NFL playoff passers are ready to run
By HOWARD FENDRICH
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | January 12,2014
AP FILE PHOTO
In this Dec. 22, 2013, photo, Carolina’s Cam Newton hurdles New Orleans Saints’ David Hawthorne in the second half of a game in Charlotte, N.C.
Not surprisingly, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton avoided saying anything too specific about whether he’ll wind up with some extra carries in the playoffs.
Adept at speaking a lot while divulging little, Newton looked ahead to his postseason debut Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers and offered this when asked about running the ball: “Hopefully I will take what the defense gives me.”
One man convinced Newton’s rushing total will be higher than during the regular season is 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the man charged with figuring out how to contain Carolina’s QB.
“When you have a quarterback of Cam Newton’s ability in this type of game, I think he’ll be apt to run a little bit more than he maybe would normally,” Fangio said. “They may even call more of the quarterback runs for him, the quarterback powers or lead draws.”
With so much passing by NFL teams, it’s easy to forget that there’s still a place for a running game. Except it’s not necessarily going to be running backs gaining key yards on the ground in these playoffs. It’s the quarterbacks. With Newton, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson — and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck is a capable ballcarrier, too — defensive players were going to be wary of scrambles, sneaks and designed runs by the QBs this weekend.
Even Drew Brees got in on the act a week ago while helping New Orleans beat Philadelphia 26-24, with 13 yards on five runs, his second-highest totals for any game over the past two seasons.
And if Kaepernick’s 98-yard, seven-carry day in a 23-20 victory over Green Bay — the most yards rushing for any player in the wild-card round — is any indication, it might just be that speedy QBs held under wraps during the regular season were going to get to strut their stuff more in the postseason.
“Colin is prepared to tuck the ball and run,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “We’ve all seen that.”
Never more so than in the playoffs. Kaepernick’s two top-yardage rushing games as a pro came in the postseason (both were against the Packers; he ran for 181 against them a year ago, a record for a QB).
Seeing Kaepernick do his thing brought to mind someone in particular for Randall Cunningham, a star in the 1980s and 1990s and the prototypical dual-threat QB.
“Kaepernick reminds me a lot of myself. When the game is on the line, he’s going to use his legs. Those are the plays that break a defense’s back,” said Cunningham, who held the record for career yards rushing by a quarterback until Michael Vick broke the mark. “It’s a fun part of the game and a needed part of the game now.”
That’s in part, he said, because running QBs make their passing more effective, too.
“It’s one thing to know a quarterback isn’t going to run out of the pocket; you can rush three (defenders),” Cunningham said. “But with a Kaepernick, you try to rush three, he’s got the ability to move around back there and he can get the defense out of position and then run or throw. ... He can throw the ball on the run, throw off-balance.”
According to STATS, which does a video review of every play of every NFL game, Kaepernick gained 13 yards on three designed runs against the Packers last weekend, plus 85 yards on four scrambles. That includes an 11-yard, blitz-eluding run on third-and-8 on the final drive, helping set up the game-winning field goal.
“His legs are his weapon,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said, “and he knows that.”
The same could be said of Kuechly’s teammate, Newton, who ran a season-high 12 times for 72 yards in a playoff-type Week 17 victory over Atlanta, sealing the NFC South title.
Newton led the league’s quarterbacks with 585 yards rushing this season. Wilson was No. 3, Kaepernick No. 4 — both also above 500. Luck was No. 7 with 377 yards, with about a third fewer carries.
Luck showed what he can do by fooling Kansas City on a bootleg keeper for 21 yards on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter of the Colts’ wild 45-44 comeback victory last weekend. Luck pulled off a similar play on a 6-yard TD run at San Francisco in Week 3.
Against the Chiefs, he wound up with a season-high 45 yards rushing on seven carries. And that doesn’t include his most significant play on the ground: the headfirst leap into the end zone for a touchdown after recovering a teammate’s fumble.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano acknowledges it can be worrisome to watch his QB get exposed to extra hits by running.
“Certainly if you had things designed for him, we all know he’s more than capable of executing it and getting it done. But ... that’s your franchise,” Pagano said, “so (there’s) a lot of risk-reward.”
That’s part of the calculation for coaches who might enjoy strategies such as the zone-read option, but fret about their QB ending up hurt like last season’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Robert Griffin III.
Wilson, whose Seahawks earned the NFC’s top seed, had fewer designed runs this season than in the second half of last season. That said, Seattle did make the zone-read a key part of its game plan during a victory in December against New Orleans, Saturday’s foe in a playoff rematch.
“We’re concerned about keeping him in the pocket,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “I feel like quarterbacks have the mindset that, `If something’s open and I think I can get the run, I’m going to go for the run, and I’m not going to slide. I’m going to get that first down, because that’s what the team needs.”’
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in Santa Clara, Calif., Steve Reed in Charlotte, N.C., Michael Marot in Indianapolis, Brett Martel in Metairie, La., and Tim Booth in Renton, Wash., contributed to this report.
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