Keeping up with last week’s R&B opening, this week’s title is brought to you by soul duo Mel and Tim, best known for their 1969 hit Backfield in Motion.
Entering Week 7, running backs carried the ball on just 41.5 percent of plays, the lowest percentage in history. NFL backfield’s were all over the map, however, as the story of a hectic Sunday.
The last-minute (literally) revelation of Marshawn Lynch’s back injury was an inauspicious beginning, leaving fantasy owners with a goose egg at one starting spot. From there, feature back began dropping like clay pigeons. Stud back Darren McFadden (foot) touched the ball just three times before leaving with nary a fantasy impact. Earnest Graham (torn Achilles’) wasn’t much better with just one fantasy point while Beanie Wells (knee) pulled up limp after just four fantasy points.
A thumb injury had Ryan Mathews in and out of the lineup, leaving him with just 65 yards and his worst fantasy output of the season. Tim Hightower surprisingly reclaimed his feature-back role from Ryan Torain before going down with what is believed to be a season-ending ACL injury. The Shanahans’ shenanigans left Torain’s fantasy owners with negative points.
The fantasy albatross of the 2011 season, though, remains a sluggish Chris Johnson, who managed just 45 yards on 16 touches compared to 48 yards on four touches for backup Javon Ringer. Johnson swore up and down after the game that he's the same player he's always been, and insinuated that subpar blocking is behind this year's struggles. The game film and his opponents tell a different story. Said one undisclosed Texans defender, "Something is wrong, cause he wasn't even trying after awhile." Other Texans used phrases like “You hit him early, it deters him," "He gets frustrated and and can't get into a groove" and "Running slow."
Charting the game for Rotoworld, I noted that Johnson remains hesitant to make a cut, moving in slow motion when he finally does so. He failed to make defenders miss even in open spaces, showing no sign of his once elite speed and lateral agility. The fastest player in the league two years ago now moves like his ankle is caught in a bear trap. The Houston Chronicle’s Jerome Solomon described Johnson’s running style as “simply walking into the hole and almost giving up. He looked so bad, I thought he was sick.”
According to the sources of long-time beat writer Terry McCormick, Johnson's conditioning level was not as good as it needed to be when he first reported to the Titans and it "could be a factor" in his early-season struggles. Whatever the case, it’s clear that the problem rests more with Johnson than the offensive line. As a multi-league CJ0K owner, I’m no longer holding out hope of RB1 production at any point this season.
Running Back Game Balls
The other side of the backfield coin featured monster performances from Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, and first-time starter rookie DeMarco Murray.
Foster racked up 40 standard-league fantasy points as the fourth player since the 1970 merger to pile up 100 yards rushing and receiving on top of three touchdowns. The other three players were Brian Westbrook (2007), Priest Holmes (2002), and Larry Brown (1973). The Texans dominated the Titans to the extent that backup Ben Tate also cleared 100 yards, a first in franchise history.
As the New York Times’ Andy Benoit points out, the Texans are expanding Foster’s role out of the backfield by splitting him out wide this year. In addition to the typical backfield screens and dumpoffs, Foster is also being utilized on bubble screens and underneath pass patterns to explain his 287 receiving yards over the past three weeks. There’s no more valuable fantasy back going forward.
Still the most violently explosive runner in the league, Peterson raced out to tackle-breaking gains of 25, 29, and 54 yards against a Packers defense that was allowing just 83 yards per on the ground through six games. In many ways it was a more impressive performance than Foster’s, reminiscent of Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Jim Brown. Now the NFL’s leading rusher, Peterson heads into a perfect-storm matchup against the Panthers’ spineless defense in Week 8. A late-game ankle injury is worth monitoring, but it’s a good sign that he returned to finish out the next drive.
The Mike Martz self-correcting mechanism has been in full effect over the past month, with 25 rushing attempts in four consecutive games. The Bears have gone 3-1 over that span behind Forte’s 160 rushing yards per game and an eye-popping 1,091 yards from scrimmage on the season. His current 5.3 yards per carry average is nearly a yard more than his previous high and 1.5 yards higher than his career average. Forte’s 32-yard field-reversing touchdown run highlighted the increased lateral agility that has made him arguably the best running back in the league this season. He has a juicy Week 9 matchup against the Eagles' pathetic run defense coming out of next week’s bye.
The first carry of Murray’s first career start went for 91 yards, the opening shot in his assault on Felix Jones’ starting job. By the time the game was over, Murray had cruised past Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett (206) and Emmitt Smith (237) for the most single-game yards in Cowboys history. Murray’s 253 yards are the most by any back this season, just two fewer than Jones’ season total, and second only to Peterson’s 296 among rookies. It’s the ninth-best single-game total of all time, just ahead of Spec Sanders' 250-yard game for the Yankees against the Chicago Rockets in 1947. While it’s worth noting that Murray’s performance was aided by the league’s worst run defense, Jones can consider himself Wally Pipp-ed.