RB Index, Week 13: NFL's six most important running backs down the stretch

It’s Week 13, and the NFL playoff picture is still very much in flux. Nobody has much room for error.

The first- and second-place teams in every AFC division are separated by two or fewer games. Meanwhile, the wild-card races are hotly contested in both conferences.

How do teams secure themselves a spot in the postseason? With the run game, of course! So, as the weather turns in December, I’d like to spotlight six of the most important running backs down the stretch.

The Rams (7-4) have lost three straight games, in part because they don’t have a good enough ground attack. Over the last five games, Henderson has averaged 65.8 scrimmage yards per game and while notching one rushing touchdown. This is quite different from the first five games of the season, when Henderson posted 98.2 scrimmage yards per game with four rush scores. It’s on the third-year RB and his offensive line to get back on track. Los Angeles’ offense will continue to struggle if it can’t run the ball and alleviate pressure from Matthew Stafford, who’s thrown a pick-six in three consecutive games.

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The Vikings are just outside of the NFC playoff picture right now at 5-6, having suffered each of their six losses by eight points or fewer. They need things to start going their way down the stretch, and the offensive success all starts with the run game. There’s a lot of pressure on Mattison to perform with Dalvin Cook, who’s averaging 108.3 scrimmage yards per game this season, out several weeks with a torn labrum. There’s no timetable for his return, but this is a position Mattison has been in before. He’s played in four games without Cook, including Weeks 3 and 5 of this season, since being drafted by Minnesota in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The Vikings have gone 3-1 in these games with Mattison averaging 124.8 scrimmage yards per contest sans Cook. The Vikings’ RB1 is tough to replace, but Mattison has what it takes to help Minnesota make a playoff push.

It’s not a coincidence that the Bengals are on a roll coming out of the bye week. In two more-than-convincing victories, their star running back has recorded 288 rush yards on 58 carries (5.0 yards per tote) with four rush TDs. In the team’s two losses prior to its Week 10 bye, Mixon had just 97 rush yards on 27 carries (3.6 yards per game). The Bengals are a much better team when Mixon is at the center of the offense. He makes the unit much more physical and sets up the play-action game for their confident, young quarterback and playmakers on the perimeter. Currently, the Bengals hold the fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture but are just one game behind the Ravens at the top of the division. Sticking to a run-first game plan that features Mixon behind an improving offensive line could be their ticket in. 

The Falcons’ offense is a completely different animal when Patterson is on the field. His versatility changes Arthur Smith’s entire offense, as he can run between or outside the tackles, line up as a wide receiver or serve as a dynamic player on gadget players. Hell, Falcons DC Dean Pees even has a package that involves Patterson as a free safety. Is there anything he can’t do? After the best single game of his career as a running back in Week 12 (16 carries, 108 rush yards, two rush TDs), he is one of just three players (along with Austin Ekeler, Deebo Samuel) with at least four rushing TDs and four receiving TDs this season. Furthermore, Patterson is the only player in the league with more than 400 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in 2021. His size alone (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) makes him a tremendous threat for opposing defenses, as he’s a mismatch whether they use heavy or nickel personnel. The Falcons (5-6) are still very much in the playoff race, and Patterson is one of the few reasons there is belief they can sneak in. He just has to stay healthy.

Ezekiel Elliott’s production has dropped off over the last six games, with the sixth-year pro averaging 12.5 carries and 44.7 rush yards per outing in that span. Some of his struggles are undoubtedly health-related. After Zeke was held to 25 yards on nine carries in a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Raiders, head coach Mike McCarthy voiced his concern about Elliott’s lingering knee injury.

“It’s that time of year,” McCarthy said. “Zeke’s running style is ferocious. He gives a pounding and he takes some hits. We need to evaluate that, and this week, we’ll see what the preparation looks like for him.”

