In 2011, Miami was third in both rushing yards allowed per game and per attempt.
With every key member of the defensive line back from last season, the Dolphins once again figure to be strong against the run in 2013.
Based on last year’s numbers, one would think the Browns would focus their running attack Sunday to the right side of their offensive line. Sure, Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas is considered among the best in the league, but the Browns averaged only 2.98 yards on running plays behind left tackle last season. That figured ranked 29th in the league. The Dolphins defense, meanwhile, was third at defending runs behind left tackle, allowing only 3.02 yards on such runs. The Dolphins also were fourth on runs behind the left guard at 3.19 yards per attempt.
The two running backs who had big success against the Dolphins last year were speed guys. Spiller’s 138-yard effort in Miami in December, for example, was fueled by a 62-yard run.
While Richardson has speed, he’s not a burner in the same class as Spiller or Johnson. His longest run from scrimmage as a rookie was only 32 yards.
Going back the last 10 years, the Dolphins have had mixed success at stopping the run on opening day as the following chart with the opponent’s top running back’s numbers shows:
2012, Arian Foster, Houston, 26 carries, 79 yards, 3.0 average
2011, Danny Woodhead, New England, 14 carries, 69 yards, 4.9 average
2010, Fred Jackson, Buffalo, 4 carries, 19 yards, 4.8 average
2009, Michael Turner, Atlanta, 22 carries, 65 yards, 3.0 average
2008, Thomas Jones, N.Y. Jets, 22 carries, 101 yards, 4.6 average
2007, Clinton Portis, Washington, 17 carries, 98 yards, 5.8 average
2006, Willie Parker, Pittsburgh, 29 carries, 115 yards, 4.0 average
2005, Tatum Bell, Denver, 13 carries, 47 yards, 3.6 average
2004, Chris Brown, Tennessee, 16 carries, 100 yards, 6.3 average
2003, Stacey Mack, Houston, 27 carries, 89 yards, 3.3 average
Where Richardson winds up ranking on this chart in terms of yardage could go a long way toward determining the outcome Sunday.