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Fantasy Playbook: Will the Slow Start for NFL Running Backs Become a Season-Long Trend?

And if it does, what does that mean for your fantasy team?

USA Today/Ringer illustration

After watching the Chiefs blow out the Patriots 42–27 on Thursday night, during which Pats running back Mike Gillislee scored three touchdowns and was still outshone by Kansas City’s breakout star, Kareem Hunt (246 combined yards, one touchdown on the ground and two more through the air), no one would’ve blamed you if you expected a similar explosion of production from the rest of the league’s top running backs on Sunday. But those games were linked by a common thread: a bunch of really ugly offensive performances. Many established veteran quarterbacks were bad. Most offensive lines were worse. And the majority of teams forgot to bring their rushing attacks to the games entirely.

Just seven of the 24 teams that played Sunday rushed for more than 100 yards, and on the week, only 11 teams ended up over the century mark on the ground. It wasn’t just early-game rust, either: Compare that with Week 1 last season, when 15 squads went over 100 yards in their opening games, or to 2015, when that number was 14, or 2014, it was 19. The Giants, for example, finished with just 35 yards on 12 attempts (2.9 yards per carry) against the Cowboys, and Pittsburgh was somehow even worse in Cleveland, rushing for 35 yards on 17 tries (2.1 YPC). Not to be outdone, the Browns, despite offseason free-agency upgrades to their offensive line in the form of Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter, managed just 57 yards on 25 totes (2.3 YPC). But those teams are just the start; here’s a sampling of a few other feats of run-game ineptitude:

  • The Cardinals picked up just 45 rush yards on 18 totes (2.5 YPC) against Detroit, while the Lions managed just 82 yards on 27 carries (3.0 YPC) on Arizona’s defense.
  • The Niners rushed for 51 yards on 15 carries (3.4 YPC) against the Panthers.
  • The Bengals picked up just 77 yards on 22 attempts (3.5 YPC) against the Ravens.
  • Take away two long Russell Wilson scrambles against the Packers, and Seattle’s trio of backs picked up just 53 yards on 15 carries (3.5 YPC).
  • The Chargers tallied just 64 yards on 22 carries (2.9 YPC) against Denver.
  • The Saints put up 60 yards on 21 carries (2.9 YPC) in Adrian Peterson’s return to Minnesota.
  • Even the Falcons, who finished fifth last season in rushing, managed just 64 yards on 23 attempts (2.8 YPC) against Chicago.

With a surprising lack of production from fantasy juggernauts like Le’Veon Bell (10 rushes, 32 yards), David Johnson (11 carries, 23 yards before leaving with a wrist injury), Devonta Freeman (12 rushes, 37 yards), and DeMarco Murray (12 rushes, 44 yards), the week’s scoring leaderboard was, well, interesting. Heading into Monday night’s doubleheader, three of the top six non-quarterbacks in PPR leagues were defenses (the Jaguars, Ravens, and Rams). Just one of those six — Hunt, the top-scoring fantasy player on the week — plays running back. And you could have probably grabbed Hunt in the late second or early third round of your fantasy draft.

In all, teams combined for just 19 rushing touchdowns this week. That’s notable because despite the declining numbers in average rush attempts and yards across the league over the last five years, the 2016 season was a renaissance of sorts for the NFL ground game. Teams scored a combined 443 rushing touchdowns last season, which was 78 more than the year prior, the most since 2008, and the third-highest total of any season this century. This year, after one week, they’re on pace for 324 scores, the fewest since 1993, when the NFL fielded only 28 teams.

So what the hell was going on with the NFL’s ground games? Well, it’d be easy to chalk it up to early-season rust, and for Bell, who just reported to the Steelers last week after holding out during the preseason, that’s probably a valid excuse. There’s a lot of interplay between offensive lines and running backs in the ground game — especially for a player like Bell, who runs with a uniquely patient style, surveying lanes at the line of scrimmage before making a cut downfield — so simply getting reps together could be enough to solve, or at least mitigate, the problems the Steelers had against the Browns.

But for the rest of the teams around the league, the issues may be linked directly to the league’s decline in quality offensive line play — a worrying sign for the rest of the season. That seems to be the case in Cincinnati. Young left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was a disaster, and behind a talent-deficient line, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Joe Mixon failed to find any traction. After looking ready for pro ball in the preseason, Mixon struggled the most, gaining 9 yards on eight carries, and per ESPN Stats and Info, eight of those 9 yards came after contact — meaning he averaged just one-tenth of a yard per rush before contact.

For Rams running back Todd Gurley, the line was mostly to blame as well. Though Gurley finished the Rams’ encouraging 46–9 blowout of the Colts with 15.6 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues thanks to a TD and 56 receiving yards, he finished with just 40 rushing yards on a paltry 2.1 yards per carry. It’s not like he was missing big holes to run through — he was tackled before or at the line on six of his 19 totes, averaging just 0.4 yards before contact per carry, per Pro Football Focus. Los Angeles’s offense may have taken some major strides in Week 1, but the lack of blocking in the run game is still a concern.

Lions running back Ameer Abdullah, who rushed 15 times for 30 yards in the Lions’ 35–23 win over the Cardinals, suffered from a lack of open lanes to run through, too. Abdullah finished with negative-0.3 yards before contact on the day, which makes his line of 2.0 yards per carry almost respectable. For the Cardinals, Johnson averaged 0.1 yards before contact per carry behind a porous offensive line that lost left tackle D.J. Humphries to a knee sprain. And now that Johnson’s out for some time with a dislocated wrist, his miniscule yards-before-contact number from Week 1 is something for fantasy players to keep in mind when thinking about picking up backups Andre Ellington or Kerwynn Williams.

For Seahawks running back Eddie Lacy, who finished with 3 yards on five totes, Seattle’s offensive line is clearly part of the issue as well. But the 250-pound back just might not be a good fit either, considering the Seahawks’ lack of options up front. Lacy’s relatively slow in taking the handoff and getting to the line of scrimmage, which means his offensive line has to block for an extra half-beat or two in order to clear a lane — and he needs even more time if he’s going to bounce runs to the outside. Without an open running lane, Lacy can’t build up his speed, and without that momentum, he’s not going to be running anyone over. Going forward, Seattle may start to depend more on Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, and Chris Carson for their rushing attack, as all three explode through the line of scrimmage noticeably quicker than the former Packer. But no running back should be expected to have too much success behind this line.

It’s still early, and we have only a one-week sample size. The first week of the season is always a little wild, and football’s a sport with an incredible amount of variance from game to game. No doubt, at least some of these lines will pick up the slack and some of these talented backs will have productive seasons.

But if what happened to teams’ rushing attacks in Week 1 develops into a season-long trend, it could have major implications for both fantasy football and the teams on the field. As teams struggle with the run, they’ll start passing even more than they already do, and more passing could lead to faster play, more possessions, and more points for the squads with top-tier quarterbacks and pass catchers. But for others — the teams that lack quarterbacks good enough to overcome the lack of a run game — it could also lead to an uptick in sacks, interceptions, and a deterioration in efficiency as any semblance of balance goes out the window. With fewer and fewer effective rushing offenses, the production of top-tier receivers could explode, both in reality and in fantasy football, and the gap between the teams with elite quarterbacks and those without would only get wider.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the NFL is on pace for 304 rushing touchdowns; it’s on pace for 324.