RB Index, Week 16: Running backs' three biggest enemies

It’s the holiday season! While I’m usually quite jolly this time of year, we’re talking about Grinches in the RB Index this week. In this case, I’m referring to running backs’ biggest enemies.

Before I get to my list, I have to say that I don’t remember any specific defensive player or unit stopping me when I played. That could just be my own recollection but pretty sure that’s true.

While that’s neither here nor there — and let’s definitely not go sift through film from a long, long time ago — here are the three biggest enemies for running backs this season.

I have to start with Aaron Donald, and I’ll tell you why. Any defensive line that can penetrate and force the running back to make a cut in the backfield has a huge upper hand. Donald is at the center of a Rams front that does just that and ranks sixth against the run as a result. Of defenders with at least 200 run defense snaps, Donald holds the highest run defense grade (91.2), according to Pro Football Focus. He’s made 28 stops (a play in which a defender makes a tackle, and the location of the tackle means the play is a successful one for the defense), 11 tackles for loss/no gain and has one forced fumble on 299 run defense snaps this season.

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Leonard is a run-game killer. With his rare sideline-to-sideline speed, the Colts linebacker is always around the ball and has a knack for forcing turnovers. He’s a big reason why Indianapolis is tied for the league lead in takeaways heading into Week 16. He’s forced a league-high four fumbles on run plays and boasts an 87.6 PFF grade on run defense snaps, the highest such grade among linebackers with at least 120 run-defense snaps.

The Ravens have the league’s top-ranked run defense despite dealing with injuries to key contributors at every level. There’s a reason why the unit is able to withstand so many absences. The players buy in and have a deep understanding of how a successful run defense works. They have a Calais Campbell-led defensive line that sets up a wall, a group of linebackers that flow to the ball, cornerbacks who can help set the edge and safeties capable of getting into the backfield. It’s a dangerous combination that allows the Ravens to collectively stop the run without a defensive superstar on the field.

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 16.

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 15’s rankings.

2021 stats: 14 games | 270 att | 1,518 rush yds | 5.6 ypc | 17 rush TD | 36 rec | 336 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 4 fumbles 

Taylor was already having a solid day against Bill Belichick and the Pats’ defense, then he ripped off a 67-yard sprint to the end zone just before the two-minute warning to secure the Colts’ victory and snap the Patriots’ seven-game win streak. I’ve been saying Taylor ought to be considered a legitimate MVP candidate for weeks now, and that run on national television against the hottest team in the league coming into Week 15 should cement the running back as the front-runner. Man, I love this guy. What a beast!

2021 stats: 14 games | 173 att | 789 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 10 rush TD | 62 rec | 558 rec yds | 7 rec TD | 4 fumbles

The Chargers had their chances to top the Chiefs last week, but fourth-down struggles throughout sent the Chargers down the I-405 with a crushing loss. Ekeler scored his 10th rushing touchdown of the season on a 2-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, giving him a total of 17 scrimmage TDs (second most in the league). However, head coach Brandon Staley classified him as day to day after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday. Ekeler is a crucial piece for the Chargers, who currently hold a wild-card spot but are tied at 8-6 with four other AFC squads.

2021 stats: 11 games | 190 att | 1,017 rush yds | 5.4 ypc | 7 rush TD | 16 rec | 114 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles

The Browns had 22 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list for Monday afternoon’s game against the Raiders. With Nick Mullens getting the start at QB, Cleveland (to no one’s surprise) leaned heavily on Chubb, who had a game-high 23 carries for 91 rush yards, including a 4-yard TD run in the third quarter that sparked a second-half rally. Even with Chubb’s efforts, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the Browns to get into the postseason, especially considering their daunting three-game slate to close out the season (at Packers, at Steelers vs. Bengals).

2021 stats: 11 games | 226 att | 1,067 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 6 rush TD | 30 rec | 221 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 3 fumbles

After learning of his third consecutive Pro Bowl nod, Cook surpassed 1,000 rush yards for the third season in a row Monday night with 89 yards on 28 carries in the win over the Bears. Cook accounted for 91 of Minnesota’s 193 total net yards in the victory — further demonstrating just how important he is to this team. Now Minnesota will be without its RB1 in a game with huge playoff implications against the Rams after Cook landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

2021 stats: 14 games | 187 att | 700 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 14 rush TD | 31 rec | 334 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 2 fumbles

It feels like we’re eons removed from when the Cardinals held the NFC’s No. 1 seed after watching them play such uninspiring football against the Lions. This offense looked lost just days after news broke that DeAndre Hopkins was expected to be out for the rest of the regular season, and Conner — usually a bright spot for the unit — played to the flat tune of the rest of the offense. With Chase Edmonds back on the field, Conner had 39 yards on eight carries, his lowest totes total since Week 8. 

