Words by Jonnie Carlyle; Rankings by Paul Charchian
1. Thomas Rawls at Minnesota – 10
Remember than time Mr. Skittles decided it was a good idea to switch his lime flavored skittles to green apple and hoped nothing would change moving forward, but instead managed to ruin the tasty candies forever? Yeah, the Seattle backfield is nothing like that. Thomas Rawls has been straight fire since taking over for Marshawn Lynch two weeks ago. Rawls has the second most rushing yards since Week 11, has the most total touchdowns with three and has seven carries inside the red zone, trailing only Tevin Coleman during that stretch. Though Rawls has only handled the majority of the carries in five of Seattle’s 11 games, he’s still managed to rush for the 10th most yards, including more rushing yards than Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Eddy Lacy, CJ Anderson and Jeremy Hill. Rawls has at least 21 carries in his last three starts, which has proven to be the breaking point for the Minnesota rush defense. Three backs have reached 20 carries against the Vikings, and all three have totaled 100+ yards and/or a touchdown.
2. DeAngelo Williams vs. Indianapolis – 10
Anyone else sitting up late at night wondering what could have been if Carolina hadn’t hoarded two of the more talented backs during their prime in the last seven years and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had backfields all to themselves instead of cannibalizing each other’s production? Just me? Regardless, Williams has been about as good of a replacement for LeVeon Bell as Pittsburgh could have asked for. Both Bell and Williams have started five games and averaged uncannily similar numbers:
Williams: 19-91-1, 3-36
Bell: 21-102-.6, 4-25
Clearly Williams has been tremendous and Sunday should be no different against a weak Indianapolis rush defense. When not facing a Peyton Manning-led offense or a discombobulated Falcon team who just lost Devonta Freeman (who had 3-43 before going down early), the Colts have given up an average of 17-104 to lead backs and eight touchdowns to the position in their last six games.
3. Adrian Peterson vs. Seattle – 9.75
Have you watched this guy play? If the answer is ‘yes’, then feel free to move along. If ‘no’, well, you probably ended up here by accident and I’d imagine the site you’re actually looking for comes with some sort of age requirement and/or consent button. Quietly an MVP candidate, Adrian Peterson has been phenomenal in 2015. His last five games he’s compiled a 117-634-5 line and only has two games all season where he didn’t total 100+ yards and/or reach the end zone. Peterson’s just 72 yards off his 2012 pace—where he rushed for 2097 yards—and has more rushing yards than 17 teams. Seattle isn’t the dominant defense from years past either, as the Seahawks have given up five games of 100+ total yards and/or a touchdown to opposing rushers in their last seven. Those two outliers, San Francisco. Who cares, though, right; he’s Adrian Peterson. Check. Mate.
4. Jonathan Stewart at New Orleans – 9.5
No team has more rushing attempts than the Panthers in 2015 and only two teams have averaged more plays inside the red zone than Carolina, which has led to a league-high 39 carries inside the opponent’s 20 yard line for Jonathan Stewart. To put that number into perspective, however, consider Lamar Miller, LeSean McCoy and Eddy Lacy have combined for 35 such attempts. Or Frank Gore and CJ Anderson’s 36 combined red zone carries. Stewart has more rushes inside the red zone than 18 NFL teams. Sure you wish he had more touchdowns at this point, but I’ll take that kind of opportunity any day of the week and 3.54 times on Sunday. Stewart’s had at least 20 carries in seven straight weeks and has a touchdown and/or 100+ rushing yards in five of them. New Orleans allows the most points, and ranks 30th in rushing yards allowed.
5. Devonta Freeman at Tampa Bay – 9.25
Last Sunday likely had Devonta Freeman owners shaking in their boots as Tevin Coleman was about to get the very opportunity Freeman had in Week 3: to turn the Falcon backfield into a timeshare. Well, with Freeman’s impending return, we all can rest a bit easier knowing his status as the dominant back is likely secure. It’s not that Coleman wasn’t a capable runner, but more what he isn’t. Coleman has just seven targets in 2015, with just one catch and dropped both his looks last Sunday. For comparisons sake, Freeman has reached at least seven targets in four different games this season and has caught 77% of his 62 targets (third most among running backs despite playing in nearly two fewer games). Tampa Bay has sneakily morphed into one of the better rush defenses this season, but they have struggled slowing pass-catching backs. No team has given up more than the Bucs' 30 receptions allowed since Week 8 and no team has allowed more touchdowns through the air to the position than the four Tampa has surrendered this season. Just two running backs have totaled 100+ yards against Tampa Bay this season; Alfred Blue in Week 3 and Devonta Freeman being the other in their first meeting in Week 8.
