Trench Warfare: Running Back Matchups and Rankings - Championship Week
With the championship weekend ready to kickoff this Saturday, I hope I can provide some insight on who to bench and who to start in some tough lineup calls at the running back spot. If you click on my name up top you can look back at my rankings/write-ups from earlier weeks to get a grasp of my success/failure rate on predicting a RB’s good and bad weeks.
Each week in Trench Warfare we will take a look at the RB matchups for the upcoming week based on individual matchups in the trenches and team tendencies. Most matchup articles you will find take into account statistics you can find on NFL.com that rank run defenses based on total rushing yardage given up. In doing so, they neglect important factors. For example, if a team is ahead by multiple scores they are more likely to run the ball and this will inflate the numbers. If a defense squared off agains the two best running teams in Weeks 1 and 2, can we really deem them to be a “bad rushing defense” and one to exploit?
At PFF we have the luxury of analyzing premium statistics that are derived from game film. Every player has every snap observed and every player gets a grade. To predict the success of a RB on a given week we can look to tendencies and matchups instead. For example, if I know that Team X has ran constantly off left tackle, behind a left tackle, tight end and left guard who have consistently graded out strongly in run-blocking and is matched up against Team Y who starts a RE and DRT who struggle to defend the run — I know that we can expect Team X to run often off left tackle, and to have a great chance to win those battles the majority of the time.
Of course, any week I can just tell you that Ray Rice, Arian Foster, and LeSean McCoy are the best matchups — but that would defeat the whole purpose of this article. The idea is to give you an idea of players who are expected to perform one way, but perform the complete opposite based on trends and matchups.
You can also find my RB Rankings based on the matchups below and under each excerpt I will refer to my prediction from the previous week. *Note that in these rankings, I am advising that only these backs I allude to in the chart can safely be played as your flex or RB2. Any other option this week should be avoided due to matchup concerns regardless of their current role in the offense.
Unless notified as otherwise, all of the ratings in parenthesis are grades for the year-to-date and not just the past week.
The Top Matchup Plays
Matt Forte @ Arizona
The hapless Cardinals found a way to get their first win in 10 weeks as they beat an even sadder team—the poorly-coached Detroit Lions. This week won’t be as easy when they face a Bears team that has sputtered in recent weeks (due mainly to injuries on the defensive end) and are now fighting for their lives in a must-win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Put quite frankly, we should be seeing a lot of Matt Forte as the Bears are likely to jump out to an early lead and because Michael Bush was placed on IR this week.
After starting the year as a top ten run-blocking unit, injuries and inept play has dropped the Bears to being graded as only the 23rd best run-blocking crew. Luckily for them, it shouldn’t matter as they take on the Cardinals who have graded out as the sixth-worst rushing defense (-25.4). In the past 4 games alone, they have graded out (-17.4), the worst mark of any team.
This is the matchup of the week and Forte may just find himself topping 200 total yards.
Alfred Morris @ Philadelphia
With RGIII likely to make his return, Morris will have the other half of his read-option partner to give an Eagles defense fits this Sunday. Because the Redskins are playing for their future and the playoffs this season, they are very likely to scale back the game plan and rely more heavily on the running game as they did last week. Last week Morris received the most carries since Week 1 of the season. The Redskins have graded out as the eleventh-best run-blocking team this season (+14.9) and overall they are the sixth-most successful team when rushing the football overall (+18.5). C Will Montgomery has been the biggest surprise this season. A 29-year old journeyman center has been one of the most consistent run-blocking centers in the NFL (+12.8). Alfred Morris has averaged 1.4 yards more per carry when running behind Montgomery, and has totaled 40 carries for 244 yards (6.1 ypc).
While the Eagles pass defense has changed night and day since ditching the outdated Wide 9 scheme, their run defense has not followed. As I advised last week, starting BGE against the Eagles defense was the biggest “gimme” matchup of the week. Again, the Eagles run defense, now the fourth-worst graded (-27.9) find themselves here yet again. Play Morris with confidence.
Jamaal Charles vs. Indianapolis
After a flukey game where the Chiefs failed to score a point against the Raiders defense, and Charles was held under 30 total yards, the Chiefs are home and should put up a better fight with news that both their Coach and GM are on the outs (i.e. these players will need to play for their jobs). Charles shouldn’t be mentioned in that crew, as this was his first bad game since Week 9. 100, 118, 107, 138, and 165 are his yardage totals in Weeks 10-14. This week, Charles draws the Colts who have graded out as the third-worst run defense through Week 15 (-28.2).
While this game does have potential to go bad quick for the Chiefs, they have shown a proclivity to stick with the run at all costs and Charles will get his touches. The matchup + Charles talent warrants confidence to play Jammy in your RB2 or Flex for finals weekend.
