2015 Running Back Workload: Week 2 Review
After a season altering Week 2 slate of games, Dom Murtha sets the record straight on the backfield power struggles developing all around the league.
After a very intriguing Week 2 of NFL action, I, in my column, like many coaches do with their backfields, will sprinkle in a little change of pace this week. Early on in this season, like in the Game of Thrones land of Westeros, backfield power struggles are developing all over the league, infecting a large portion of the teams in the NFL, and ultimately clouding the fantasy projections of many notable running backs. So instead of discussing “trending up” or “trending down” this week, I will examine each backfield power struggle, hopefully making things clearer to your benefit of winning your fantasy matchups.
Beginning in Cincinnati, we see a two horse race between two incredibly talented runners. Both former second round picks in back-to-back years in the draft, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have had their share of fantasy success over the last couple of years. Coming into 2015, all the buzz was about Jeremy Hill and how he was poised to finish as a top running back this fantasy season. Two weeks, two fumbles, and 3.5 yards per carry later, and it appears that he is in coach Marvin Lewis’ proverbial doghouse, while Gio Bernard is reaping the benefits.
Over the span of both regular season games so far, Bernard has seen 75 offensive snaps to Hill’s 56, while he has rushed for 186 yards to Hill’s 105. Bernard has also caught more passes due to his secure grip on the third down reps, while he has nearly doubled Hill’s yards per carry average at 6.6 to 3.5. This is not to terrify Jeremy Hill owners, because they still have a very talented runner on their hands and most importantly the man who will continue to dominate the goal line touches, but take this more as a PSA that the preseason notion of Hill as the lead guy and Bernard as the change of pace is no longer the case.
Consider the backfield situation in Cincinnati as more timeshare split with the head ball coach playing the hot hand like he did on Sunday. They will split most of the reps evenly with third downs exclusively going to Bernard, and goal line snaps going to Hill. This is all subject to change however, as coach Marvin Lewis, according to Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, seems to be losing his patience. Lewis was quoted as saying "We can't have the back fumbling the football". Considering that Hill has what many would consider a fumbling problem now (seven in 18 career games), don’t be surprised if Hill is benched all together if the problem persists.
The problem in Denver is that no one seems to be getting the job done on the ground. Both C.J. Anderson, who many grabbed in the first round of their fantasy drafts, and Ronnie Hillman, his backup, have struggled mightily to even gain yards on a consistent basis. Anderson is averaging a paltry 2.3 yards per carry on only 24 attempts, while Hillman isn’t doing much better at 3.6 on 21 carries. Neither has gotten into the end zone, and their almost even split in touches is disheartening to anyone who was relying on Anderson to carry their fantasy squad this season. The bright spot for Anderson owners is that the snap split between him and Hillman is at a pretty drastic 99 to 48 number in Anderson’s favor. That might seem all well and good, but when your offensive line is seemingly incapable of blocking, there isn’t much of a silver lining anywhere for a running back. I would like to assure you that things are going to get better with the Broncos backfield production, but it would be irresponsible to do so based on Denver’s turnstile offensive line that seems intent on ending Peyton Manning’s career. It’s easy to overreact after only two games, but just from the eye test, things seem pretty grim in Denver in terms of the running game. Having said all of that, they are still 2-0 against two pretty good defenses, despite having an incapable ground game. If they can figure things up front, Denver once again, might be a scary out in the AFC playoff picture.
Out in Cleveland both Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson are making their cases for the lead back gig, but for now the tide seems to be turning in the veteran’s favor. Duke Johnson has shown some spark as a fresh-legged rookie, but so far is still only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. While Crowell is also averaging the same mediocre 3.4 yards per carry on the season, he outplayed Johnson in Week 2, rushing 15 times for 72 yards and a touchdown, tallying a very respectable 4.8 yards per carry.
The assumption still is that the Browns want to get Johnson involved more on third downs, making him a threat in the passing game, but after two weeks, he has yet to catch a pass. This is troubling for Johnson owners who saw him as a sleeper in PPR leagues, but don’t fret yet. As he gets more comfortable in the offense and develops a better rapport with Johnny Manziel, expect Johnson to be utilized similarly to the way he was in college: at times out of the slot, in the screen game, or on banana routes out of the backfield. All things considered, Crowell seems to be the “starter,” with the Browns still very committed to getting the rookie Johnson involved. They should continue to see an almost even split in touches and in overall snaps, while it would be foolish to assume that Johnson will continue to be shut out of the pass game going forward.
The injury to starter Andre Ellington has thrown the balance of backfield power out of whack in Arizona. Basically what we’ve got now is another battle between the old guard and the Avant-garde in veteran, former 2,000 yard rusher, Chris Johnson, and rookie sensation David Johnson, who seemingly can score from anywhere on the field.
