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Is the NFL going full circle with the return of the run game?

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Do teams like the Jaguars and the Titans have a “leg up” on the modern NFL defense?

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars-OTA Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

CBS football analyst Pete Prisco joined former Jaguars defensive end and current analyst Jeff Lageman on the “Jaguars Thursday” radio show tonight (which you can listen to here) to preview the Jacksonville Jaguars as training camp is just around the corner.

Prisco is a known believer that in order to win in the NFL, you need to have a good quarterback, and he believes that the run game isn’t nearly as important as the passing game. He was against the Jaguars using such a high draft pick on Leonard Fournette.

Given this, I was shocked to hear the following quote come out of Prisco’s mouth when he said he plans on attending the Tennessee Titans training camp this year:

I want to do a story, and you know that this is something that I do not believe. I don’t believe that you run the football to win. You know that.

But I believe he [Titans GM Jon Robinson] might be on to something there, and the reason I say that, and they might be onto something here [in Jacksonville]. With defenses getting so small and fast, the teams that kind of flip over, particularly if you don’t have a franchise Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers quarterback, the ones that flip over, and start playing that way, might have a leg up for a couple years, on the ones that don’t.

As hard as it is to believe the Jaguars have a “leg up” on pretty much any team in the NFL, I believe Prisco is on to something.

Since the 1990’s, and especially in the past decade or so, NFL football has evolved from being a game relying on the run into “a passing league”. Teams don’t win without good quarterbacks such as Brady, Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and so on.

The value of the running back has gone down, which can be seen by the position’s market. Fournette hasn’t taken a snap yet and already owns the most guaranteed money of any running back in the NFL (just over $27 million dollars, per Spotrac.com).

Defenses have had to adapt to the pass game. Jaguars fans saw an attempt at building a strict “No Fly Zone” defense during the Gus Bradley era. The secondary was often addressed during the offseason, as Bradley valued having a “ball-hawk” free safety to run cover 3 sky defense, with cornerbacks playing off-man and high zone with the free safety lurking to create plays on the deep ball.

With so much effort put into building a “perfect” pass defense, leaning on quicker, smaller players that can track the ball and make a play on it in the air in both the secondary and in the linebacker core, defending the run has seemingly become almost unimportant.

And some teams are starting to realize that.

The Titans owned the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft after going 3-13 and being one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2015. They traded out of the pick after signing Demarco Murray in the offseason, and ended up selecting right tackle Jack Conklin with the eight overall pick. In the second round, they selected running back Derrick Henry to develop a double-headed monster at running back.

Granted, the Titans have their future at quarterback in Marcus Mariota. However, although he flashed his potential last year and certainly is growing into one of the better QBs in the league, he’s far from being the leader of the team and is still learning the ways of the NFL.

The Titans improved their win total by six wins to 9-7 last year, and although Mariota flashed his potential, the Titans won because they had a fierce, “smash-mouth” run game that the modern NFL defense didn’t know how to defend. Murray and Henry combined for 1777 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.

Now, I’m not saying the Jaguars will improve as well as the Titans did in shifting to a heavy-run offense. In fact, I doubt it, because the Jaguars offensive line isn’t nearly as good as the Titans, and of course, Blake Bortles is an issue right now. While Mariota had some growing pains and wasn’t a top QB last year, he was far from being an issue in the Titans offense. He was a solid game manager.

However, if the Jaguars can resolve their run-blocking woes and if somehow, someway, Bortles can perform well as a game-managing quarterback (which I doubt until he can prove otherwise), then perhaps the Jaguars can have a “leg up”, as Prisco says, on teams that are built to defend the pass.