We’re firm believers in yardage really not telling the whole story when it comes to sorting out who exactly are the best running backs. Instead, we prefer to look at what a runner has to do in order to pick up those yards. We grade every single rushing attempt while also looking at the work a back does as a receiver and in pass protection. After all, a tough 4-yard run for a first down can be more impressive than an 80-yard scamper which relies solely on good blocking and bad defense. Rather than just rewarding backs for running through lanes the size of the Grand Canyon, we want to see them breaking tackles, dragging defenders along for significant yards after contact, and making definitive cuts to exploit a defense.
In any case, here are our Top 10 running back performances of 2011.
(Note – the grades here are derived from a combination of rushing, receiving, pass protection, and penalties … not just rushing grades or rushing yards).
10. Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings: Week 13 vs. Denver (+4.3)
With Adrian Peterson down you wondered what would become of the Vikings’ ground game. Well, Toby Gerhart stepped up with a fine run of performances, none more so that his Week 13 display against a stingy Denver defense. He had to break six tackles and picked up 3.3 yards per rush after contact to get 91 yards while catching all eight balls thrown at him. Earns a spot in the Top 10 because he also held up well when he stayed into block, not giving up a single pressure on 17 pass blocks.
8t. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants: Week 3 at Philadelphia (+4.5)
86 rushing yards aren’t the type to jump out and hit you, but if you look at what Bradshaw did to get those yards (4.5 yards per attempt after contact with four broken tackles) then you start to appreciate the display more. Throw in 53 yards receiving and a touchdown, and you’ve got a big reason why the Giants were able to inflict misery on the Eagles early in the season.
8t. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: Week 6 vs. Minnesota (+4.5)
This won’t be the only time you see the name of Forte on this list. The Bear earned a +3.6 for his rushing and was positive in the passing game as he picked up 133 yards from scrimmage. That may not seem earth-shattering, but it took breaking eight tackles and averaging 3.6 yards after contact behind a Bears line that wasn’t at its most helpful.
7. Arian Foster, Houston Texans: Week 10 at Tampa Bay (+4.6)
A 186-yards-from-scrimmage day for Foster who tore up the Bucs, especially in the passing game where his touchdown run weaving through tacklers remains a season highlight. One of only six games he didn’t rush for more than 100 yards, yet still one of his best. It highlights why he’s a threat however you get the ball into his hands.
5t. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: Week 7 at Tampa Bay (+4.7)
Forte travelled to London but showed no signs of jet lag as he picked up the second-highest pure rushing grade of the season. 183 yards from scrimmage, a touchdown, and eight broken tackles help you look past the quarterback hit he gave up and while it wasn’t his biggest day of the year in terms of yardage, it showed how important he was to the Bears.
5t. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: Week 7 vs. Green Bay (+4.7)
It may have been in vain but the 175 yards Peterson picked up against the Packers earned him the highest pure rushing grade of any player in 2011. It’s always a good sign when a back gets over 100 yards after contact, and while Peterson produced little in the passing game, his running was good enough for the fifth-highest overall grade of any back this year.
4. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles: Week 3 vs. New York Giants (+4.9)
Shady McCoy broke four tackles on his way to 128 hard-fought yards on the ground, something that earned him the fifth-highest pure rushing grade of any back all year. Throw in showing some soft hands in the passing game where he picked up another first down and you’ve got a day that he can be proud of, even if it did end in defeat.
2t. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: Week 1 vs. Atlanta (+5.0)
Just 68 yards on the ground, but 100 game-changing ones receiving earn him a spot this high. Forte, making his third appearance on this list, put the Falcons to the sword by forcing five missed tackles and 4.3 yards per rush. With a Bears team that scored a -4.6 run blocking grade for the game, that was mighty impressive.
2t. Arian Foster, Houston Texans: Week 9 vs. Cleveland (+5.0)
Sometimes you watch Foster and he makes it all look so easy. His 124 yards against Cleveland was a number he bettered four times during the year and his 26 yards receiving hardly wowed you. But 14 of Fosters’ runs earned him a positive grade (including one called back for a penalty), a quite incredible 70% of his touches rushing the ball.
1. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills: Week 15 vs. Miami (+6.6)
This may surprise a few, but in a game where Spiller averaged 7.6 yards per carry, added 78 yards in the air and totaled two touchdowns … well, you’ll struggle to find a running back make as significant an impact per snap they’re on the field. What made this so good was that he wasn’t assisted by great blocking, but simply made Miami pay over and over again. Nothing summed his day up like his touchdown with 5:01 to go in Q1.
For those curious as to which performances scored the highest pure rushing grades, here’s the Top 10 without the blurb. Remember, the grade looks at how effective runners were per carry, doing something extra to pick up yards.
1. Adrian Peterson, Week 7
2. Matt Forte, Week 7
3. Arian Foster, Week 9
4. C.J. Spiller, Week 15
5t. LeSean McCoy, Week 3
5t. Shonn Greene, Week 7
7. DeMarco Murray, Week 7
8t. Matt Forte, Week 6
8t. Brandon Jacobs, Week 14
10t. Michael Turner, Week 17
10t. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Week 5