The story lies in experience vs. production. Chris Johnson obviously has the resume of veteran experience and past production, while the rookie David Johnson is the one who is producing right now for the Cardinals. David Johnson, on only seven total offensive touches has two touchdowns (one receiving and one rushing), while averaging 14.3 yards per touch. This is all not to mention that he also brought back a kick 108 yards for a touchdown to start off the game last week against the Bears. In stark contrast, veteran Chris Johnson has gotten plenty of opportunities in the past two weeks (30 carries) however hasn’t produced anything longer than a 12-yard rush in Week 1.
The eye test tells you that David Johnson can play and should be getting the lion’s share of reps going forward, however if the Cardinals are trying to telling us anything from these first two weeks, it’s that the rookie might have to wait. David Johnson has only been on the field offensively for 21 snaps so far in 2015 compared to Chris Johnson’s 52. What that means is that he likely doesn’t have a full grasp of the offensive concepts or coach Bruce Arians is bringing him along slowly in order to not put too much pressure on the young running back.
The video evidence is there and there’re numbers to back it up; David Johnson is ready to take this league by storm. Hopefully the contrarian in Bruce Arians wakes up and compels him to start the less experienced, albeit more explosive David Johnson, in favor of the exhausted veteran in Chris Johnson. We will just have to wait and see, but my gut tells me that Arians is too smart not to make this happen going forward.
As predicted in last week’s edition, Melvin Gordon was much better in his second career NFL game, carrying the ball 16 times for 88 yards, good enough for 5.5 yards per carry. The interesting development here is that scatback Danny Woodhead just won’t go away. On Sunday, he carried the ball seven times for 35 yards, good enough for 5.1 yards per carry, while he also caught six passes for 68 yards. Headed into the season, we all expected Woodhead to be a significant factor in PPR leagues, but it’s the amount of carries that he is getting that is surprising. For now things seem good enough with the San Diego offense that there might be enough reps to go around for both running backs, but I fully expect Gordon to A) get into the end zone soon, and B) continue to get most of the carries going forward, regardless of Woodhead’s recent run of success carrying the ball. With that in mind, continue to consider Gordon the unquestioned starter, while Woodhead will play a big part mainly only in the passing game, despite his two rushing touchdowns already this season.
Surprisingly this season, Dallas has struggled to run the ball, after having what many considered the best ground game in the NFL last season. The loss of DeMarco Murray definitely plays a huge part in that, but it’s the loss of Ronald Leary that seems to be the biggest factor so far in the first two weeks. Head coach Jason Garrett, instead of just going with either Mackenzy Bernadeau or rookie La’el Collins as Leary’s sub, decided on Sunday against the Eagles to rotate them every series, which ultimately led to a lack of continuity and rhythm on the vaunted Dallas offensive line.
In terms of fantasy contributors, Joseph Randle has clearly been the Cowboys top back so far, often times making something out of nothing, as the holes really haven’t been there for him just yet. Darren McFadden’s vision, as expected, has been underwhelming, however his legs look fresher than they have in years. Lance Dunbar has been a PPR gem, totaling 11 catches already in only two weeks, however hasn’t done much in terms of running the ball, receiving only one carry so far. So really, where everyone seems to think that there is a mystery there isn’t. Randle is the lead guy, while McFadden will get a few series and potential goal line carries per game. Dunbar is the unquestioned third down guy, really only relevant in PPR leagues, while there has yet to be a Christine Michael sighting on the field. Maybe things change once Michael gets a grasp of the playbook, but for now, that is the state of the union in the Dallas backfield.
Things will obviously get clearer once this incredibly young and talented offensive line gets back into rhythm, and don’t be surprised if it is this week against the Falcons, as the Cowboys will need to lean heavily on the running game now without both Dez Bryant and Tony Romo.
After two weeks, my stance remains the same: Ameer Abdullah is the main back in Detroit. Joique Bell seems useless as a fantasy player at the moment, however the Lions really haven’t been in any goal line situations yet where his services might be best utilized. Abdullah’s main competition at the moment appears to be Theo Riddick, who saw plenty of snaps on Sunday, as the Lions were playing catch up for most of the game.
Riddick’s strength’s keep him on the field mainly on third downs, as he is one of the better pass catching backs in the game today. I call him Abdullah’s competition, not only because he outplayed Abdullah, but also because his usage on third downs and comeback situations directly cut into Abdullah’s reps. There is no question that Abdullah is the more talented player, but if the Lions don’t get the lead early on, expect to see more and more of Riddick as the game progresses, lowering Abdullah’s potential fantasy points.
It’s not time to panic if you own Ameer Abdullah, but his lack of involvement in the second half was a bit disappointing. His 1.5 yards per carry didn’t help matters much either, but just a week after being on my “trending up” list, his stock seems to be coming back down to earth a bit. Still though, consider him a top-notch flex play and a solid RB2 with boom and unfortunately bust potential going forward each week.
