BOTTOM 5 RUSHING MATCHUPS WEEK 15
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Atlanta vs Tampa Bay
The Falcons boast a volume-heavy offense and a stout run-blocking line, but simply lack the backfield talent to take advantage. It seemed obvious from his one-year free-agent contract that Todd Gurley wasn’t set to dominate this backfield, and he’s now embroiled in a full-blown committee - and toward the lower end of it. It’s been hard to watch him plod to 2.5 yards a carry over the past seven weeks; his knee woes seem to have sapped his career by age 26. Coordinator Dirk Koetter is sampling snaps from Gurley, Ito Smith, and Brian Hill, though none are producing anything of note. Gurley saw just 33% of the snaps last week. Smith and Hill are putting up just 4.3 per rush themselves, and none of the three has topped 70 in a game since Week 5.
The Buccaneers run defense was finally beaten for a 100-yard game, with Dalvin Cook snapping their 20-game streak last Sunday. It was a fine performance by Cook, but it doesn’t diminish the dominance this unit has shown for the past year-plus. Over that span they’d allowed running backs just 52 yards a game, shutting down some of the NFL’s elite runners (Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Aaron Jones, among others) along the way. And it’s hard to imagine this ho-hum Falcons attack bucking the trend any further. In Steve McLendon and Ndamukong Suh, the Buccaneers boast a stout run-stuffing front that makes a tall order for any line. They excel most at drawing attention from the linebackers, who are able to roam the box and strike in the gaps. Devin White remains a work in progress overall, but his dizzying athleticism is put to good use in the open field. Next to White, nine-year-veteran Lavonte David remains rock-solid in all facets of the defense. He’s long been underappreciated as a three-down star, but his 2020 performance has been All-Pro worthy and a huge reason this matchup is so daunting. Even elite backs project to a ding in production against this unit; these ho-hum Falcons don’t look poised to buck that trend.
NY Jets at LA Rams
The Jets’ offense has struggled mightily to establish anything consistent on the ground. As a result, the talent-starved ground game is put at an even further disadvantage against stacked boxes. Coach Adam Gase continues to treat Frank Gore as his lead runner, though he’s produced just 3.6 yards per carry and 42 a game on the year. Change-of-pace runner Ty Johnson has flashed more, including a 104-yard performance just 2 weeks ago. But he doesn’t look poised to take over the lead role, and this offense isn’t capable of supporting a single fantasy starter anyway. The Jets offensive line continues to have a problem as they have received a C- grade from Matt Bitonti and are 25th overall in the NFL.
The Rams’ smothering defense remains one of football’s toughest to produce against. Not since Week 6 has an opposing running back topped 50 yards on the ground, averaging just 3.4 per carry along the way. Any unit anchored front and center by Aaron Donald will be a stout one in both facets of the game; his dominance inside is unmatched in recent memory. Last week he made relatively quick work of Joe Thuney and the Patriots’ strong interior; this Jets line shouldn’t give him much to worry about. Donald’s mere presence is enormous for the entire unit, which feeds off the front line’s dominance and stomps out big plays - only the Buccaneers have allowed fewer breakaway runs (15+ yards). It all adds up to a dreaded low-floor, low-ceiling matchup for Frank Gore and the Jets, who can’t point to a single reason for optimism here.
Kansas City at New Orleans
The Chiefs continue to work toward a ball-control ground attack - to keep in their hip pockets - but results have been mixed. Clyde Edwards-Helaire certainly hasn’t set the world ablaze, posting just 4.3 yards per rush on the year (3.4 over the past 3 weeks). The rookie has plenty of paths to big fantasy production - upside for touchdowns, receptions, and so forth in the league’s best offense. But at the moment, he’s not running very effectively, failing to create much of anything on his own behind a mediocre front line. Le'Veon Bell is a strict backup/change-up guy, and he’s shown adequate burst on his few opportunities. It’s Edwards-Helaire’s backfield for sure, though a rotation makes more and more sense as the playoffs approach.