Vick Ballard @ Kansas City
Vick Ballard has really come on the scene in recent weeks due to season-ending injuries to his only competition (Donald Brown and Delone Carter). His role is about to get even better going forward, as Moore has lost the goal-line back duties and Ballard is expected to take them over starting this week. Last week, Ballard was compared by interim-coach Bruce Arians to Edgerin James. While he may not be James, in his past three games he has averaged almost 5 yards-per-carry. Last week he went over 100 yards rushing on just 18 carries against a Houston Texans defense that has graded out in the top 5.
With the Colts likely to take a lead + Ballard’s recent success + KC’s 11th-worst run-defense (-6.4) Ballard has a dream matchup. Start him with confidence in your RB2 or flex spot. This is the week he scores a touchdown and totals over 100 yards for you to help win you a ship!
Plus Matchups With Minor Concerns
Stevan Ridley @ Jacksonville
The Patriots very rarely lose two games in a row when Bill Belicheck is head coach. Expect them to get ahead by multiple scores early and grind it out. For 14 straight weeks, Stevan Ridley has been Bill’s grind-it-out back. An early second half fumble limited Ridley to only 16 snaps and 9 carries last week and that is the only reason why Ridley isn’t listed in the tier above. Patriot beat writers speculate that Belicheck will stick with Ridley the next time he needs to grind it out between the tackles but in all honesty–we don’t have any idea.
If he does play, he faced the 12th-worst run defense (-4.5). This is what you look for with your RBs– matchups where their team will get your RB in a lot of scoring situations and playing the majority of his snaps with a multiple score lead.
Michael Turner @ Detroit
The positives: Turner has scored a touchdown in five straight games and now faces the second-worst run defense (34.2) who just lost DT Nick Fairley to season-ending IR. Also, Atlanta has a strong chance to jump out to an early lead and feed the “burner” throughout the second half.
The negatives: Turner is not a full-time feature back anymore and has talent has really fallen off.
Turner can be used in the flex this week as he is likely to have multiple scoring opportunities and may get increased carries due to game flow. Keep in mind, a similar runner, Beanie Wells, put up 3 rushing tds against this Lions run-defense last weekend.
LeSean McCoy vs. Washington
Although it’s common knowledge to most in-depth NFL followers that the Redskins boast a weak pass defense and strong run defense, that “stout” run defense has really struggled in recent weeks. In the last three weeks they have graded out (-16.8) as one of the worst defenses at defending the run. McCoy is cleared to play and he should have a strong shot at finding good holes in what amounts to a brand new scheme under Nick Foles (Reid has finally committed himself to rushing the football more).
Matchups to Avoid
Trent Richardson @ Denver
Bench Trent. What? Yes, I am advising to leave Richardson on your bench if you have a two viable options with better matchups at RB. At most, Richardson should be used as a flex option for your championship matchup against the Broncos run defense that should down Ray Rice to under 50 total yards and 31 yards rushing. The Broncos have graded out as the second-best run defense (+66.2) and rarely cede yards to any back. Richardson on the other hand has salvaged his fantasy weeks recently only by scoring touchdowns. While he is still arguably the best goalline back in the game right now, it is tough to see Cleveland having more than 1 or 2 goal line opportunities. Richardson has averaged UNDER 3 yards-per-carry in 3 of his last 4 games.
Darren McFadden @ Carolina
After starting off as one of the worst run-defenses in PFF history, Carolina has graded out around even in the last 3 games. They are playing much better football, and Cam Newton is controlling the clock. McFadden didn’t look like his explosive self last week as he struggled to grind out 110 yards on 30 carries. This week, he won’t be on the field as often because Brady Quinn won’t be the opponent and the Raiders defense has no shot at shutting out the Panthers and Cam Newton.
I am advising you to bench McFadden, your first round selection, and not even slot him in the flex. A touchdown may save his day, but it is doubtful the Raiders score more than 2 TDs. Otherwise, you will be staring at 75 total yards and a fantasy finals dud.
Montell Owens vs. New England
Last week I said to completely forget Owens breakout Week 14 and bench him no matter what agains the stout Dolphins run-defense. He responded with less than 50 yards and a complete dud. Again, I advise to bench Owens as this week he faces an even better run-defense (+47.7). Don’t let him sniff your lineups and throw up 5 points in the Fantasy Championship game! You’re better than that.
Chris Johnson @ Green Bay
Wait what? You’re reading this correctly, I am also advising you to sit CJ for your finals matchup. If it weren’t for a 94 yard explosive run through the middle, Johnson would have totaled 30 yards rushing last game. CJ’s offensive line is injured and they are not blocking well for him as the cut-back lanes that were available earlier are rapidly disappearing.
On the other side, Green Bay is home, likely to get on top big early (and force the Titans into a pass-first catch-up mode). Not to mention, they have sured up their run-defense in recent weeks and have graded out now as the eighth-best run-defense in the league (+31.4). Bench CJ if you have viable options for your RB2 or flex. If you are forced to start him don’t expect a big game.