As stated in previous editions, Bill Belichick as an offensive personnel favorer is a very tough nut to crack. He’s been known to turn on dime and change his lead back week after week just to keep the defense guessing, or more cynically, to keep fantasy owners frustrated. So far this season, he has seemed pretty committed to castoff scatback, Dion Lewis, even after he’s now fumbled in back-to-back weeks, but change might be coming now that opponent punching, truck sticking, blunt smoking, LeGarrette Blount is returning from his two week suspension for marijuana possession.
What seems clear here is that Blount will be the goal line guy going forward, as he is arguably built the best for that job out of any other back in the NFL. Dion Lewis seems to have a good rapport with Tom Brady, so he should continue to have some solid PPR performances, but the question marks lie everywhere in between. In the past, Belichick has been known to ride the hot hand during each game, which would mean that Lewis would at least start as the lead back for next game, however now that Lewis has fumbled in back-to-back games, will the stubborn traditionalist emerge out of coach Belichick’s complex personality? If that is the case, Blount would be figured to be the next guy in line based solely off of talent and past success for the Pats, however Belichick’s history of admonishing players with off-the-field incidents would lead you to believe that maybe Brandon Bolden, James White, or even Travaris Cadet could be poised for some touches next week.
With no way of knowing for sure, it’s probably for the best to go ahead with starting both Dion Lewis or LeGarrette Blount if you have either, as Blount has a higher probability to score a touchdown than anyone else on the team not named Gronk, while Lewis has proven to be an effective weapon for Tom Brady out of the backfield over the past two weeks.
Probably the most intriguing of all running back sagas around the league right now is in Washington D.C. where both Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones are proving to be very effective weapons out of the backfield. Morris, the incumbent starter with a proven track record, was impressive in Week 1, running for 121 yards on 4.8 yards per carry. He struggled a bit in Week 2, but still rushed for 59 yards on 18 carries. Matt Jones, the rookie out of Florida, impressed all throughout the preseason, was solid in Week 1, and exploded in Week 2, carrying the ball 19 times for 123 yards, and two touchdowns, good enough for 6.0 yards per carry.
Both players have proven to be effective, but for Alfred Morris owners, I would be nervous. He may be the established starting veteran, and as solid as he has looked early on, the rookie Jones just looks better. He’s got that “it” factor and never say die attitude on runs that I haven’t seen since Marion Barber back in the mid-2000’s. Barber went on to score a lot of touchdowns for the Cowboys, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones does the same for the Redskins in 2015.
The best thing for Morris owners to do is to not panic, but rather do everything in your power to obtain Jones as an insurance policy. He is still available on the waiver wire in a lot of leagues, but he is sure to go fast after his performance on Sunday against the Rams.
Name the best fantasy back of 2015 thus far… If you didn’t guess DeAngelo Williams, you would be wrong. Now typically information like that would give fantasy owners no cause for concern, but rather joy in knowing the value that they got out of a guy who wasn’t even drafted in many leagues. Enter the problem: Williams has been starting for the Steelers in place of Le’Veon Bell, arguably the game’s best running back last season. Bell, after serving his two game suspension, is chomping at the bit to get back out on the field for the black and yellow in Week 3. Are we to expect that the work that Williams has done in his place will just go unrewarded?
The logical expectation here is that Bell will come back and assume his lead role once again, but his workload will be lightened from what he had last year. Translation: Both Bell and Williams are likely to see a dip in production do to an uneven timeshare split. Bell will not get as many touches as expected headed into 2015, while the best fantasy days from DeAngelo Williams this season are likely behind him.
Notably Omitted: Bears, Bills, Rams
With all three of these teams, where some may see a backfield power struggle, I see an established game plan. For the Bears, Matt Forte is unquestionably the starter, however fantasy owners are getting paranoid because rookie Jeremy Langford vultured a touchdown scoring drive from him during last Sunday’s game. Truth is the Bears have made it no secret that Forte is on a slight “pitch count,” where his touches will be monitored in a sense. If Langford sees a drive per game where only he is featured, don’t be surprised.
The Bills are secure with their backfield situation in that LeSean McCoy will lead the way, seeing most of the snaps and touches. Yes rookie Karlos Williams has vultured two touchdowns from McCoy already this season, but the reality is that Williams has been slated for the goal line carries this year by coach Rex Ryan, so don’t be surprised when that happens. McCoy will be the better fantasy option everywhere else on the field, but Williams is slated to get around 10 or so touches per game including the goal line carries.
The Rams are not considered to be in a backfield power struggle for a different reason than the other two teams. Once healthy, almost everyone expects first-round pick, Todd Gurley, to be the lead back for them going forward. Coach Jeff Fisher has gone on record saying that Gurley, right now, is listed as week-to-week until he proves otherwise. During this time without their supposed lead guy, the Rams have gone forward with Tre Mason and Benny Cunningham leading their backfield. If either of those two guys stepped up and provided some production during this two-week span, then we would be having a different discussion, however neither running back has given coach Fisher any reason to believe that they should start over Gurley when he returns, so the controversy ends there. Gurley will be the lead guy with a mix of Tre Mason as a change of pace once he makes his NFL debut.