There’s no indication that Zeke actually will receive a lighter load against the Saints on Thursday night and beyond, but Pollard will be ready whenever called upon. Not widely viewed as an every-down back, Pollard has the ability to thrive in that role, at least in my estimation. He’s been an explosive running back with 13 runs of 10 yards or more this season, including three of 20 yards or more. The Cowboys’ run game has taken a back seat to the passing attack but it’s evident that Dallas needs a strong run game if it wants to succeed. McCarthy and Co. will especially need it in the postseason.

I just vouched for Taylor to be the first running back since 2012 to win the league MVP award, so of course he’s going to make this list. The second-year back is the main reason why Indianapolis is relevant in early December. After starting the season at 0-3, the Colts have clawed their way back to an even 6-6. Since Week 4, Taylor has run for 100-plus yards in six games while logging 14 rushing scores; during this span, the Colts rank second in the league in rushing yards per game (158.3) and first in points per game (31.6). In Indianapolis’ two most recent losses — vs. the Bucs in Week 12 and Titans in Week 8 — Taylor had 16 carries in each game for 83 yards and 70 yards, respectively. Leaning on Taylor allows the Colts to stick to their strengths with a strong run game and defense. Consequently, the team doesn’t have to completely rely on the ever-inconsistent Carson Wentz, who had three of Indy’s five giveaways in last week’s loss to Tampa. Currently just a half-game behind the Chargers for the No. 7 seed, the Colts’ ticket to the postseason wears No. 28. They can’t forget that.

Top 15 running backs

Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2021 season. His rankings are based on this season’s efforts alone. Here is MJD’s list heading into Week 13.

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 11’s rankings.

2021 stats: 12 games | 209 att | 1,205 rush yds | 5.8 ypc | 14 rush TD | 36 rec | 336 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 3 fumbles 

After going up against Tampa Bay’s stout run defense last week, Taylor could run wild this week in Houston. In the Colts’ Week 6 win over the Texans, Taylor had 145 rushing yards and two TDs on just 14 carries. It was one of the first performances that spurred his incredible midseason run. As the only player with more than 100 ground yards vs. Houston this season, he’ll attempt to do it again to keep the Colts in playoff contention.

2021 stats: 11 games | 208 att | 924 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 11 rush TD | 26 rec | 192 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 1 fumble

I’ve been waiting for Mixon to have a campaign like this. He’s scored at least once in each of his last eight games and has logged three straight games with two rush TDs — the longest streak by any player this season. I love seeing Mixon, who’s 76 rush yards away from 1,000 for the season, at the center of this Bengals offense.

2021 stats: 9 games | 150 att | 867 rush yds | 5.8 ypc | 6 rush TD | 12 rec | 106 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles

I’m still trying to figure out why, in a one-score game, Kevin Stefanski would abandon the run game with Chubb and a healthy Kareem Hunt in the mix. The Browns ran the ball 17 times for a season-low 40 yards, while an ailing Baker Mayfield threw it 37 times. This is not a winning formula for Cleveland. Get back to the ground attack. 

2021 stats: 9 games | 171 att | 773 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 4 rush TD | 27 rec | 202 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 3 fumbles

Cook registered his fourth straight game with at least 100 scrimmage yards before exiting Sunday’s contest in the third quarter with a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum. The injury will sideline Cook for several weeks, meaning this will be his last time in the rankings for a while. I hate to see it. 

2021 stats: 11 games | 135 att | 604 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 7 rush TD | 51 rec | 473 rec yds | 7 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Ekeler has been one of the top pass-catching running backs this season with his seven receiving TDs being the most in the NFL among backs heading into Week 13. A top-five running back in scrimmage yards, Ekeler has his work cut out for him against a Bengals team that ranks fifth in run defense.

2021 stats: 11 games | 139 att | 621 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 7 rush TD | 51 rec | 354 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble

With Tom Brady and the pass game struggling against the Colts’ defense, Fournette took matters into his own hands with a season-high 100 rush yards and career-high four scrimmage touchdowns (three rush, one receiving). 

