Ranking the 12 starting running backs that will try to make their marks in the 2017 NFL Playoffs.
The 2017 NFL Playoffs consist of six of the top 10 leading rushers from the regular season and two more who were ranked within the top 21. When the weather gets cold as the postseason ramps up, running the ball can be paramount. So having this much talent at the position could make for a great deal of success from the 12 teams competing.
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Both the AFC and the NFC have put a renewed emphasis on the running game, and that is especially true for the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins with Elliott, Le’Veon Bell and Jay Ajayi, respectively, all rushing for over 1,200 yards and all three being in the top five in the league in rushing yardage.
However, the running games of all 12 playoff teams figure to be a big factor, maybe the biggest factor, for a team advancing. Though the passing game is still tops in the NFL today, the running game will become the difference maker in who advances and who goes home from here on out.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the starting running backs of these dozen teams stack up against one another.
Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions fullback Zach Zenner (34) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
The Lions aren’t known for their rushing game, as injuries throughout the season to Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah have brought down the expectations of their running game. Zenner is in his second season out of South Dakota State, and this year with the Lions he’s played in 14 games, making four starts. In those four games, Zenner amassed 334 yards on 88 carries and four touchdowns.
Of those 334 yards, Zenner averages 3.8 yards per carry, with his longest carry being 20 yards in a Week 16 game against the Cowboys. The past two games where Zenner has had at least 12 carries in a game, the running back has rushed for games of 67 and 69 yards, with the latter coming last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
Detroit’s plan of attack on Saturday night is almost certainly going to center around the passing game. However, if the Lions are able to keep the Seahawks on their toes with Zenner moving the ball on the ground, that could be huge. He’s shown flashes recently of being a potential weapon for this team, now it’s time to show it on the big stage that Wild Card Weekend presents before him.
Jan 1, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings (23) celebrates after scoring touchdown against the Washington Redskins in the second quarter at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The Giants are 29th in the NFL in rushing with 88.2 yards per game, and for starting running back Rashad Jennings, his season consists of 181 carries for 593 yards and three touchdowns. Averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, Jennings gains tough yards, but simply hasn’t been the productive player they’ve needed.
Jennings hasn’t rushed for 100 yards in any game this season, and in three games this year, he’s had fewer than 10 carries in a game. The best games of the year for Jennings this season was a stretch from Week 10-11 against the Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears. Against the Bengals in Week 10, he totaled 87 yards on 15 carries, and the following week against the Bears, he totaled 85 yards on 21 carries.
The offense of the Giants is mostly based on their trio of receivers and quarterback Eli Manning. If the Giants can get a game where they can gain yards on the ground, especially on what should be a very cold day against the Green Bay Packers, it could open up the offense. Given what Jennings—still listed at No. 1 on the depth chart—has shown, though, it might be Paul Perkins who is the bigger X-Factor in the New York running game.
Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery (88) runs the ball during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery had a rollercoaster of a season. He began the year as a wide receiver for the Packers, but injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks forced Green Bay to use Montgomery as their top running back. On just 77 attempts this season, Montgomery totaled 457 yards and three touchdowns. He’s also caught 44 passes for 348 yards in 15 games.
Defenses struggle with Montgomery because of the versatility he brings to the Green Bay offense,. That said, the play of Montgomery as of late has declined a bit due sharing the football with James Starks and Christine Michael.
Speaking of Starks, he’s listed on the top of the depth charts for the Packers coming into their Sunday Wild Card matchup against the New York Giants—though he hasn’t had a carry since Dec. 11 in a game against the Seahawks. Starks has been in concussion protocol this season following a car accident.
Green Bay has an interesting situation at running back, and for them this weekend, Montgomery will need to be at his best if given an opportunity. Most importantly, though, whichever player is in the backfield must be able to block for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
December 24, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray (28) is tackled by Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis (21) during the first quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Latavius Murray is coming off a game where he had just 11 yards on five carries against the Denver Broncos. That doesn’t speak for his entire season, though as he totaled 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on 195 carries.
This season, Murray has had just two 100-plus yard rushing games, with his last one being on Dec. 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday Night Football, where he totaled 103 yards on 22 carries (4.7 yards per carry) and one touchdown.
One problem for Murray now is defenses like the Houston Texans can key in on him even more as the Raiders will have Connor Cook as their starting quarterback with Derek Carr currently injured with a broken leg. Murray is too good of a running back to have only five carries like he did in Week 17. For the Raiders to defeat the Texans in the AFC Wild Card round, he’ll have to carry the football many more times than that.
