words by Jonnie Carlyle; rankings by Paul Charchian
1. Doug Martin at St. Louis – 9.75
I know we all kind of expected Dougie to get the Saint-ly treatment last Sunday, but the game script went wayward early and the opportunities for Martin never materialized as Tampa threw on 73% of their offensive snaps. Despite the limited usage, Martin still impressed with two more runs of 20+ yards (his 13 leads the NFL) and reached the end zone for the second straight week. In fact, Martin has a touchdown and/or 100+ total yards in four of his last five and has at least one red zone carry in every game since Week 4, including 13 such carries in his last four. There should be some chunks of yardage for Martin too, as only the Saints and Chargers have given up more runs of 20+ yards than the Rams, including four in the last four games St. Louis has played without Robert Quinn. Of their last six opponents, only the Lions haven’t had a back notch 100+ yards and/or a touchdown against the Rams, with the lead back averaging 132 total yards and a score.
2. Adrian Peterson vs. Chicago – 9.5
Word on the street has it there were owners benching Peterson last weekend in the most important week of the season. How’d that work out for you? Exactly. Don’t bench this guy, ever. Two weeks ago Peterson only had eight carries in his worst game of the season. By halftime last Thursday, Teddy had already handed the ball to him 12 times en route to his league-leading 8th game of at least 20 carries. Peterson butters the Minnesota roll and if the Vikings have any aspiration of a NFC North title, Zimmer and company know it’s on the back AD. Peterson’s reached the end zone in five of his last six games and historically has shredded the Bears. Since 2011, Peterson has averaged 24-119 and has six straight with at least 100+ yards and/or a touchdown. Chicago has been battered as a defense too, allowing 100+ total yards and/or a touchdown in seven straight (a streak started by Peterson) and a rushing touchdown in two straight despite facing two teams who are tied with the third-fewest touchdowns on the ground this season.
3. LeSean McCoy at Washington – 9.5
He’s called his former “boss” a racist but refused to elaborate as to why, attempted to throw an all-girls party (vetting potentials via Instagram submissions) and scurried away, twice, from a potentially tough situation after a loss last Sunday. Sounds like a guy who would fit in quite well in a place like Washington DC. As embarrassing as he’s been at times off the field this season, Shady has been anything but on it. McCoy’s topped 100 total yards in seven straight games (joining Thurman Thomas and Orenthal Simpson as the only Buffalo backs to do it) and is averaging 24 touches in his last five. McCoy will likely find Sunday’s familiar road trip considerably more comfortable than his return to Philly, too. Every team Washington has faced since Week 5 that wasn’t the New York Giants has had a back total 98 yards and/or reach the end zone, including four games where the running back did both. Furthermore, every running back that’s totaled at least 20 touches against Washington has averaged 161 yards from scrimmage.
4. David Johnson at Philadelphia – 9.25
Here’s what we know about what being the Cardinal running back means:
1) It can make a 30-year old Chris Johnson not only relevant, but at times dominant and at minimum, functional. That’s quite a feat in and of itself.
2) Whoever the lead back is, he’s going to get fed regardless of the health of the other backs (so spare me the ‘if Ellington returns this week he’ll take carries’ talk). In the 11 games Arizona didn’t lose a running back mid-game to injury, the lead guy handled 75% of the carries. That’s David Johnson now.
And oh has Johnson performed. David’s averaged 21-96 and 4-26 since taking over for Chris, including five red zone carries, three red zone targets and was inches (twice) away from reaching the end zone in both games. Say what you want about the Eagles rush defense stiffening up since Doug Martin blasted them for 235, but they’ve been absolutely dreadful against pass catchers since Jordan Hicks was lost for the season in Week 9. In the five games post-Hicks injury, Philly has allowed an average of 7-73 through the air and surrendered four touchdowns, which is more than 22 teams have allowed all season.
