TOP 5 RUSHING MATCHUPS WEEK 17
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Tennessee at Houston
The Titans have worked up an intriguing air attack around Ryan Tannehill, but there’s still no substitute for their ground-dominant ways. They’re much more content to send the 250-pound Derrick Henry relentlessly at a tiring defense, particularly while holding a late lead. Whenever they can, they look to give Henry 25+ carries and feed off that defensive attention to strike through the air. They’ve certainly built the right unit to do it. Henry offers such a dazzling blend of power and quick-footed burst, and he works behind one of the game’s premier interior lines. Roger Saffold is enjoying another high-quality year at left guard, while Nate Davis has broken out as a dominator on the right. Even Tannehill gets into the mix: he’s scored four times on the ground over the past five weeks.
The Texans continue to field quite possibly 2020’s weakest run defense. Last week represented a low point for this unit, as two names ripped right out of 2017 (Samaje Perine and Giovani Bernard) were able to grind out a surprising Bengals win. On the year, no one has given up more yards per rush than this beleaguered group, with 11 opposing runners topping 80 yards on the day. They dearly miss nose tackle D.J. Reader, who left a massive hole in the middle of this defense in the offseason. There’s no longer a real presence on the nose, and linebackers Zach Cunningham and Tyrell Adams aren’t difference-makers enough to plug things on their own. Cunningham is more of a shuffle-and-chase guy than one who blows up runs in the hole, and talented backs have taken full advantage. Soft up the middle and down the field, they’ve been beaten terribly by power runners with burst - including Derrick Henry himself, who racked up 212 yards and 2 touchdowns back in Week 6.
Indianapolis vs Jacksonville
The Colts, for the most part, remain firmly committed to a high-volume, ball-control ground game. To that end, they’ve drastically ramped up Jonathan Taylor’s role, feeding the explosive rookie 18 rushes a game over the past five weeks. And he’s responded quite well, turning that opportunity into 5.5 yards per carry and 98 per game. Last Sunday, Taylor consistently churned his way through a stout Pittsburgh front for chunk gains; had the rest of the team not fallen apart, he’d have been in position for another massive stat line. As it was, Taylor produced 74 yards and scored twice in a daunting matchup, which bodes well for his date with the pitiful Jaguars. And he works behind arguably the league’s best front line - Footballguys’ Matt Bitonti would certainly argue as much - that can weather even the loss of starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo.
The Jaguars, still skidding through a 14-game losing streak, are closing the door on the worst season in franchise history. There have been countless factors pushing them there, and most are found on the defensive side of the ball. Opposing runners have simply gashed this unit throughout the year: only the Cowboys and Texans have allowed more ground yards per game. Over the past month alone, they’ve given up massive lines to Nick Chubb (19 for 144 and a touchdown), Dalvin Cook (32 for 120), and Derrick Henry (26 for 215 and 2). There’s no shame in being worked over by the league’s elite runners, but this group has offered almost no resistance along the way. The front line is now a steep rotation of young practice-squad types without a powerful nose presence, which puts most of the pressure on the linebackers and safeties to chase down plays. Linebacker Myles Jack has enjoyed another strong all-around season, but $54 million signee Joe Schobert is valued for his pass-game prowess; he’s long been a relatively weak run-stuffer. Overall, this remains one of fantasy’s friendliest matchups. It usually offers a boost to any strong ground game across the ball, and the Colts’ run-heavy attack is no different.
Baltimore at Cincinnati
The Ravens continue to pound the ground game with more volume or efficiency than anyone. They lead the league across the board in attempts (33 per game) and per-carry average (5.3). This is, of course, a deep and versatile ground game, and all that production spreads across three very capable bodies. Luckily, all three of them - Lamar Jackson, Gus Edwards, and rookie J.K. Dobbins - offer the dynamism needed to take the brilliant situation and run with it. All three sit above 5.0 per rush, and last week all three cleared 75 yards individually. They each bring their own skillsets, of course, and they also benefit from working behind an elite run-blocking line that routinely blows open holes.