6. Chris Ivory vs. New York Giants – 9.0
I could write the greatest 300-word blurb you’ve ever read in your life and it still wouldn’t come close to watching a replay of Chris Ivory’s touchdown run against the Dolphins last Sunday. Miami had the standard 11 players on defense and Ivory made five of them look like John Clayton from ESPN trying to tackle Moby Dick if the whale had the lateral quickness of a world class goalie. The Jet running back now has 100+ total yards and/or at least one touchdown in 7 of his 10 starts and has averaged more than four yards per carry in three straight games. #BeastEast has received nine red zone carries in the last three games—only Devonta Freeman and Jonathan Stewart have more on the season—and only Jeremy Langford has more touchdowns since Week 9. The Giants have given up the 9th most rushing yards this season, but most of those defensive struggles didn’t arise until Week 5. In the Giants last seven games, six running backs have totaled at least 90 yards and four of them have reached the end zone.
7. LeSean McCoy vs. Houston – 8.75
You can find plenty to complain about in Buffalo these days, but LeSean McCoy won’t find himself on any of those lists. Since returning from injury in Week 6, McCoy has tallied 100+ total yards and/or a touchdown in six straight and likely sees an uptick in usage if Karlos Williams isn’t able to go on Sunday after leaving last week’s game with a shoulder injury. McCoy and Williams have accounted for 96% of the touches out of the backfield in the last four games and although it’s very likely McCoy doesn’t see that high of a percentage if Williams can’t play on Sunday, it’s worth noting Boobie Dixon is both awful and notched just two carries after Williams left the game last week. Houston's defense might be the NFL's best right now, but McCoy has faced five of the top 12 rush defenses and none of them have been able to keep him under 100+ total yards.
8. David Johnson at St. Louis – 8.75
Given everything that has gone down in New England in the last two weeks, there’s a very easy argument to be made the backfield you want every piece you can get your hands on is in Arizona. Only Atlanta has more rushing attempts inside the red zone than Arizona’s 48 carries, and Chris Johnson was averaging just a hair under 20 carries per game. And all that just fell into the lap of David Johnson after Chris Johnson broke his leg and Andre Ellington [insert essentially any injury you want here]. David Johnson steps in at just the right time too, as St. Louis’ defense has turned into a shell of its former self. In four straight weeks the Rams have surrendered 100+ total yards and/or a touchdown, with three straight weeks allowing at least 48 receiving yards too, which is important because Johnson is a gifted receiver..
9. Mark Ingram vs. Carolina – 8.5
There are two things we know about New Orleans every week. One, their defense is going to be absurdly bad, and two, Mark Ingram is going to get you at least 90 total yards. Normally those two things wouldn’t work together, especially for a back many consider to be of the power variety, but Ingram has been fantastically consistent in 2015. Only Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman have more total yards than Ingram, but neither has managed to total at least 74 yards and/or a touchdown in every game they’ve played like Ingram has. He’s had nine games with at least three catches, which is how many Randall Cobb has had and one more than Jimmy Graham. Ingram has also already triumphed over Carolina’s solid rush defense too, posting 99 yards on 19 touches and reached the end zone in Week 3.
10. Doug Martin vs. Atlanta – 8.5
I can’t envision a scenario in which you aren’t starting Doug Martin on Sunday, but just remember you didn’t get that recommendation from me. In his last five games Martin’s averaged 99 rushing yards, but that’s rather deceptive given he’s averaged just 66 yards on the ground if four of them, including his last meeting with the Falcons where Martin only mustered 73 yards despite receiving his third-most carries in 2015. It’s been a struggle to say the least, but also worth noting Dougie was one questionable holding call away from reaching the end zone last Sunday. A true boom or bust player, Martin has almost three times as many runs of 20+ yards than does Devonta Freeman a. Martin has 12 red zone carries in the last four weeks and that will likely be his most advantageous point of attack against a better-than-most-realize Atlanta defense. The Falcons have given up the 13th fewest rushing yards but the 2nd most touchdowns on the ground.
11. Darren McFadden at Washington – 8.5
Captain Checkdown is back taking snaps for the Dallas offense and that likely means another bout of heavy usage for the suddenly durable Darren McFadden on Monday night in Washington. In Matt Cassel’s five previous (and uninspiring) starts, McFadden’s averaged a robust 24 touches resulting in 107 total yards per game with no other back receiving more than six touches in four of those five. The touchdown cup hasn’t exactly overflowethed because Cassel can't lead an offense past the 50-yard line, but McFadden does have 9 of the 10 McCarries inside the red zone in Cassel’s starts, including all eight since Joseph Randle’s release after Week 5. Regardless of Cassel’s blatant inabilities, volume backs have feasted on Washington in 2015. Five running backs have at least 20 touches against Washington and all five of them have at least 114 total yards and four have found the end zone.
