Last year, I wrote a piece for my football site where I predicted the emergence of the Washington Redskins' running game. That prediction was bolder than you may recall since the Redskins finished 25th in rushing the previous season and their offensive line and running back situations weren't considered particularly strong.
The article received some run among Redskins fans and fan sites after Rotoworld's Evan Silva tweeted out the link, but most of those fans were more skeptical than excited.
While I pointed to Robert Griffin III as a key component to the forthcoming success, I also wrote at length about offensive line continuity as well as the zone scheme's ability to crank out big yardage no matter the running back. Part of the article was about whether or not Roy Helu or Evan Royster would develop into the feature back for fantasy purposes, but I conceded that the output would be there no matter the back's identity.
Alfred Morris, take your bow and wave to the crowd.
Running games can go from stagnant to successful quickly for a variety of reasons, and being able to recognize and isolate which teams (and backs) are ready to run the ball well can give you a big edge in your fantasy football league. Here are run games and backs to watch this year:
2012: Rush Yards - 26th, TDs - 27th (8), YPC - 29th (3.7)
The Steelers had to fight through injuries on their offensive line last year. Now take the sentence I just wrote and Google it, and you'll probably find entries for every season for the past five years. When is Pittsburgh's offensive line ever healthy across the board?
This year, the Steelers are in pretty good shape from a health standpoint on the line and they have a new feature back in rookie Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers finally have athleticism up front, and plan on utilizing that athleticism with a greater reliance on outside-zone plays to stretch the defensive front from sideline to sideline.
This is the first year for this offensive line to play together as one, cohesive unit so I'm not looking for the running attack to explode overnight. But I do think we will finally see the Steelers actually commit to running the football after giving lip service to "commitment to Steelers football" during Mike Tomlin's tenure as head coach. Last year the Steelers were next to last in "clean yards" per attempt for their running backs at just 1.7 ypa. That will get better this year.
Bell is a 230-pound back who lacks big-play potential, but he's a comfortable zone scheme runner and he's got enough pop to hit it between the guards in short-yardage or goal-line situations when asked. Before the draft, NFL scouts told me that Bell had some of the best hands out of the backfield that they had ever seen. So you might want to file that away as well.
Look for the Steelers to run the ball more and with greater success, but I think their ceiling is probably the top 15. Currently, I have Le'Veon Bell ranked 21st among fantasy running backs.
2012: Rush Yards - 24th, TDs - 16th (12), YPC - 21st (4.0)
Last season Trent Richardson was the only back to finish inside the top 10 in fantasy football without rushing for 1,000 yards. If it weren't for his 11 rushing TDs and better-than-expected output in the receiving game, the label "bust" would have followed him around in all fantasy football circles. I'm predicting a big season for Richardson in 2013 as his offensive line continues to jell.
The Browns have one of the best left tackles (Joe Thomas) and one of the better centers (Alex Mack) in the game, but they struggled to get holes consistently opened for Richardson last year. It didn't help that Richardson was also not at full speed and that a rookie quarterback was trying to lead the offense.
Under old Panthers playcaller Rob Chudzinski, the Browns are looking to incorporate more of the Pistol formation this year, which will allow Weeden to work out of a modified shotgun while still keeping Richardson behind him in an I-Formation look that will be harder for defenses to lock in on. Guard John Greco did a nice job in 2012 and is moving from the left side to the right side this year. Look for the right side of the line with Greco and second-year right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to perform at a higher level.
With an improved defense and all five offensive line starters returning, the Browns look like a fairly competitive team this year and that should mean closer games and more opportunities to rely on the running game. On 2012 tape, I saw some really promising things from this young offensive line and with a healthy Richardson in the backfield, I think the Browns take a huge step forward on the ground. I've got Richardson projected as my #3 fantasy back and I think he could end up at #1.
New Orleans Saints
2012: Rush Yards - 25th, TDs - 23rd (10), YPC - 13th (4.3)
The Saints are going to run the ball more this year and if you don't think that's going to happen, then you are wrong. The year away from football has convinced coach Sean Payton that he has to get back to running the ball effectively and that is exactly what we will see this year.
I'm not here to tell you that the Saints will lead the league in rushing, but keep in mind that New Orleans finished sixth in rushing yards in both 2009 and 2011. In 2011, the Saints won their division and in 2009, they won a Super Bowl. Payton has always understood the value of taking pressure off of Drew Brees and imposing his offense's will against opponents.
I'm not crazy about the Saints' tackle situation, but that doesn't matter as much since they prefer to run the ball from guard to guard (Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs). The Saints have talent on their interior line, and their backs run hard. Last year, New Orleans was second in the NFL in yards after contact per carry (2.3) which will bode well for the running game now that Payton is likely to commit more focus on that area.
Currently, I have Darren Sproles ranked #26 and Mark Ingram ranked #33 among fantasy backs with Ingram getting 179 carries and 7 TDs for the season. Payton has had a runner carry the ball more than 200 times in a season just once (Deuce McAllister with 244 in 2006), but if he feels like Ingram is emerging and Pierre Thomas is declining, we could see Ingram finish inside the top 20.
Philadelphia Eagles - I couldn't put the Eagles on the list because they don't really fit the tone of this article. The Eagles were in the top half of the league in rushing yards and yards per carry last year, even though their 10 rushing TDs were in the bottom third.
I do want to point this out for fantasy owners, however: Chip Kelly's running game is going to be more prolific than you think. We might not see a big improvement on the Eagles' 4.5 ypc from last season, but we will see the total yardage and attempts go way up thanks to Kelly's break-neck pace, which should result in many more snaps and carries for both LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown.
The Eagles' offensive line is back in one piece and they've added über-athletic rookie tackle Lane Johnson to their fast-paced attack. With Kelly's offensive tempo, defenses will be forced to stay in more base packages and defensive linemen will wear down at a much more rapid rate, benefiting McCoy and Brown. The Eagles are going to stretch teams from sideline to sideline like we've never seen in the NFL, and it will create problems for defenses all year long.