2021 stats: 11 games | 196 att | 708 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 5 rush TD | 52 rec | 351 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles

Harris averaged 102.2 scrimmage yards per game coming into Week 12, but an early deficit to the Bengals limited the rookie’s production. He finished with a season-low 37 scrimmage yards in the blowout loss. Pittsburgh is struggling at the wrong time.

2021 stats: 11 games | 146 att | 555 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 12 rush TD | 18 rec | 173 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles

It seems like the Cardinals’ offense could be getting closer to full strength on Sunday, with Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins back in practice this week. This shouldn’t affect Conner’s workload against the Bears. With six games remaining in the regular season, Conner is on pace to break the franchise record for rush touchdowns set by David Johnson (16) in 2016.

2021 stats: 11 games | 160 att | 720 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 38 rec | 228 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble

Zeke is averaging 14.5 carries (a career-low) and 65.5 rush yards per game (second-lowest) this season. Given that, it’s wild that he still ranks sixth in rushing yards. This speaks to his talent, but also the fact that this is a pass-heavy league.

2021 stats: 8 games | 143 att | 693 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 4 rush TD | 14 rec | 108 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles

The rookie enters my rankings for the first time this season after posting a career-high 168 scrimmage yards in a win over Minnesota. It was his fourth game of the season with 100-plus rush yards (most ever by a 49ers rookie), and he ranks fourth in the league with 86.6 rush yards per game. This is the type of play that can keep San Francisco trending in the right direction down the stretch.

2021 stats: 11 games | 154 att | 643 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 8 rush TD | 13 rec | 84 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Adding another rush TD in last week’s big win over Tennessee, Harris’ eight rush TDs are the most by a Patriots RB in a season since LeGarrette Blount‘s franchise-record 18 in 2016. The Pats went on to win the Super Bowl that year, and while it’s not completely out of the question with the way Bill Belichick’s crew is playing, it’s going to take more from the run, pass, defense and special teams from here on out. Monday’s tilt with the Bills will be a great test.

2021 stats: 10 games | 129 att | 654 rush yds | 5.1 ypc | 7 rush TD | 27 rec | 198 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 3 fumbles

Robinson’s rookie season wasn’t a fluke, as he’s undoubtedly been the best part of Jacksonville’s offense in 2021. He leads all Jaguars with 852 scrimmage yards and seven TDs, while no other player has more than three scrimmage touchdowns. 

2021 stats: 11 games | 183 att | 712 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 26 rec | 193 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 5 fumbles

Gibson is coming off a career-high in carries (29), receptions (seven) and scrimmage yards (146) in Washington’s prime-time win over Seattle. He’s been a key piece in the team’s three-game win streak with 270 rush yards since Week 10 (third in the NFL). If he keeps running this way and helping Washington control the clock, we could see the Football Team in the postseason.

2021 stats: 10 games | 142 att | 648 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 5 rush TD | 27 rec | 172 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles

In the midst of a three-game losing streak, Henderson and the Rams have the perfect opportunity to turn the tides Sunday when the Jags come to SoFi Stadium. Jacksonville has allowed 14 rush TDs (tied for fourth-most in the NFL). Let’s go, Rams — this is your chance to find your waning run game. 

2021 stats: 11 games | 135 att | 605 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 5 rush TD | 22 rec | 166 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Gordon makes his way into my rankings after helping the Broncos to a big win over a divisional opponent. He had 83 yards on 17 carries, equaling a respectable 4.9 yards a pop. The Broncos’ run game is a big reason why they’re in the playoff mix, so we should expect to see more Gordon and rookie RB Javonte Williams in the coming weeks as Denver fights to stay in the mix.

DROPPED OUT: Alvin Kamara, Saints (previously No. 4); Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (No. 8); Aaron Jones, Packers (No. 11); Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots (No. 13).

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

The Ground Index presented by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Check out the weekly FedEx Air NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote after Sunday Night Football.

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