5. Lamar Miller at San Diego – 9.25
At the 10:10 minute mark of the 2nd quarter in Monday night’s game, Lamar Miller had 7-69-2 (and 68 of those came after contact, ps), including having just broke off a 38-yard touchdown run that saw him shake and shimmy his way through nearly the entire Giant defense and put Miami up 14-10. In the next 40:10 of the game, Miller had 5-20 and the Dolphins scored just 10 more points. The Miami Dolphins, everyone.
Look, I don’t think I can do this anymore. How is this so simple to everyone else, but suddenly you throw on a Dolphins polo and you forget how to breathe? Hyperbole, right? But is it? In the seven games Miller has received at least 10 touches, he’s averaging 118 yards and more than a touchdown per game. Here’s the problem, though, the Dolphins have played 13 games this season. Nah, ain’t no hyperbole around here. Warranted complaints aside, San Diego should provide plenty of help to the Miller cause. Opposing backs average 22 attempts, so the volume should be there. And the Chargers have given up the 4th-most rushing yards, the 3rd-most rushing touchdowns and the 2nd-most yards per touch (5.9). Who knows if the Dolphins play along on Sunday, but given the juicy matchup they may not have to.
6. Denard Robinson vs. Atlanta – 9.25 (assuming TJ Yeldon doesn’t play)
There’s no way Jacksonville can mess this one up right? Their struggles running the ball in the red zone are well documented around these parts, but the Jags might not have much to say about it come Sunday. No team has given up more rushing touchdowns than Atlanta (15) and in the last three weeks they’ve surrendered more touchdowns (5) than six other teams have allowed all season. The Falcons have also given up 10 more receptions to the position than any other team and the 3rd-most receiving yards. Yeldon sprained his knee midway through the game last Sunday and with Gerhart on IR for horribleitis, Denard Robinson very well could fall into a featured role on one of the league’s better offenses. Eight times Robinson has been given 10+ carries in his short career and he’s posted at least 87 total yards in four of those games and scored five touchdowns.
7. Matt Forte at Minnesota - 9
It might feel a bit like you’re Christopher Walken in the uber-depressing “Deer Hunter” after returning from Vietnam when you slot Forte into your lineup considering he was unable to out-touch Jeremy Langford for the second time in three games, but more often than not in a time share the tiebreaker goes to the player handling the ball near the goal line and that’s the veteran. Since Forte’s return in Week 12, he has nine red zone carries to Langford’s two. Case closed (kind of). The matchup is a plus too, as the Vikings have struggled to limit production from the opposing running back. In the last four weeks, Minnesota has surrendered 5.9 yards per carry and have allowed 100+ total yards in every game during that stretch too. Don’t expect much to change if the Viking defense is again playing short-handed on Sunday as three starters—Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith—and one backup (to Smith) all missed last Thursday’s game.
8. Eddy Lacy at Oakland – 9
So let me get this straight. Rewind two weeks. No longer calling the plays in Lambeau, Mike McCarthy benches #FeastMode after two straight games of 100+ yards and all he gives to then play-caller Tom Clements is some bum named John Crockett. Two weeks later, McCarthy takes play-calling duties back and oh yeah, re-inserts Lacy into his starting running back role. Lacy re-commences feasting (how convenient) to the tune of 24-124 and suddenly Green Bay is “back” (according to pundits just looking to fill airtime and anyone with a Wisconsin zip code). That about cover it? And guess what, it’s quite all right with me. See, the trick with Lacy is:
1) benching/not owning until Week 11
2) Starting/trading for in Week 11
Since 2013, in Weeks 11-17, Lacy has averaged 21-102-1 (rushing and receiving combined) and has only three games where he didn’t total 100+ yards and/or score a touchdown. Oakland has only allowed one back to reach those numbers in their last four games, but Lacy’s task starts to look a lot less daunting when you consider two of those teams (Detroit and Tennessee) are amongst the six that have yet to rush for 1000 yards and the other inexplicably had Brock Osweiler throw the ball 51 times as both Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson dealt with injuries.
