Running game still key to winning

In front of the locker of the NFL's most prolific passer over the past four seasons, the discussion was monopolized late Sunday afternoon by describing the 35-yard touchdown pass that Peyton Manning had thrown to Marvin Harrison, an exquisitely executed play which boosted the Indianapolis Colts into a 17-7 lead over the visiting Tennessee Titans in the second quarter.

For five minutes, Manning dissected the play from pre-snap read to completion, recalling with typical detail how he pump-faked to freeze the "nickel" safety in the middle of the field, and then took advantage of Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle in one-on-one coverage. For a quarterback who has now thrown 113 touchdown passes in the past four-plus years, the suspicion is that Manning can likely remember every one of them frame by frame, and with the same mental precision displayed Sunday afternoon.

But the other thing Manning doesn't forget, as demonstrated in the wake of the Sunday victory, is the significance of the running game. So not surprisingly, as tailback Edgerrin James walked past reporters on his way to a dinner engagement, Manning nodded toward the Colts' star runner.

"Don't forget what 'Edge' did today," Manning reminded his audience of James' 120-yard performance. "It's really good to get him back running like that. When we're two dimensional, like we were today, it makes us pretty tough to beat. (You've) still got to run the football to win in this league."

Ah, yes, there it is. One-half of a truism that, no matter how the NFL game evolves, running will forever remain the most rudimentary formula for victory. Run the ball, stop the run, and more often than not in the NFL, you win.

It is a low-maintenance design that, even in a high-tech league, remains successful. And in the first two weeks of the 2003 season, most notably last weekend, the hackneyed old blueprint looked nearly as fresh as when the game's founders first drew it up. The game is still about the most trite-and-true fundamentals, blocking and tackling, and sometimes it takes a slate like last weekend's schedule to reinforce that message.

Notable was that Baltimore tailback Jamal Lewis' league-record 295 rushing yards came just one week after the Ravens had attempted only 23 rushes in their opening week defeat at Pittsburgh, with just 15 carries by their star tailback. In his record performance Sunday against Cleveland, Lewis logged 30 carries, and the Ravens ran 41 times as a team, for a gaudy total of 343 yards.

So did anyone notice, in the wake of Lewis' tour de force, that Baltimore rookie quarterback Kyle Boller completed only seven passes? That fact was lost because of the Lewis record and, just as important, a dominating 33-13 victory.

There were eight individual 100-yard rushing performances last week. All eight teams that featured a 100-yard rusher won their games. Offenses that rushed for an aggregate 150 yards were 7-0. Sixteen franchises had 25 rushing plays and 13 of those teams were victorious. There were eight teams that notched fewer than 20 rushing attempts and they were 0-8. Teams that ran the ball at least 30 times were 13-1.

And a few of them, players suggested, sent not-so-subtle messages to their opponents and perhaps the rest of the league as well.

"We know all about the perception that we're a (soft) team," acknowledged Colts center Jeff Saturday. "Well, I don't think anybody felt we were (soft) today, did they? If you can run the ball, it erodes the other guy. If you can stop him from running it, he's frustrated. I think we did both those things (against the Titans)."

Indeed, the Colts posted a running game differential of plus-74 yards, limiting the Titans to a paltry 53 yards on 19 attempts.

It is a little-used statistic, but running game differential is about as reliable an indicator of success as any number in the game. Over the last five seasons, teams that had even a tiny edge in the running game won nearly 60 percent of the time. Clubs that had advantages of more than 25 yards in running game differential won more than 70 percent of the games.

The Ravens had a whopping 283-yard rushing differential Sunday because, while Lewis was running unchecked through the Browns' defense, Baltimore limited Cleveland to just 60 yards on 20 attempts.

It isn't surprising that, of the eight undefeated franchises remaining after just two weeks, four of them rank in the top 10 in both rushing offense and defense versus the run. Two of the surprise teams at this early juncture of the campaign, Carolina and Minnesota, are prime examples of being able to transform the simple into the sublime. The Vikings rank No. 3 statistically in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Carolina is fifth in the league in rushing offense and second in rushing defense.

The equation doesn't always, of course, hold true. The Vikings led the NFL in rushing in 2002, and were 10th in defense against the run, but finished with a 6-10 record. Nine of the league's top 10 individual rushers were not in the playoffs in '02, and four of the five top rushing teams failed to qualify for postseason play. Of the top 10 defenses against the run, just six were in the playoffs.

But most coaches still feel that if they control the line of scrimmage, they control their destiny.

"Everyone tries to make the game more complicated than it has to be," allowed Carolina head coach John Fox. "But it still boils down to the same principles that have always sort of held true. And the running game, how well you do it and how well you stop it, remains right at the top of everybody's priorities."

A year ago, the Panthers ranked No. 8 against the run, but were a disappointing 25th in rushing offense. The addition of workhorse tailback Stephen Davis, the perfect fit for the pragmatic style of offensive coordinator Dan Henning, has provided Carolina a human blunt object with which to bludgeon opponents.

Davis and Denver tailback Clinton Portis are the only two backs in the league to post 100-yard performances in both outings this year. The Panthers and Broncos, largely as a result of controlling tempo with the running game, are a combined 4-0. It's not merely a coincidence, either, that Washington is 2-0, now that coach Steve Spurrier is calling a more balanced game than he did in his debut season.

Indeed, the Redskins are a good example of a team that hasn't necessarily run the ball well in its two victories, but which has gone over the 100-yard mark collectively in its two wins. By running the ball, Spurrier has better insulated young quarterback Patrick Ramsey, shortened the game, provided his defense a breather.

"Yeah, sometimes, you just have to run the ball to run it," said Redskins right offensive tackle Jon Jansen. "You can't give up on the run too soon. If you keep running, sooner or later those two- and three-yard (runs) turn into seven and eight yards. Sometimes, even if the numbers don't look that impressive, you're still beating on the other guy and wearing him down physically."

Case in point: In the Cowboys' upset victory over the Giants on Monday night, Dallas averaged an unimpressive 3.0 yards per carry. Starting tailback Troy Hambrick had just a 2.6-yard average, gaining 60 yards on 23 rushes. But the Cowboys pounded the ball 36 times at the Giants, compressing the game against a seemingly superior opponent, and never wavered from their intent. On the flip side, the pass-happy Giants ran a mere 17 times, for only 53 yards.

New England dominated the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, despite rushing for just 62 yards. But one key component of the Patriots' victory was the decision to keep pounding the ball on the ground, 30 times in all. The result: The Pats had a huge 13-minute margin in time of possession. Buffalo trounced Jacksonville despite averaging just 1.3 yards per carry, but still ran the ball 32 times.

Miami got back on track, following its infamous opening game loss to Houston, with 44 rushes against a Jets team that called only 11 runs of its own. Tampa Bay threw a club-record 61 passes in its upset loss to Carolina and ran only 22 times. The Panthers went right at the Bucs' famed "Cover 2" defensive scheme with 40 rushing plays. And that enabled them, in large part, to overcome just nine completions by starting quarterback Jake Delhomme.

"Yeah, it's 'old school,' I know," said Carolina left offensive tackle Todd Steussie. "But winning never gets old. And you win with the run. The game can change and evolve, and there will be new wrinkles every year, but the running game is still the shortest route to being successful."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.