Ravens vs. Steelers: Gone are the days of two power-running teams

Larry French

Compared to 1995, the NFL is seeing roughly the same amount of rushes and yards per game. Its worst teams, though, which include Baltimore and Pittsburgh, are well-below what they were that season.

It's not a coincidence the Steelers marched down the field against the Arizona Cardinals with less than two minutes remaining, winning Super Bowl XLIII on a touchdown pass. A team that wanted to run the ball won the Super Bowl on a game-winning pass in a competition in which an interception returned for a touchdown was one of the key plays.

The Steelers won Super Bowl XL on the strength of a gadget play - a deep pass from Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward. But at least that was bracketed by a 75-yard touchdown run by running back Willie Parker - a Super Bowl record.

The Baltimore Ravens rode the hot hand of quarterback Joe Flacco through four post-season victories, resulting in an MVP trophy as his team lifted its second Lombardi Trophy. Ray Rice led the Ravens with 59 yards on 20 carries. The team ran 35 times for just 93 yards. Their opponent, San Francisco, rushed 29 times for 182 yards, one of the highest totals for a Super Bowl losing team in league history.

It's accepted and possibly cliche now to suggest it's a passing league. The impact of that, though, is being felt on all levels, and the question becomes where is the line of demarcation between passing team and running team drawn?

An outstanding feature written by Tribune-Review reporter Mark Kaboly Sunday digs into that topic. The Steelers host the Ravens in Week 7 Sunday, both teams shells of their former running dominance. But for all their lack of rushing success, it's even more eye-opening when compared with teams in the past.

It's not even about the top of the statistics, it's about the bottom.

The Ravens' current mark of 72.7 rushing yards per game is good for 27th in the NFL. In 1995, that mark would be more than nine yards a game lower than the league's worst rushing team, the New York Jets.

The Steelers, 31st in the league at 61 yards a game, swoon even lower.

At the same time, other factors have to be considered. Offenses seem to be rising upward overall, and not just in teams' ability to throw the football.

The Ravens were the Cleveland Browns in 1995, and the NFL only had 30 teams at that point. The new Browns franchise and Houston Texans would make their way into the league seven years later, and perhaps expansion diluted the product somewhat. Oddly, the Browns were 22nd in that version of the league, averaging 92.6 yards a game. That number would be 22nd this year as well.

The Chiefs led the NFL with 138.9 rushing  yards a game. The Eagles lead the NFL so far this year at 178.5 yards a game. The bottom is lower and the ceiling is higher. The league itself is averaging 26.5 rushes per game, and 108.1 yards a game. In 1995, it rushed one full carry a game fewer, but had the same amount of rushing yards per game.

In terms of the passing game, the 2013 version of the league is catching two more passes a game for 40 yards more. It is averaging a full yard more per catch than in 1995.

This is suggestive passing is more prevalent, but passes are going for more yards than they used to.

The Steelers and Ravens are textbook examples of the decline in ability to run the ball, but their big-play passing has increased as well. The latter of those concepts is far more likely to be on display than two teams capable of running for five yards a carry on 25 or more attempts.

When speaking of this rivalry in future years, there's one generation of it that involved power running and tough defense. It's turning into one in which deep passing and possession receiving will ultimately decide the outcome.

Whether it's a coincidence these teams are struggling this year remains to be seen, but these teams are far from Hines's Steelers and Ray's Ravens.

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