9. Chris Ivory at Dallas - 9
Now that Bilal Powell is healthy, the concern with Ivory has become when game script goes awry he just doesn’t see the field enough as Powell is much better in the passing game. Welp, good news folks. A wacky game script is a near impossibility with Matt Cassel running the show in Dallas. In the two games the Jets controlled in their last three, Ivory averaged 22-94, was the only New York running back with more than one red zone carry (5) and averaged 11 more snaps than Powell. Assuming Ivory gets that type of volume on Saturday, he should find production. Seven different backs have reached double-digit touches against Dallas since Week 9 and they’ve averaged 102 total yards, with five of them totaling 100+ yards and/or scoring a touchdown.
10. Charcandrick West at Baltimore – 8.25 (if Spencer Ware plays)
Certainly an injury situation owners want to keep an eye on, but if Spencer Ware’s bruised ribs keep him out this week against the Ravens there is an awful lot to like about Charknado’s outlook for Sunday. Getting a Jamaal Charles-like workload in Weeks 7-10, West looked a bit like Charles as he averaged 22-92-1 on the ground and 3-45-.333 through the air. And it’s not like West killed it against a bunch of schleps either, as he faced two teams in Pittsburgh and Denver that are amongst a group of six that have yet to give up 1000 rushing yards this season. Between the Steelers and the Broncos, they’ve had just four backs total 100+ yards and score a touchdown against them and West accounted for two of those instances. The Ravens are far from schleps either, but have surrendered a combined six yards per carry in the last two weeks to Lamar Miller and Thomas Rawls.
11. Latavius Murray vs. Green Bay – 8.75
He might be the least sexy thing in silver and black these days, but even the Black Hole needs some Orcs to do the dirty work while the passing game flourishes. Although Murray’s only averaged more than three yards per carry once in his last four games, he’s still a near lock for almost 20 touches (20+ in two of his last three) and has dominated the red zone carries all season, including 8 of 10 since Week 12. The Packers are coming off a week where they gave up 162 rushing yards to a Matt Cassel-led offense, but it’s been a struggle even before that. In the last four weeks, only Detroit didn’t have a back reach the end zone against Green Bay.
12. DeAngelo Williams at Denver – 8.75
Here’s all you need to know about DeAngelo Williams in a very tough matchup with Denver. Since Week 9 of the 2012 season two running backs have more than 100 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in Seattle. One, DeMarco Murray in his insane 2014 where he battered every defense he faced. And the other, DeAngelo Williams three weeks ago, where he totaled 117 yards and scored from six yards out. Facing arguably the NFL’s best, Williams still managed to produce tremendous numbers and he’s consistently done that all season. In six of his seven starts Williams has topped 100+ total yards and/or reached the end zone. Only AP and Devonta Freeman have more rushing touchdowns, but they have 104 and 28 more carries, and Williams is the only back that has at least three red zone carries in every game he has started. Denver’s likely to be another tough test for Williams, but nothing he hasn’t faced before, especially considering it is away from Mile High. Of the 13 touchdowns the Broncos have surrendered to the position, 8 of them have come on the road.
13. Devonta Freeman at Jacksonville – 8.5
(Jimmy Haslam, Shad Khan and Arthur Blank appear)
Jimmy Haslam: “Hey Khan. Where do you think you’re going to put out a dumpster fire that big?”
Shad Khan: “Why don’t you bend over and I’ll show you.”
Haslam: “You’ve got a lot of nerve talking to me that way Khan.”
Khan: “I wasn’t talking to you.”
Yep, it’s gotten that bad in Atlanta, where the Jaguars are nowhere near the trainwreck the Falcons are. Certainly that’s affected Freeman’s production tremendously and although (as I’ve suggested numerous times) the Jaguar rush defense isn’t where opposing running games go get healthy, I still like Freeman’s outlook on Sunday. In his last four appearances, Freeman has tallied 21 catches and that includes a very short stint against the Colts in Week 11. Freeman has actually accumulated more receiving yards than rushing during that stretch and if opposing running backs have hurt Jacksonville anywhere it has been through the air. The Jaguars have surrendered the 6th-most receiving yards and the 2nd-most catches to the position, including at least four to at least one back in 9 of 13 contests. Jacksonville could also be without middle backer Paul Posluszny, who missed last week’s game after surgery on his broken right hand.