The Saints, like their division-rival Buccaneers, saw a wildly impressive streak of dominant run defense snapped in Week 14. It’s worth noting, though, that 82 of Miles Sanders’ 115 yards came on a single run; he was thoroughly bottled up otherwise. In fact, this unit hadn’t allowed a 90-yarder rusher all season before Sunday. The Saints have quietly pieced together a talented, deep, and affordable line rotation that’s packed with run-stuffers. David Onyemata, Malcom Brown, and rookie Malcolm Roach are powerful at the point of attack, and they make life easy for the shaky but dynamic linebackers. The safeties, too, are run-oriented and flow to the ball aggressively in the box. Simply put, it would be a surprise to see Andy Reid and the Chiefs commit to testing this imposing unit on the ground. The backs may post usable fantasy lines, but it seems unlikely to come from rushing efficiency.
Houston vs Indianapolis
The Texans ground game, dating back to Arian Foster’s prime of a decade ago, continues to plod along without much efficiency or fantasy utility. Lead back David Johnson looks likely to return Sunday from the COVID-19 list, but he’s been anything but inspiring in his age-29 season. His 4.0 yards per rush is actually an improvement on his prior two years in Arizona, but is still subpar and doing very little for fantasy players. Johnson’s best game (77 yards and a touchdown) came on Opening Night, and that looks like his absolute week-to-week ceiling in this sputtering Texans offense. Duke Johnson Jr has been even less effective (57 rushes at a 3.0 average) in his place, so there’s not really nowhere for coordinator Tim Kelly to turn to ignite a ground game here.
The Colts run defense has spent most of 2020 as a top-tier unit; thus far they’ve dominated every opposing runner not named Derrick Henry. Nearly 27% of the ground yardage they’ve allowed on the season has come from their familiar Titans foe, and no other back has threatened any meaningful production. In fact, no other opposing runner has reached 75 yards in this matchup, a list that includes the likes of Dalvin Cook (63), Josh Jacobs (49), and Aaron Jones (41). The Colts have assembled a dominant front four, with All-Pro DeForest Buckner and versatile chess piece Denico Autry leading the way. And the team has to be thrilled with the breakout of nose tackle Grover Stewart - the 333-pound widebody has been instrumental in shutting down the run, and he signed a $31 million extension last month. Of course, having All-World linebacker Darius Leonard on the field is a major plus. Leonard left the win over Las Vegas with a back injury, but the Colts had the game well in hand and coach Frank Reich isn’t concerned. Most likely, the entire gang will be healthy and active against the punchless Houston ground game. Anyone hoping for a David Johnson turnaround looks poised to walk away disappointed.
Dallas vs San Francisco
The Cowboys have yet to find their offensive footing without Dak Prescott under center. Unsurprisingly, most of Ezekiel Elliott’s appeal - high-quality volume and touchdown upside - has evaporated with the offense falling off so sharply. Only twice since Week 6 has Elliott cleared 70 yards, averaging just 3.8 per rush in the process, and he has yet to score on the ground since Prescott’s injury. Dalton simply doesn’t keep a defense honest downfield as Prescott can, and Elliott can no longer depend upon a league-best front line. With three high-level starters and a key floater missing up front, our Matt Bitonti slots the Dallas line dead last in its current state. Elliott’s outlook continues to torpedo by the week, and this is not a great matchup to expect a turnaround.
The 49ers run defense has been riddled throughout the year by injuries, but this deep, talented group has consistently bounced back. They’ve yet to allow a 100-yard rusher here in 2020 - Kyler Murray was closest with 91 in the season opener - and have given up a paltry 3.7 per carry to running backs. That’s included shutdown dates with the likes of Alvin Kamara (8 rushes for 15 yards), Aaron Jones (15 for 58), and Miles Sanders (13 for 46). Even with down men Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas on the shelf, this unit boasts a handful of dominators up front and an explosive second level. It’s worth keeping tabs on the health and availability of top linebacker Fred Warner, who left midway through Sunday’s game with a head/neck injury. Still, Warner is more valued by the team in the passing game than as a run-stuffer, and there’s ample depth here to pick up that short-term slack. With the Cowboys down several key linemen - and less capable than usual of winning through the air - this doesn’t have the look of a friendly date for Ezekiel Elliott.