2021 stats: 14 games | 262 att | 1,094 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 12 rush TD | 29 rec | 204 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Sunday marked the third straight game in which Mixon was held to fewer than 60 rush yards, but thanks to a great defensive performance, the Bengals eked out the road win over the Broncos. They probably won’t be able to come out victorious against many playoff-caliber teams with more offensive performances like they had on Sunday, when they produced 249 total offensive yards (113 rush, 136 pass), though. Mixon and the run game need to find a way while Cincy holds the top spot in the North.

2021 stats: 14 games | 249 att | 891 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 6 rush TD | 62 rec | 405 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles

The Steelers’ offense was dismal on Sunday, and if not for careless turnovers by the Titans, Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes would have taken a mighty blow. Harris had a season-low 18 yards on 12 carries for a lowly 1.5 yards per carry. Harris has tons of talent, but there’s only so much he can do running behind the 27th-ranked run-blocking unit (per PFF).

2021 stats: 14 games | 201 att | 862 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 44 rec | 265 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble

The fact that Zeke is tied for the seventh-most rush yards in the NFL after having fewer than 60 rush yards and 80 scrimmage yards in each of the last eight games is pretty astonishing. Where have all the running backs gone? Bueller?!

2021 stats: 11 games | 130 att | 709 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 0 rush TD | 25 rec | 155 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble

Sanders has been on a tear since returning from an ankle injury that kept him out of Weeks 8-10. Since Week 11, he is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 102.3 rush yards per game — helping the Eagles go 3-1 in that span. Philly’s dominant run game, led by Sanders and Jalen Hurts, could be the reason the Eagles sneak into the playoffs when it’s all said and done.

2021 stats: 12 games | 164 att | 754 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 9 rush TD | 13 rec | 84 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Harris remains in my rankings after the Patriots and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson struggled to run the ball (81 rush yards) without him in a loss to the Colts. It appears Harris is on track to return from a hamstring injury in Sunday’s big division tilt with the Bills, and the Pats need him.

2021 stats: 14 games | 180 att | 812 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 69 rec | 454 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 1 fumble

Fournette is done for the regular season with a hamstring injury suffered in Sunday night’s loss to New Orleans. We’ll see how valuable he’s become in Byron Leftwich’s offense now that he’s out and Ronald Jones II and Le’Veon Bell are in.

2021 stats: 14 games | 231 att | 862 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 39 rec | 260 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 6 fumbles

After scoring the contest’s opening points on a 1-yard run midway through the first quarter, Gibson was hampered by a toe injury in Tuesday’s loss to the Eagles. He didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday but still has a chance to suit up against Dallas this weekend in a game that could decide Washington’s postseason fate.

2021 stats: 10 games | 184 att | 668 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 4 rush TD | 38 rec | 348 rec yds | 4 rec TDs | 0 fumbles

Kamara was held to just 31 scrimmage yards in the Saints’ win over Tampa Bay. Without more talent around him, defenses have been able to shut the star running back down. This week might not be any different with rookie Ian Book getting the start under center. Kamara needs to dig deep.

2021 stats: 14 games | 170 att | 815 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 3 rush TD | 38 rec | 288 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles

The rookie, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 15 attempts versus Cincy last week, has helped the Broncos produce a top-10 rushing attack, and Williams should continue his successful campaign this weekend when facing a Raiders defense that ranks 25th against the run. To get back in the win column, he’ll have to be a prominent and dominant piece in the game plan with Drew Lock getting the start at quarterback.

2021 stats: 13 games | 151 att | 657 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TD | 42 rec | 340 rec yds | 6 rec TD | 2 fumbles

While Jones isn’t putting up the yardage he has in past seasons, he still has a knack for finding the end zone. With a touchdown reception in a win over Baltimore, Jones secured his third straight season with at least 10 scrimmage TDs.

DROPPED OUT: Melvin Gordon, Broncos (previously No. 14).

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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