14. Bryce Brown vs. Cleveland – 8.5
Hello friends, I’d like to introduce you to…anyone running the ball against the Browns rush defense (especially one taking handoffs in an offense that has averaged well over four red zone trips per game in their last three games). No team has allowed more rushing yards than Cleveland and in 10 of their 13 games a back has 100+ total yards and/or a touchdown. Bryce Brown was just signed Monday, but if you’re having reservations about a guy signed the week of you are more concerned than Seattle clearly is. In order to sign Brown, the Seahawks were forced to cut DeJuan Harris and thus, have just three healthy running backs and one of them is a Matt Hasselbeck in running back’s clothes. Considering the matchup and the roster, Brown is in line for a significant workload and though his opportunities have been limited, the uber-talented back has flourished with significant carries. Four times Brown has received double-digit carries and he’s averaged 18-97-1 in those four games, including two games where he averaged at least seven yards per carry.
15. Tim Hightower vs. Detroit – 8.25
I am not sure any of you saw me walking out the “Up” premiere last Friday night, but I couldn’t believe how much dust was floating around that theatre on such a busy night! They should really get that placed looked at. There was so much water in my eyes 15 minutes into it; I could barely keep “up” the rest of the film. So yeah, it totally was dust that made my eyes water so much… I wasn’t crying! So anyone catch that crazy Tiger Woods sex scandal too? Sexts, porn stars and damning voicemails?! Oh well, I am sure he’ll be back to running things on the course in no time.
Wait, what’s that? It’s not 2009?! Cripes! Well no one tell Tim Hightower. Out of the league since 2011, last week Hightower handled a very Mark Ingram-like 88% of the carries, including six of seven inside the red zone and was on the field for 71% of the offensive snaps. Maybe most important of all, Hightower came out of last Sunday’s game unscathed despite the heavy load and will likely fill a similar role on Monday night. The Lions are certainly not as porous as they seemed last Sunday against Todd Gurley, but there is no doubt they are a different defense away from Ford Field. In six road games, lead backs have averaged 18-84 against Detroit and the Lions have allowed more than a touchdowns per game.
16. Jeremy Langford vs. Minnesota – 7.75
17. Jeremy Hill at San Francisco – 8.0
If you’re concerned about whether it’s going to be a “Hill or Gio game”, no need to stress, the Bengals make it very easy for you. When game script favors Cincinnati, it’s Hill time and when it doesn’t, expect to see Gio. For instance, in Cincinnati’s last two victories, Hill carried the ball 31 times to Gio’s 15 and out-snapped him 63 to 46. In last Sunday’s loss, carries were 7-6 in favor of Hill, but Gio played twice the snaps. Which scenario is more likely here? I’ll give you a hint, one team has Blaine Gabbert and the other does not. Boom. Expect the Bengals to play ball control, and with the 49ers averaging a league low 14.5 points, a Hill-centric attack has plenty of wiggle room regardless of whatever impact AJ McCarron starting at quarterback might have on the offense. The 49ers could also be short-handed on Sunday as both NaVorro Bowman and Aaron Lynch have been hobbled of late, the former playing last Sunday but far from 100% and the latter missing the game altogether with a concussion.
18. Frank Gore vs. Houston – 8.0
I’ve got a theory about Frank Gore’s struggles in recent weeks. He was never the most fleet of foot guy, but when you have to carry around an emergency defibrillator for your quarterback in the event he gets hit by the opposing defense it’s likely to slow you down. We all know about the 100-yard streak and how no Colt has done it since Johnny Unitas used to hand the ball off to himself, but Gore isn’t even thinking about 100 yards, given how much he’s struggled to even reach half that. Since Grandpa Hasselbeck took over for Luck in Week 11, Gore has averaged 41 rushing yards per game, topped 50 yards just once, and is averaging 2.6 yards per carry. He’s had eight red zone carries in those four games, but only two have come inside the 10-yard line and none have resulted in touchdowns. And I know Gore pierced the end zone the last time these two AFC South “titans” faced off, but things couldn’t be more different than their first meeting in Week 5. In their last six games, Houston’s only allowed Shady “the anti-Frank Gore” McCoy to top 64 rushing yards and only one back has a rushing touchdown despite 14 red zone carries.
