Moving the chains: Norwood gets more play
An important development to keep an eye on will be the use of Mewelde Moore, who took five carries and caught four passes while being targeted seven times. Conversely, Rashard Mendenhall had just four carries and was not targeted by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Willie Parker was only targeted once). More often than not, Pittsburgh should be able to control the line of scrimmage and be more effective with the running game, so Mendenhall owners shouldn't be in a complete state of panic after just one game. Neither team spent much time in the opposition's red zone, but the Steelers gave their only two red-zone carries to Moore, while the Titans' one went to Chris Johnson.
The Titans were expected to be strong against the run — although it was unclear if the loss of Haynesworth wouldn't weaken their run-stopping ability in the middle. An important trend to track is which teams are vulnerable to the run to begin the season? Ultimately, those teams are going to be best to attack when you're considering flex spot starters or bye-week pickups later this season.
Cleveland, Dallas, Carolina, Tampa Bay and St. Louis all gave up 5.0 YPC or more in Week 1. In fact, the Browns, Cowboys and Panthers were all shredded for 6.0 or more. Don't be surprised to see Atlanta's Michael Turner get back on track against the Carolina defense in Week 2, as the Panthers have been looking for answers at defensive tackle since the season-ending injury to run-stopping tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu on the first day of training camp.
Here's a look at some other important developments with the division of labor in the backfields around the league:
Is there a more surprising Week 1 stat than Tim Hightower's 12 receptions against San Francisco? Hightower caught just 31 passes last season, but we'd be surprised to see him turn into Brian Westbrook and regularly have a large role in the Arizona passing attack. That assessment could change if the Cards were to lose Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin at some point, as the extra looks may be due to the absence of No. 3 receiver Steve Breaston, but more than likely, it was a byproduct of Kurt Warner's struggles. Of more importance for Hightower is the backfield pecking order, which appears to be very close with seven of the 15 carries — including the only red-zone one — going to Beanie Wells on Sunday. Further, Wells was more effective with a 4.1 yards per carry average to Hightower's 1.9.
The Falcons appear interested in getting Jerious Norwood more involved as a pass-catcher. He was targeted six times and hauled in five passes for 49 yards in Sunday's win over the Dolphins. Michael Turner, never known for his skills as a receiver, had just one target. Turner's quiet day against Miami (65 yards and no touchdowns) overshadowed the fact that he had three carries inside the red zone on Sunday. Bottom line, Turner will be fine as the season progresses, while Norwood could be a viable flex play in the right matchups — and he should get an upgrade in value for PPR leagues this season.
Baltimore gashed the Kansas City defense for 171 yards on 35 carries (4.9 YPC) with Ray Rice leading the charge. Rice had nearly 50 percent of the backfield touches with 19 carries and two receptions, but he failed to score despite picking up 120 yards from scrimmage and leading the team with five red-zone carries. Willis McGahee took two trips to the end zone on Sunday and ranked among the league's top-scoring running backs in Week 1 despite having just 10 carries and four receptions. Le'Ron McClain also scored Sunday, plunging in on a one-yard run in the fourth quarter. As long as all three backs are healthy, Rice looks like the best bet to produce points consistently, but both McGahee and McClain look to be in position to vulture scoring opportunities. The Ravens will get a better test on the road against the Chargers in Week 2.
Sure, it's only been one game, but did anyone else think about filing a missing person's report for Felix Jones? Marion Barber was significantly discounted in many drafts this summer, but even the most optimistic Barber owners had to expect a heavier dose of Jones than six carries — especially in a game that the Cowboys controlled through the second half. Dallas was very effective through the air, with Tony Romo striking for a career-high 353 yards (T. whO?), but Jones wasn't even targeted in the passing game. It's fair to say the Bucs are going to struggle this season, so a better measuring stick will be provided when the Cowboys play the Giants on Sunday. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will almost certainly look for ways to get the ball into Jones' hands when Patrick Crayton comes back to earth in the coming weeks.
The Raiders didn't look like the same sloppy Raiders we've grown to love over the last several seasons on Monday night. Oakland tied for eighth in running back fantasy points in Week 1 while Darren McFadden and Michael Bush combined for 21.2 points against a resurgent San Diego defense. McFadden took just over 60 percent of the touches, including 17 carries for 68 yards (4.0 YPC) and two receptions for 25 yards with four targets. Meanwhile, Bush was targeted just once in the passing game, but he took three red-zone carries and McFadden's one, while he also found the end zone for the Raiders' only rushing score on Monday night.
Fred Jackson had a very productive performance against the Patriots on Monday night filling for the suspended Marshawn Lynch. The versatile Jackson was targeted seven times by quarterback Trent Edwards, catching five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. With two more games to carry the load — against Tampa Bay in Week 2 and New Orleans in Week 3 — look for him to a productive option on the ground and in the Bills' short passing game. Backup Xavier Omon was deployed for less than 10 percent of the team's touches in the backfield on Monday night, suggesting that Jackson will continue to have a signficant role (40-50 percent?) even after Lynch returns in Week 4.