12. Ronnie Hillman at San Diego – 8.5
I am not going to pretend I know what to make of the Denver backfield going forward, hell I am not even sure the Broncos have it all figured out. However, something tells me we’ll have another week to work it out as both backs are going to get theirs and then some on Sunday. The Chargers have faced three of what I would consider committee backfields and in two of those games San Diego has allowed two different backs to amass 100+ total yards and/or a touchdown. Though my personal preference lies with CJ Anderson, I don’t think Ronnie Hillman is going anywhere anytime soon, either. Since Week 6, Hillman has more carries (29), more rushing yards (18), more touchdowns than Anderson and has a pretty glaring advantage in red zone carries with 12 attempts to Anderson’s 5. Hillman has been more consistent, and earns a slightly higher ranking, but we're in coin-flip territory.
13. Jeremy Hill at Cleveland – 8.5
Of course he would. In the midst of his most productive day on the ground this season, Jeremy Hill tweaked his ankle with nine minutes left to go in the 4th quarter and never returned. Hill suggested after the game he’ll be fine and if we’re being real, he could probably produce with no ankles against this Browns rush defense but that doesn’t make the potential “just how injured is he?” questions that likely won’t get much clarity all week any less frustrating. Assuming he is limited in some capacity, however, one would think if the Bengals were going to use Hill it’d be where he’s been most dominant. Hill has four less red zone carries than Gio Bernard, but he has five more touchdowns and the murkiness surrounding Tyler Eifert’s availability makes Hill’s usage at the goal line all the more appealing. No team has allowed more rushing yards than the Browns and they’ve allowed the ninth-most passing yards, suggesting Hill and the Bengals will have no problem reaching their average of four red zone trips per game on Sunday.
14. Todd Gurley vs. Arizona – 8.25
Oh how the mighty have (Nick) Fole(s)n. Am I right, guys? Guys? So maybe that’s a tad hyperbolic, but given the quarterback situation in St. Louis I don’t know if I’d be willing to use any adjective stronger than “tad”. In Todd Gurley’s first seven games, he was averaging 5.8 yards per touch. In his last two, Gurley’s averaging just 2.7. Gurley’s red zone carries are shrinking too—a decrease in three straight weeks—as only the Titans have fewer red zone trips in the last three weeks than Gurley’s Rams. If the Cardinals have shown any weakness in regards to running backs of late, it’s been their inability to keep them out of the end zone. Arizona has allowed five rushing touchdowns in the last five weeks, but they’ve allowed just 3.5 yards per carry during that same stretch and no back has rushed for more than 45 yards.
15. Charcandrick West at Oakland – 8.25
The fact Charcandrick West was back at practice on Wednesday suggests there’s plenty of positivity to be gleaned about his availability on Sunday. However, if Spencer Ware’s production in West’s absence doesn’t have owners at least marginally concerned they aren’t paying much attention. I’d still expect West to receive a majority of the touches—maybe not the 77% he’s had when both have been active— because he’s the most well-rounded back, but the goal line could very much be a new tune moving forward. In Ware’s last two games he’s averaged 6.1 and 3.1 yards after contact and been much more successful with his red zone carries. Ware has 12 fewer attempts, but one more touchdown as he’s reached pay dirt on 50% of his carries to West’s 15%. West's bigger stature may make him better for goal line use. There’s a schizophrenic nature to Oakland’s rush defense, but West should find plenty in the passing game to supplement whatever he musters on the ground. West posted at least five targets in three straight before his injury and the Raiders have allowed the 5th-most receptions and 8th-most receiving yards to backs.
16. Eddy Lacy at Detroit – 8.25
They always say, “act like you’ve been there before”, which would help explain why Eddy Lacy nearly aneurysmed his way to a horrible fumble moments before crossing the goal line last Thursday night, right? Scoring just two touchdowns in your first nine games would have anyone perplexed about what to do when you reach the goal line in a game you’ve been playing your whole life…. Despite the shenanigans, I think it might be safe to suggest the big guy is back. Lacy’s handled 74% of the carries in the last two weeks (most over a two game stretch since 2014) and has compiled 40% of his rushing yards on the season during that same stretch. Although the Lions have looked better since Martha Ford gave everyone a swattin’, Detroit has still given up the most rushing touchdowns to the position, including four of their six games played in Detroit.
