BOTTOM 5 RUSHING MATCHUPS WEEK 16
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Detroit vs Tampa Bay
The Lions seem to have found their lead back of the future in D'Andre Swift, a dynamic dual-threat talent who fights for every yard. But Swift still doesn’t see significant volume, and certain game situations can limit his impact. Swift has been the de facto lead back for 7 games now and flashed real explosiveness, yet the Lions have still ranked 30th in raw yardage over that span. Simply put, when Swift isn’t rolling along as the offensive focal point, this isn’t a very imposing attack. And it doesn’t help that the mediocre front line just took a nosedive - all the way to 32nd in Footballguys’ Matt Bitonti’s rankings - with the loss of Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow.
The Buccaneers, after a week off from erasing opposing run games, bounced right back into another dominant, shutdown performance. Falcons running backs produced all of 21 yards on their 12 attempts Sunday; were they able to burn out some second-half clock on the ground, they may have held onto their win. But virtually no one has been able to find any room against this suffocating unit over the past two years, so there’s no shame there. Dalvin Cook ran up 102 in Week 14, but no one else has even reached 60 this season. Even high-efficiency ground games like the Saints (89 running back yards), Packers (80), and Chiefs (59) have more or less hit brick walls in this matchup. This front seven has simply dominated in the trenches, even with star nose tackle Vita Vea on the shelf, and the linebackers have cleaned up beautifully in the gaps. And they’ve certainly found a run-support gem in rookie Antoine Winfield Jr Jr., an invaluable tackler in the box. It’s hard to pinpoint a formula to beat such a strong unit, and even harder to project the Lions’ ho-hum ground game to do it.
Seattle vs LA Rams
The Seahawks ground game has retaken the forefront in the offense. Coach Pete Carroll clearly sees more value in pounding the ball, which limits Russell Wilson’s playmaking ability but does keep games more under the Seahawks’ control. Chris Carson hasn’t wowed anyone here in 2020 - he’s yet to record a 100-yard game - but has posted a strong 5.0 yards per rush in a scaled-back role. And the Seattle front line is clearly built more for the run than the pass. Overall, though, this group faces an uphill battle against the Rams’ imposing defense. It’s worth noting that when these teams faced off in Week 10, Wilson led the Seahawks with 60 yards on the ground - though Carson did miss that game to injury.
The Rams defense draws most of its attention for its dominant work against the pass, which is understandable given the star power of Aaron Donald up front and Jalen Ramsey in the secondary. But the front seven deserves its day in the sun - this has been a true shutdown unit for most of the year. Not since Week 3 has an opposing runner reached 70 yards on the ground, with running backs averaging just 3.4 per rush over that span. Even in last Sunday’s embarrassing loss, the Jets found themselves unable to truly grind the clock down the stretch with Frank Gore (23 carries for 59 yards). Donald, of course, isn’t just a pass-rushing monster - he dominates the inside (and outside) running lanes as well. When he isn’t making run-stuffs of his own, he’s drawing double- and triple-teams to free up his teammates in the gaps. And while the linebacker rotation remains shaky and unsettled, there are reinforcements in the secondary like John Johnson III, one of the game’s premier in-the-box-safeties.
Pittsburgh vs Indianapolis
The Steelers ground game remains frustrating in its week-to-week consistency. Lead back James Conner may return to action Sunday, but his production has been hit-or-miss all season. He’s only cleared 50 yards once in his last 5 full games, posting just 3.5 per carry along the way. They don’t much use him much near the goal line, either - he hasn’t taken a rush inside the five since Week 8. The hard-charging Benny Snell, in fact, may have cut deeper into Conner’s role with an impressive Monday night showing (18 for 84 and a touchdown). The Steelers boast an elite run-blocking line, and Snell may be more equipped to take advantage.
The Colts run defense continues to shut down virtually all comers. Derrick Henry is the only running back since Week 6 to top 50 yards in this matchup, thanks in large part to a dominant Colts front line. DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, and Grover Stewart lead a formidable unit that both ties up blockers for the linebackers and makes splash plays of its own. Buckner is the star - he’s been every bit as dominant as in his 49ers days - but Stewart has been the breakout. He’s fed off Buckner’s arrival and developed into a dominant nose tackle, earning a hefty extension along the way. Behind them, Darius Leonard still looms as one of the game’s premier linebackers. Leonard is most renowned as a pass-game superstar, but his presence in the gaps and in pursuit is invaluable against the run. He stabilizes a linebacking crew that certainly has its flaws, and he creates a tough matchup even for the Steelers’ strong run-blocking line.
Indianapolis at Pittsburgh
The Colts still favor a run-dominant offense, so it's a good thing rookie Jonathan Taylor has erupted over the past month. Since being handed the lead-back reins in Week 11, Taylor has posted 90, 91, 150, and 83 ground yards and found the end zone three times. The burst and explosiveness he's shown make one wonder why coach Frank Reich felt the need to stagger his workload with the likes of Jordan Wilkins throughout mid-season. Taylor looks like a locked-in star, though it is worth noting that he hasn't faced a particularly strong run defense since very early in the season. The Colts boast a strong front line, particularly on the interior, and the ability to match up with this stout Pittsburgh defense. But their work is cut out for them, and Taylor will need to tap into all his creativity and athleticism to succeed here.
The Steelers run defense hasn't faced a very tough slate of opposing run games here in 2020 but has certainly done what’s asked of it. They’ve allowed just a single runner - Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins back in Week 8 - to top 100 yards on the day. Since then, opposing running backs have managed just 3.6 per rush and found the end zone only 3 times. This may not be the thoroughly-dominant Steelers unit of yesteryear, but it’s still powerful up front and dynamic on the second level. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt remain one of the game’s elite interior duos, routinely blowing up plays in the gap and chasing runners to the edges. They’re especially invaluable as the Steelers work out new personnel at linebacker, with the explosive Devin Bush and his backup, Robert Spillane, both out of commission. Thankfully, GM Kevin Colbert had acquired former Titan and Jet Avery Williamson as soon as Bush went down. He’s been a stabilizing presence against the run over the past two weeks, and he brings confidence that this unit can withstand those injuries and remain stout.
Baltimore vs NY Giants
The Ravens continue to pound the ground game relentlessly, leading the NFL in rushes, yards, per-carry average, and touchdowns. It’s easy to see why - they’re loaded with dynamic backs, and coordinator Greg Roman has never finished outside the top eight in rushing. Lamar Jackson leads the way, just 172 yards shy of another 1,000-yard season, and four versatile chess pieces provide situational support. There isn’t a defensive matchup out there that can truly shut this attack down, but it can certainly be slowed and its individual pieces held to disappointing fantasy lines.
The Giants are in a prime position to minimize the Ravens’ impact on the ground. There has been big improvement on the Giants defense over the past two months or so, and they’ve been particularly stout against the run. The Browns can attest to that - they sit third league-wide in rushing, yet struggled to grind out 3.5 yards a carry last Sunday. This unit is coming together thanks to a handful of breakout run defenders buying hard into coordinator Patrick Graham’s attacking scheme. It starts up front, where Leonard Williams has returned to the Pro Bowl as a dominator in both facets of the defense. Safety Jabrill Peppers has taken a step forward as an in-the-box playmaker, and rookie Xavier McKinney has excelled next to him. They’re often needed to support the thin linebacking corps, which is an ideal fit for their aggressive talents. The Ravens ground game won’t simply disappear in this matchup - there’s way too much volume in play for that. But this looks like their toughest test in months, and it’s hard to just pick a Ravens back and confidently project him to a successful stat line.