After all, do you trust Cook making his first NFL start ever or a running back who’s been productive and dangerous for this team all season long? It’s the latter (or it should be) every time.
Dec 24, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls (34) rushes against the Arizona Cardinals during the second quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
The overall numbers of Thomas Rawls this season don’t showcase just how good of a running back he is. Battling injuries this season, Rawls played in only nine games, totaling 349 yards and three touchdowns on 109 carries. Against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, he had eight carries in each game for a combined 22 yards and one touchdown.
His best game of the year came on Dec. 4 against the Carolina Panthers, where he totaled 106 yards and two touchdown on 15 carries. That game, he averaged 7.1 yards per carry.
Inconsistent is the most apt descriptor for Rawls in his injury-filled 2016 season, because he’s had three games of at least 50 yards rushing and six games of rushing for fewer than 3.2 yards per carry. Though this is just his second season, Rawls can become a difference maker for the Seattle offense when healthy. In his rookie season, he totaled 830 yards and four touchdowns on 147 carries, though he had no game of at least 100 yards on the ground.
Facing Detroit this weekend, Rawls has a good chance to regain his form as they are allowing 106.3 rushing yards per game, 18th-best in the NFL. Rawls is an interesting player to keep an eye on this weekend for sure, as he could become the reason they can defeat the Lions this weekend.
Dec 25, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (32) runs against the Denver Broncos during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware totaled 921 yards and three touchdowns this regular season on 214 carries. Ware played in 14 games this season, last playing on Dec. 25 against the Denver Broncos where he had 62 yards rushing on 13 carries.
Ware is nursing a rib injury, but it has been reported he’ll be ready to play on Jan. 15 in the Divisional Round for the AFC West Champion Chiefs. This season, Ware has just one game of 100 or more yards rushing, that being on Oct. 16 against the Oakland Raiders. In that game, he had a season-high 24 carries for 131 yards and one touchdown. Ware also had his second-longest rush of the season, 45 yards, in that matchup.
As for what Ware and the rest of the rushing attack bring to the Chiefs offense, they are 15th overall in the NFL, averaging 109.2 yards per game. Ware has the ability to become a playmaker for this team and is currently having the best season of his three-year NFL career.
Ware will be rested once the Chiefs’ playoff game arrives, and whomever they face they might want to keep track of him in the first quarter as he’s rushed for 282 yards on 62 attempts in the opening quarter of games this season, scoring two touchdowns.
Dec 18, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller (26) runs with the ball during the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
The Houston Texans really need Lamar Miller to set up this weekend and lead an offense that can’t rely on its passing game at all with the return of the very inconsistent Brock Osweiler under center. Miller, who didn’t play in the final two regular season games, rushed for 1,073 yards and five touchdowns on 268 attempts in 2016. While averaging 4.0 yards per carry, the Texans running back also caught 31 passes for 188 yards and one touchdown.
For the Texans to even have a chance against the Oakland Raiders in the Wild Card Round, Miller will need to do something special against a defense that allows 117.6 yards per game. Against that type of defense, Miller has a good chance of becoming the focus of the Texans offense.
One issue for Miller is he is battling an ankle injury, but is “feeling better,” according to the Houston Chronicle. On Nov. 21 in Mexico City, Miller rushed the football 24 times for 104 yards and one touchdown. That game, he also caught two passes for nine yards. Miller has been playing behind a poor offensive line all season with no respect for his quarterback from opposing defenses. That will again be the case on Saturday, which will put the 2016 free agent signing to the test.
Jan 1, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) runs the ball during the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The most underrated running back in the entire NFL might just be LeGarrette Blount of the Patriots. Overshadowed by the quarterback play of Tom Brady and having a legendary head coach in Bill Belichick, Blount has had another excellent season.
Blount carried the football 299 times during the regular season, finishing with 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns. Though he averaged just under 4.0 yards per carry, Blount still managed to have his first season of 1,000 or more yards since his rookie year of 2010, when he played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With this weekend off as the Patriots are the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC, Blount and his offensive line have a chance to have a good week off before preparing to return to the Super Bowl once again.
Blount will definitely be a player the Patriots will use in the playoffs in key situations. For evidence look no further than in 2014 when in the AFC Championship against the Indianapolis Colts where he took 30 carries for 148 yards and three touchdowns. Don’t be surprised to see a game during these playoffs where Blount will carry the offense in a way similar to that performance.