The Bengals are enjoying a scrappy late-season surge, but it’s come with no thanks to the run defense. They’re still beaten consistently on the ground, giving up the league’s eighth-most raw yards and fourth-most on a per-rush basis. It’s one thing to lose out against Derrick Henry, but over the past month, they’ve also allowed big days to the likes of Wayne Gallman (94 yards), Myles Gaskin (90), and Benny Snell (84). And just last week, Houston’s David Johnson put up his best line of the year (12 for 128 and a touchdown) in this matchup. This unit simply needs a big talent infusion - and a strong 2021 return for nose tackle D.J. Reader - to get competitive. As it stands, there’s very little run-stuffing presence along the line or on the second level. Stalwarts Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are gone from up front, and the unit’s “top” linebacker, Josh Bynes, consistently grades among the NFL’s worst. One could make a strong argument that the team’s strongest “linebacker” is hybrid safety Vonn Bell, which bodes poorly as the smothering Ravens come to town.
Minnesota at Detroit
The Vikings have been eliminated from playoff contention, and Dalvin Cook will end his 1,500-yard season a week early. That puts Alexander Mattison into the driver's seat for the finale, and he's proven himself capable of putting up production near Cook's level. The second-year grinder boasts a career 4.6-yard average, and he chipped in 69 yards on 12 carries as Cook's caddy when these teams played earlier this season. Mattison won't claim every single attempt; the team will rotate in Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone for freshness' sake. But this is an offense designed to feed its backs relentlessly whenever game script allows - and it certainly should against the lowly Lions.
The Lions run defense has taken notable steps forward over the past few weeks. Still, it had virtually nowhere to go but forward; this remains a fully targetable unit for fantasy purposes. They haven’t faced many strong runners, but most of the ones on the schedule have produced. That includes Dalvin Cook himself, who turned 22 carries into 206 yards and 2 touchdowns in Week 9. There are semi-big names in this front seven, but guys like Jarrad Davis, Jamie Collins Sr, and Everson Griffen are providing little help against the run. Davis, Reggie Ragland, and Jahlani Tavai have comprised one of 2020's least effective linebacking groups, routinely missing plays on the perimeter and in the open field. There’s little help up front, either, with no strong nose presence since Danny Shelton’s injury. Vikings backs shouldn’t have any more difficulty grinding out yardage at will than they did two months ago.
NY Giants vs Dallas
The Giants, despite their midseason addition of Devonta Freeman, have more or less punted the ground game since Saquon Barkley’s injury. They’re now led by Wayne Gallman, who’s never proven himself as more than an average NFL runner. But he’s not far removed from a five-game stretch that saw him average 4.8 yards per rush and 81 a game. Most of those performances came against relatively weak run defenses, which is exactly what Gallman and company will see this weekend. With at least a neutral game script on their side, the Giants should be able to win most of their battles up front, generating plenty of push for Gallman to exceed his weekly mean. Given the Giants’ tendency to ground the ball near the goal line, there’s sneaky RB1 appeal this week for Gallman.
The Cowboys appear, if only on paper, to have drastically turned around one of 2020's weakest run defenses. But on closer inspection, it’s easy to see much of that success coming against similarly weak (and injury-riddled) offenses. Quality ground games, on the other hand, have had their way with the Cowboys for much of the year. Without much strength or dynamism along the line, the onus is on the linebackers to run-blitz and plug gaps, which doesn’t exactly play to their strengths. Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee, and Joe Thomas are routinely beaten up the gut, and none are great in catch-up mode either. Furthermore, they may again be without top linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who was scratched from Week 16 with a high ankle sprain. With or without Vander Esch, this is almost always a matchup to target. If nothing else, it puts some usable shine on the Giants’ ho-hum attack for fantasy managers still on the job in Week 17.