The Seahawks suggested a 60/30/10 split between starter Julius Jones and backups Edgerrin James and Justin Forsett and stayed pretty close to that gameplan with a 60/25/15 workload. Even against a weak St. Louis defense, James struggled with 2.7 YPC mark over 11 carries. Further, it was Jones who answered the call for all three red-zone carries on Sunday, though a good chunk of his 117 yards (19 carries) came with one monster run, a 62-yard trip to paydirt. Given where he was drafted in many leagues in Rounds 8-10, Jones should have a few more productive games this season against lesser defenses, especially when you consider the uncertainty behind him in the running back rotation. Going forward, it wouldn't be all that surprising to see Forsett eventually unseat James as the team's No. 2 back.
Preseason sleeper and 2009 breakout candidate James Davis was very quiet against the Vikings in Week 1, picking up just five yards on four carries and four yards on three receptions. Meanwhile, discarded veteran Jamal Lewis actually had respectable numbers in a tough opening matchup, averaging 5.2 YPC and catching three passes for 47 yards in the losing effort. The Browns are in a much better position to work Davis into the mix in Week 2, as they'll face a Denver defense that gave up 108 yards from scrimmage to Cedric Benson, but remember that it can sometimes take several weeks before a rookie like Davis is able to unseat an incumbent such as Lewis. He still needs to adjust to the speed of the NFL game — something he acknowledged even in the form of an adjustment from preseason to the regular season.
Steve Slaton was one of the opening week's most disappointing running backs, picking up just 17 yards on nine totes (1.9 YPC) in a loss to the Jets. Fortunately, he was able to haul in three passes for 35 yards to avoid a complete Week 1 disaster, but it still wasn't pretty. It's entirely possible that the Jets' defense is making the leap toward the league's elite units under new head coach Rex Ryan, but a poor start to the season didn't ease the discontent of Slaton owners who were already concerned about the possibility of Chris Brown getting the chances at the goal-line. Brown had 15 yards on three carries, but the Texans didn't even have a red-zone rushing attempt, so the actual division of labor in close remains unclear at this time. Houston gets another difficult test in Week 2, facing a Tennessee defense that silenced the Steelers' running game on Thursday night. An early-season trade opportunity could be in the offing if there's a Slaton owner in your league prone to pushing the panic button.
Life without Derrick Ward left questions regarding the use of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw heading into Week 1. As opportunities go, it was Jacobs who had the slight advantage, taking about 55 percent of the touches to Bradshaw's 45, but Bradshaw actually had the more productive day against Washington, chewing up 5.0 YPC on 12 carries to Jacobs' 2.9 YPC on 16 carries. Third-string running back Danny Ware suffered a dislocated left elbow on the opening kickoff, so he won't be in the mix for at least the next two games. Bradshaw looks like must-own Jacobs insurance at this point, while he's also got value as a potential flex option — especially in PPR leagues — even when both backs are healthy. His presence will also keep Jacobs' value limited to that of a good No. 2 running back in most leagues.
The Broncos got a cheap win over the Bengals in Week 1, while their offense really didn't do much to earn the victory. Correll Buckhalter and Knowshon Moreno each had eight carries, but Buckhalter was more effective with a 5.8 YPC average. The sample size is too small to draw any conclusions, but Moreno's missed time during training camp should leave Buckhalter with at least a share of the workload in the coming weeks. Moreno was not targeted on Sunday by quarterback Kyle Orton, who looked to Buckhalter twice resulting in a pair of receptions for 11 yards. It should be much easier to get a read on the Broncos' plans at running back against a Cleveland defense that struggled against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings in Week 1.
Earnest Graham apparently told head coach Raheem Morris to go with the hot hands in Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward when it was Graham's turn into enter the game for a series. Williams was productive on Sunday, but there are plenty of questions about his durability, and it's worth noting that Ward picked up the Bucs' only rushing score. The final workload had 13 carries for Williams, 12 for Ward and just one for Graham, while it's clear that Ward is the biggest threat as a pass-catcher of the group.
Darren Sproles was on the field for the game-winning drive against the Raiders on Monday night because of an ankle injury to LaDainian Tomlinson. Sproles averaged just 2.6 YPC and was move effective as a receiver (five receptions, 43 yards) and in the return game (34.0 YPR, five kickoff returns). Even if L.T.'s injury isn't serious, his durability for a full 16-game season at age 30 remains in question.
The Panthers' offensive line couldn't stop the Eagles on Sunday, throwing the entire offense out of sync. Local reporters questioned why Jonathan Stewart, who missed all four preseason contests, was deployed nearly as much as Williams in Week 1 (carries were 14-to-11, in favor of Williams), given that his conditioning still needs work. owners can take solace in that he scored the Panthers' only rushing touchdown, while he also caught four passes for 42 yards, more than doubling Stewart fantasy production.
For a team that has an above-average offensive line, the Pats still don't have a clear-cut answer in their backfield. Laurence Maroney had 10 carries for 32 yards and Fred Taylor had nine for 25, with a score. The near-even split held up in the red zone, where each back to one carry and third-down back Kevin Faulk led the charge with two. This remains a situation to avoid in many formats.
LeSean McCoy averaged 5.1 YPC on nine carries in the Eagles' blowout win over Carolina, but he'll likely be limited to a 40 percent share of the workload as the season progresses — much like the way the Panthers used Jonathan Stewart as a complement to DeAngelo Williams last season.
Article first appeared 9/15/09