Jan 1, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) avoids a tackle from New England Patriots middle linebacker Donta Hightower (54) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
4. Jay Ajayi — Miami Dolphins
Rushing for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns on 260 carries this season, Jay Ajayi (though listed as questionable) will be a big impact player for the Dolphins this weekend as he has all season.
As for what type of impact he made for Miami when they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers the last time they squared off against each other in October, Ajayi rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. That game, he averaged 8.2 yards per carry, but since then he’s added two more games of 200-plus yards rushing, both against the Buffalo Bills.
Looking at Ajayi’s numbers, those three aforementioned 200-yard games are three of only four game where he eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season, as he’s been held to under 60 yards in eight games.
It will be highly unlikely Ajayi rushes for over 200 yards again against the Steelers again, as they will be focusing on him even more with Matt Moore as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback this weekend. Ajayi has a big task in front of him in the Wild Card Round, but with his speed and ability, he has an opportunity to make the biggest impact on the AFC Playoffs in the Wild Card Round.
Jan 1, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) runs against the New Orleans Saints during the first quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
3. Devonta Freeman — Atlanta Falcons
Like with LaGarrette Blount in New England, don’t overlook Devonta Freeman with the Atlanta Falcons as he also has a quarterback, Matt Ryan, who takes most of the headlines in what could be his MVP season. Freeman, in his third NFL season, has played a big role for the Falcons in the 16-game season, totaling 1,079 yards on 227 carries. This is the second-straight season where he’s rushed for over 1,000 yards, and in both of those seasons, he scored 11 touchdowns.
The Falcons running back has rushed for nearly one yard more per carry this year and achieved more yards rushing this season compared to last year (1,061) on 37 fewer carries. He’s impressively remained both engaged and productive in 2016 while Tevin Coleman began to emerge as a big part of the Falcons offense. That’s a testament to both his ability and his mental approach.
Atlanta has a first-round bye and maybe have the best overall offense in the NFC. Freeman has became not just one of the best running backs in the NFL, or just “legit,” but Freeman is an elite running back, and most likely, with him, the best is still unseen.
Le’Veon Bell has had yet another outstanding season and could be No. 1 on this list. Bell was the fifth-leading rusher in the league in 2016 with 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns on 261 carries. Bell also averaged 4.9 yards per carry this season, with his best rush going to 44 yards as he also totaled four carries of over 20-plus yards.
Not all of the value Bell brings is due to his rushing, though. He’s one of the best pass-catchers out of the backfield in the league, catching 75 receptions for 616 yards for the Steelers this season. Of his receptions, he had four of them go for 20-plus yards, his longest for 32 yards.
Most incredibly, though, he did all of this while serving a three-game suspension to start the season.
Bell is a very versatile running back, and the Steelers are reaping the benefits of his play as they were the winners of the AFC North, and with that they have a home game in the Wild Card Round against the Miami Dolphins. In their Week 6 meeting, Bell didn’t have one of his best games, finishing with 53 yards on 20 carries, but he did catch six passes for 55 yards in what was a 30-15 loss for the Steelers.
There isn’t any reason to believe Bell will play like that again in this game. The Steelers are a better team than they were when that game was played, and for the season, Bell has accumulated six games off over 100 yards rushing. He didn’t play last weekend against the Cleveland Browns, so the superstar running back should be well-rested for the Wild Card game.
Dec 26, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs for a touchdown in the third quarter against Detroit Lions middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead (59) at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
1. Ezekiel Elliott — Dallas Cowboys
Being the leading rusher in the NFL as a rookie is one thing, but to do so in just 15 games is even more astonishing. Ezekiel Elliott took the Dallas Cowboys by storm this season, being a huge reason why they went from a 4-12 record in 2015 to posting a 13-3 mark as the No. 1 seed in the NFC in just a span of one season.
The Cowboys used their fourth-overall pick last year to draft Elliott last April, and it has paid great dividends. Elliott rushed for 1,632 yards on 322 carries. The rookie also totaled 15 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Elliott’s receiving skills were featured as well this season, finishing with 32 receptions for 363 yards and one touchdown.
Since Week 1, Elliott has had seven games of at least 100 yards rushing and seven more games where he has between 80-97 yards on the ground. Elliott being No. 1 on this list also has to be credited to his offensive line, the best run blocking offensive line in the NFL. Elliott benefits from his line, but he’s taken their effectiveness to another level.
Now it is time to see how Elliott performs in the NFL playoffs. He’s played in big games before at Ohio State. Now, with the Cowboys having home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Elliott’s 854 yards at AT&T Stadium should be increased by the time the playoffs come to a close.