19. Todd Gurley vs. Tampa Bay – 8.0
There’s something to this firing your offensive coordinator thing isn’t there? Some might as even go as far to say it’s the NFL’s Sex Panther, where 60% of the time it works every time. Whatever it is, can Gurley get another spritz? Last Sunday Gurley had more rushing yards than the previous three weeks combined and did much of it on his own as he averaged 5.4 yards after contact. He notched three more runs of 20+ yards, bringing his total to 11 on the season and trails only Doug Martin despite playing in just 11 games. The Bucs have been incredibly stout against the run, allowing the 8th fewest rushing yards, and only one rushing touchdown since Week 3. Tampa Bay will also likely be on their third middle linebacker in as many games and their best linebacker (Lavonte David) will be forced to play on a bum ankle on a short week.
20. Brandon F. Bolden vs. Tennessee – 8
I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all. It’s the playoffs and we’re not only talking an incredibly fickle New England backfield, but Brandon fu***** Bolden of all backs. I hate it, you hate it, we all fu***** hate it. However, we have to remember this game is about opportunity (people forget that IMO) and there’s arguably not a better opportunity than the one afforded by this offense after losing LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots are averaging five red zone trips per game at home and their backs have averaged five red zone carries per game at Gillette Stadium as well. Why not Brandon fu***** Bolden? He was the guy salting away the game last Sunday night in Houston with 11 of his 16 carries coming in the second half. Taking it with the biggest grain of salt ever, but there was a time right before the season kicked off where Belichick quietly and angrily (probably) muttered Bolden had all the tools to be a three-down back and they trusted him in that role, too. The good news is Bolden might not be as big of a risk as we’re (me) all thinking. In the five games the Titans have lost by 10+ (they’re 14-point underdogs), opposing backs have averaged 18-89 and reached the end zone in three of them.
21. Ryan Mathews vs. Arizona – 8.0
Call me crazy, but when trying to decide which Philadelphia running back I prefer, I’ll take the one that isn’t a terrible fit for the offense. Mathews has exactly half the carries as does DeMarco Murray, but just 138 yards fewer and is averaging almost two yards more per carry. In his first game back from a concussion, Mathews was on the field more than Murray and especially so where it counts, receiving two red zone carries when Murray received none. While the Cards are far from an ideal matchup, it doesn’t mean there’s not some production to be had. Arizona has allowed five rushing touchdowns in their last five games and nine runs of 20+ yards on the season. Mathews leads all Eagle backs with five 20-yard carries and two of them came against the formidable Jets and Panthers.
22. Shaun Draughn vs. Cincinnati – 7.75
He’s the 2015 version of “RB San Francisco” from the greatest football video game series of all time, Tecmo Bowl. I am still not entirely sure where he came from or who he is, but without a doubt Shaun Draughn is THE guy in that backfield. Since assuming his role in Week 11, Draughn has handled 90% of the carries, including two games where he was the only back to receive a handoff, and has averaged 18 touches during that same stretch. The juvenated Blaine Gabbert loves him too, as Draughn trails only Anquan Boldin in targets since Gabbert took over in Week 9. It’s difficult to tell exactly where game script will go with no Andy Dalton, but Cincinnati has allowed the 10th-most receptions to the position so rest assured there’s some production to be had on Sunday.
23. Spencer Ware at Baltimore – 7.75
24. Ameer Abdullah vs. New Orleans – 7.75
We’re not breaking any news here, but to suggest it’s been a tough year in Detroit this season is understating it just a bit, and certainly Ameer Abdullah is caught up in that. However, Abdullah is about to get his one-week all-inclusive dream vacation to the island of Saints, where every running back who comes gets treated like royalty no matter how terrible they are. Antonio Andrews, Alf Morris and Alf Blue averaged 17-90 on the ground and even guys like Joe Randle had more trouble running from mall security than he did avoiding Saints defenders on his way to the end zone. I say that in jest, but only kind of. New Orleans is the only team to allow more than five yards per carry, their 2,347 yards from scrimmage is 170 more yards than the next closest team and 11 of their 13 opponents have had at least one back total 100+ yards and/or reach the end zone. The Detroit running game has been so bad in 2015, but volume against a defense like New Orleans could net results. And no back in Detroit has received more touches in the last four weeks than my guy Abdullah, who’s averaged almost 11 touches since Week 11 and has just one week during that stretch with less than 10.
