Teams that stop the run have a fighting chance for success By Mike Wilkening (firstname.lastname@example.org) May 28, 2004 One of the reasons the Raiders should be considered contenders for the AFC West title is a big factor in why the Dolphins will continue to be competitive in the AFC East, no matter what off-field drama the team endures. It is a major discussion point for anyone who wants to argue the Cowboys will be in the mix in an improved NFC East, or that the Steelers and Jaguars will compete for division titles. What do these teams have in common? All should be among the league’s better teams at stopping the run in the upcoming season. The Cowboys, Steelers, Jaguars and Dolphins all finished in the top 12 vs. the run in 2003, and the Raiders have made major improvements to their run defense in the offseason. In a league where stopping the run has become more difficult of late, it will give them a fighting chance to make the playoffs. Seven of the 11 best run-stuffing teams made the postseason in 2003, including Super Bowl entrants New England (fourth vs. the run) and Carolina (11th). Two seasons ago, Oakland and Tampa Bay played strong run defense, and it helped propel both teams to the Super Bowl. A stout run defense isn’t necessary to make the playoffs, but it helps. Teams that can’t stop the run have that much less margin for error — and an offense that much more burdened. Case in point: The Chiefs won the AFC West a season ago with a powerful offense — and in spite of a run defense that finished second to last, surrendering 146.5 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. As much trouble as the Chiefs had stopping the run, the Raiders were worse — the league’s worst, in fact. When injuries started to ravage Oakland’s offense, the elements were in place for a 4-12 finish. But the Raiders have to be optimistic about their chances at a turnaround in 2004. The addition of former Giants QB Kerry Collins has something to do with it, yes, but the signings of DTs Warren Sapp and Ted Washington are really what should get Oakland supporters excited. Sapp and Washington have the ability to help turn the Raiders back into a top-10 run defense. If that happens, the Raiders are going to give the Chiefs a run for the division title. When Oakland plays the 3-4, Sapp will play defensive end — an ideal fit for his ability to get to the passer and hold up at the point of attack. Washington will play nose tackle. In a 4-3 alignment, Sapp and Washington might line up together at tackle. Nice flexibility for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to have, don’t you think? The Raiders have the bulk to combat Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson and Chiefs RB Priest Holmes, whom they potentially will face twice in the regular season. Oakland also must contend with whoever emerges as Denver’s featured back; that player, no doubt, will be formidable in the Broncos’ offense. But the Raiders ought to be up to the task, just like the Cowboys will be up to stopping new Redskins RB Clinton Portis. The Dolphins' run defense remains stout. No AFC North team will make Jamal Lewis work as hard for his yards as Pittsburgh will. And don't forget about the Jaguars, who allowed only 3.2 yards per carry in 2003 — a full yard less than the league average. That average has increased by three-tenths of a yard in the last five years. Stop the run? It is easier said than done. One of the few teams that has had success consistently pulling this off has been the Titans, who were the league's best in this category a season ago. But Tennessee's run defense almost assuredly will not be the league's best in 2004 after DE Jevon Kearse and DT Robaire Smith left via free agency. It is the loss of Kearse that may have the most profound effect on the team's ability to hold up vs. the run. “The one thing about Jevon is, [for] a lot of people looking from the outside in, they didn’t know what type of run player he was," Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said in March. "And Jevon was really good against the run. Jevon weighed 245 or 250 pounds for almost every single game he played and was never knocked off the ball by a 300-pounder. He was strong, he had great leverage, he could chase, he could make great plays against the run. I mean, he was really, really good against the run. “... The average people out there think of him just as a pass rusher, but he was, without a doubt, one of our best run players and was never knocked off the ball, regardless of whether he was giving up 70 pounds. I just got done yesterday watching the Baltimore playoff game, and he gave (Ravens OLT Jonathan) Ogden all he could handle. He was inside and never got knocked off the ball by Jonathan Ogden. And Ogden’s one of the premier left tackles of all time, not just in the NFL right now. So we’re going to miss that." If the Titans falter this season, take a close look at how the front four has held up. Its success may well tell the tale for Tennessee.