17. CJ Anderson at San Diego – 8.25
I don’t think CJ Anderson has quite reached the Eddy Lacy shade on the “Is he back?” meter, but that likely won’t matter heading into Sunday’s matchup with a San Diego defense that’s been the equivalent to whatever contraception the Rivers’ have been using to try and prevent Phil’s little Phils from reaching their “end zone”. The Chargers are one of two teams to give up more than five yards per carry, one of two teams to have given up 1800+ total yards to the position and one of four teams to allow double-digit rushing touchdowns. Only Jacksonville and Baltimore didn’t have a back total 100+ yards and/or reach the end zone, which isn’t surprising given those two teams ineptitude in the running game. Anderson’s struggles are well documented, but that hasn’t prevented him from getting at least 10 touches in 8 of 11 games and averaging at least 4.5 yards per carry in every game since Denver’s Week 7 bye.
18. Buck Allen at Miami – 8.0
19. Matt Forte vs. San Francisco - 8.0
Welcome to your new reality Forte owners. Prior to their Thanksgiving game last week, John Fox announced Forte and Jeremy Langford were going to split carries moving forward and for once it appears the Chicago head coach wasn’t being deceptive as Forte had just one more touch than Langford, including just three more carries. Despite Langford snagging the lone touchdown too, I’d be wary of throwing the dirt on Forte’s grave just yet. There were six red zone carries between the two backs last week and clearly Forte was the preferred back in those scoring opportunities as he handled five of them. Sunday’s matchup is prime too as the 49ers—say what you want about the validity of home/away splits—look like a completely different defense on the road. Despite playing just five road games, San Francisco has allowed 214 more rushing yards and four more touchdowns away from Levi’s Stadium. In all five games, the 49ers surrendered at least one touchdown to the position and in four of the five; they’ve allowed 100+ total yards and at least one touchdown.
20. Gio Bernard at Cleveland – 8.0
To suggest Bernard has been uninspiring would likely be one of the bigger understatements of the week—he’s had just 70 rushing yards in his last three games— but that’s never really been his bag despite his early season returns during Jeremy Hill’s darker days. You don’t go to an Applebees and order a steak, right? Come to think of it, I don’t really know why anyone goes to Applebees, but I know why we plug Bernard into our lineups. In the last three weeks Bernard has more targets than Tyler Eifert (21), more catches than Demaryius Thomas (15) and more receiving yards than DeAndre Hopkins (222). There’s also a chance Eifert doesn’t play on Sunday and Jeremy Hill is nursing a bum ankle, so yeah, I’d say Bernard’s outlook looks pretty good on Sunday.
21. Jeremy Langford vs. San Francisco – 8.25
Skeptical to a fault, as my wife would say, I am still not entirely sure this committee is going to proceed as described by John Fox as the season winds down but all we have to go on is the incomplete data we have thus far. And after one game, it’s suggesting Fox’s declaration about this backfield is less “Jeffery is day-to-day” and more “these mexi-fries are delicious”. It’s not like he hasn’t earned it; Langford’s reached the end zone in four straight games and has looked very Forte-like in the passing game with at least three targets during that same four game stretch. Oh and did I mention he’s playing San Francisco away from the Bay Area (see Forte, Matt for the deets)?
22. Danny Woodhead vs. Denver – 8.0
23. Spencer Ware at Oakland (if C. West plays) – 7.5
24. Lamar Miller vs. Baltimore – 7.75
Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Lamar Miller has 16 games with at least 15 touches, and he’s averaged 110 total yards and .69 touchdowns in those games. I don’t like to use the F word often, but I am truly flabbergasted by the constant misuse of this guy. I mean, what in the f*** is going on in Miami that Miller has 17 total touches in their last two games combined?! Miller’s one of two backs to rush for more than 100 yards against the Titans and the only back to surpass that mark against the Texans. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is justifiably gone, which is likely a positive, but even more importantly Baltimore comes to South Beach with their group of practice squaders so there is no way game script should be an issue. The Ravens have allowed a rushing touchdown in half of their games away from Baltimore and both instances of allowing 100+ rushing yards have come on the road as well.