25. Bilal Powell vs. Dallas – 7.75
Hey Hollywood, clearly you are running out of new movie ideas given your propensity for reboots (Point Break? Really?) so I was thinking maybe we could get a “Rookie of the Year” reboot starring Bilal Powell. I know he’s not a rookie, plays a different sport and the idea makes absolutely no sense (just like the original), but I think we could just get Adam Sandler to fill in the necessary details. Since returning from injury in Week 11, Powell has surged into relevancy (PPR especially) as he’s averaged 70 total yards on 10 touches and has scored a touchdown two straight. Powell’s also averaging one red zone target during that same stretch and trails only Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall in overall targets since his return. Dallas likely plays willing partner on Saturday too, as they’ve allowed the 4th-most receiving yards to the position and 8th-most receptions, including at least four to one back in 9 of 13 games.
26. Gio Bernard at San Francisco – 7.75
27. Ronnie Hillman at Pittsburgh – 7.75
28. Melvin Gordon vs. Miami – 7.75
29. Chris Polk at Indianapolis – 7.75
30. Danny Woodhead vs. Miami – 7.75
31. Darren McFadden vs. New York Jets – 7.5
The Jets rush defense is like that one dude you’d never want to cross paths with in a dark empty alley just moments after he found out his wife was cheating on him with Jake from State Farm and your only backup is Stephen Hawking but without all the brains and traveling super computer. In other words, Darren McFadden’s outlook on Saturday don’t look so good. New York’s allowed fewer rushing yards in the last three weeks combined than five different running backs registered in Week 14 alone. No team has allowed less per carry than the 3.4 yards New York has, but in the last three weeks that number drops a full yard. Oh and the Jets have only allowed one rushing touchdown this season, all the way back in Week 3. Like running lanes against this Jets defense, McFadden’s reliable volume has all but disappeared as well. After five straight weeks of 20+ touches, Run DMC has averaged 13 in his last three and has just one catch in his last two. Yes he had 111 rushing yards in Green Bay last Sunday, but 86% of those yards came on just two carries. Avoid this guy at all costs.
32. Cameron Artis-Payne at New York Giants (if Stewart doesn’t play) – 7.5
33. Buck Allen vs. Kansas City – 7.5
34. James Starks at Oakland – 7.5
35. Fozzy Whitaker at New York Giants (if Stewart doesn’t play) – 7.5
36. Darren Sproles vs. Arizona – 7.5
37. James White vs. Tennessee – 7.5
38. CJ Anderson at Pittsburgh – 7.5
39. Joique Bell vs. New Orleans – 7.5
40. Theo Riddick at New Orleans – 7.5
41. Charles Sims at Detroit – 7.5
42. Matt Jones vs. Buffalo – 7.25
43. DeMarco Murray vs. Arizona – 7.25
44. Isaiah Crowell at Seattle – 7.25
45. Antonio Andrews at New England – 7.25
46. Alfred Morris vs. Buffalo – 7.25
47. Duke Johnson at Seattle – 7.0
48. Rashad Jennings vs. Carolina – 7.0
49. Karlos Williams at Washington – 7.0
50. Johnathan Grimes at Indianapolis – 7.0
51. Christine Michael vs. Cleveland – 6.75
52. Fred Jackson vs. Cleveland – 6.75
53. CJ Spiller vs. Detroit – 6.75
54. Shane Vereen vs. Carolina – 6.75
55. Tevin Coleman at Jacksonville – 6.5
56. Andre Ellington at Philadelphia – 6.5
57. Robert Turbin vs. New York Jets – 6.0