25. Latavius Murray vs. Kansas City – 7.75
Maybe it’s because of the exciting pieces at nearly every other skill position on the Raiders, but I feel like Latavius Murray has fallen off the map since shredding the Jets in Week 8. Murray has just one touchdown in his last five games, averaged just 58 rushing yards in his last four games, and hasn’t topped more than 2.7 yards per carry in his last two games (after seven games of at least four yards per carry in his first nine games). The volume is still there—Murray’s only had one week with less than 71% of the carries in his last five games—but the Raiders have the 6th-fewest rush attempts per game, and throw the ball on 61% of their offensive plays, which is the tenth-highest pass ratio in the league and are averaging less than three red zone trips per game (sixth lowest). I just don’t see Murray’s production increasing, at least not this week. The Chiefs have only allowed one back to rush for more than 71 yards, they’ve given up just one rushing touchdown since Week 5 and maybe most impressive of all, they held Adrian Peterson to just 60 yards on 26 carries.
26. DeMarco Murray at New England – 7.75
You’ll never hear me suggest a giant man who has more muscles in his eyelashes than I do in my entire body has quit on his team, but (don’t hurt me DeMarco) there is definitely something not right in the angriest (City of Brotherly Love, my ass) city in the US. After seemingly finding success with a sort of hybrid power running scheme, DeMarco Murray and the Eagles suddenly look just as lost running the ball as they did to kick off the season. In Murray’s last two games he’s carried the ball 27 times and more than half of them have went for two or fewer yards. Take out his one rush for 19 yards on Thanksgiving and Murray’s 13 other carries last week went for 11 yards. Yikes. Murray also wasn’t targeted in the passing game, which doesn’t seem like much until you consider he’s had just one game since his rookie season where he didn’t catch at least one pass. Double yikes. Though New England likely won’t blow the game script up like they have in weeks past, the Patriots still present all sorts of problems defensively for a struggling offense. Only two backs have rushed for more than 59 yards in the last six games against New England and the Pats will likely be getting back the tremendously versatile linebacker Jamie Collins.
27. LeGarrette Blount vs. Philadelphia – 7.75
There are tired clichés aplenty about the ever changing, often abruptly so, NFL landscape. However, like Bill Belichick at a press conference where reporters are asking about his emotions regarding Rob Gronkowski’s injury, we ain’t got time for that. All you need to know about LeGarrette Blount’s prospects on Sunday were made painfully clear in the last two weeks. 25 carries, 83 yards and just two red zone attempts. Blount had 15 red zone attempts in the two weeks prior. No Julian Edelman, no Gronkowski, a hampered Danny Amendola (at best) and a carousel at offensive line means things are different now. Blount’s value in New England has always strictly been dependent on uber-positive game scripts and being the forgotten man for defenses because of the weapons surrounding him. Just like that, all gone. And as much as the Eagles have been a joke of late, they’ve only allowed two rushing touchdowns all season—Blount’s specialty mind you—and only three backs have rushed for more than 80 yards.
28. Frank Gore at Pittsburgh – 7.75
Frank Gore is “beat to crap” according to his head coach, and it shows. He's rushed for a combined 58 yards in his last two games on 33 carries—including just two runs of more than four yards and none longer than six yards—and has yet to average more than 3.2 yards per carry in four straight games. Oh and he’s facing a Steeler defense that’s surrendered the ninth-fewest rushing yards since Week 8 and just four rushing touchdowns all season. Clearly there isn’t a ton to like with Gore this weekend, but he does have one thing going for him (if you could call it that). Ahmad Bradshaw was just lost for the season and while that doesn’t mean a great deal more volume for Gore, it does increase the value of the few extra touches he’ll see. Bradshaw had seven red zone carries and three targets in the last three weeks, which have nowhere else to go but to Gore. Ben Roethlisberger playing likely hurts Gore’s outlook quite a bit, but there’s still value in a lead back that’s a shoe in for around 20 touches and the majority of the goal line work.
29. Alfred Blue at Buffalo – 7.5
30. TJ Yeldon at Tennessee – 7.5
And in this week’s installment of Jacksonville’s coaching staff has no idea what they’re doing: In the Jaguars last 44 snaps in the red zone, TJ Yeldon has just six touches. Need I remind you, this team gave four straight goal line carries to Toby Gerhart…in 2015…just four games ago. Yep…
Keep up the good work Jagoffs.
31. Shaun Draughn at Chicago – 7.5
32. Melvin Gordon vs. Denver – 7.5
33. Antonio Andrews vs. Jacksonville – 7.5
34. Ameer Abdullah vs. Green Bay- 7.25
35. Theo Riddick vs. Green Bay – 7.25
36. Alfred Morris vs. Dallas – 7.25
37. Joique Bell vs. Green Bay – 7.25
38. James Starks at Detroit – 7.25
39. Charles Sims vs. Atlanta – 7.25
40. Darren Sproles at New England – 7.0
41. James White vs. Philadelphia- 7.0
42. Brandon Bolden vs. Philadelphia – 6.75