The 2021 NFL season opened with a thud for the running back position. Not only did a number of RBs cough up costly fumbles, but Week 1 saw just five 100-yard backs: Joe Mixon (127 yards), David Montgomery (108), Elijah Mitchell (104), Melvin Gordon (101) and Damien Harris (100), with Montgomery being the only representative from last year’s top five rushers.
However, it’s very early in the season, and this week provides another chance for the NFL’s talented crop of running backs to steal the show. Here are three RBs set to bounce back in Week 2.
Sunday at Los Angeles Chargers, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Giving Zeke 11 total carries is nonsense. I don’t care that the Cowboys were facing one of the NFL’s better run defenses in Tampa; I don’t care that some people are starting to give Tony Pollard more love; and I don’t care that Dallas’ offensive line was without All-Pro guard Zack Martin (who’s set to return in Week 2). Still just 26, Zeke is too talented a runner — too proven an asset in the Cowboys’ offense — to become an afterthought. Fresh off a forgettable opener in which he produced just 39 yards on 13 total touches, Elliott shouldn’t need any extra motivation heading into Week 2. Facing a Chargers defense that ranks first against the pass after suffocating Washington’s air attack in Week 1, the Cowboys need their star running back to rebound. And I’m guessing he will.
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Sunday vs. Las Vegas Raiders, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Steelers had the worst run game in the league last season, and though we didn’t see much change in Week 1, there’s still plenty of reason to believe Harris will get the rushing attack headed in the right direction. The rookie was on the field for 100 percent of the team’s offensive snaps — the only RB to accomplish this in Week 1 — and rushed for 45 yards on 16 carries in his debut against Buffalo’s stout defense.
“It was a good learning experience for us to play against a really good team and finish the way we did,” Harris said after Pittsburgh’s 23-16 win. “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve got to work on. Me personally, there’s a lot of things I can work on. But it’s always good to come out with a win.”
It’s quite reasonable to expect better production from the first-round pick in Week 2, with the Steelers playing host to a Raiders team that just gave up a league-worst 189 rushing yards to a depleted Ravens backfield. The time is now for Pittsburgh to get the rushing attack back on track.
Sunday at Seattle Seahawks, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
The two-time reigning rushing champion was held to just 58 ground yards against the Cardinals, but I’m not hitting the panic button. In 2020, a season in which Henry became the eighth member of the 2,000-yard club, he had two games with fewer than 65 yards on the ground: Week 5 vs. the Bills and Week 13 vs. the Browns. The kicker here is that “King Henry” rushed for more than 200 yards in each ensuing game — Week 6 vs. the Texans and Week 14 at the Jaguars — averaging 9.6 and 8.3 yards per carry, respectively, in those contests. In addition, Henry averaged 168.5 rushing yards per game in contests following a sub-100-yard performance in 2020. History is on Henry’s side going into Sunday’s clash in Seattle. Sorry, 12s.
Top 15 running backs
With the 2021 NFL season underway, former All-Pro running back and current NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew examines all RBs and ranks his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the Ground Index rankings are based on a combination of:
1) Player accomplishments prior to the 2021 season.
2) Weekly performances, factoring in strength of opponent.
Rankings will be based solely on this season’s efforts following Week 4. Now, let’s get to it. Entering Week 2, here is MJD’s pecking order:
2021 stats: 1 game | 17 att | 58 rush yds | 3.4 ypc | 0 rush TD | 3 rec | 19 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Henry — really the entire Titans offense — had a poor performance in last week’s 38-13 loss to the Cardinals. But remember, for the first four weeks of the season, I’m taking past performances into consideration. Henry’s monster 2,000-yard effort a season ago carries a lot of weight. He needs more than one bad outing to convince me he’s not still at the top of the league.
2021 stats: 1 game | 21 att | 98 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 0 rush TD | 9 rec | 89 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
After McCaffrey missed all but three games in 2020, I was encouraged by the dynamic playmaker’s Week 1 performance. The time taken to recover and get right physically is already paying off. I’m very eager to see how he does against a Saints team that stonewalled the Packers last week.
2021 stats: 1 game | 20 att | 83 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 0 rush TD | 3 rec | 8 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Man, I can’t wait to watch Kamara and McCaffrey on the same field Sunday. Both have put up gaudy numbers — running and receiving — throughout their careers. For Kamara, he goes against a Panthers defense that got off to a strong start. It won’t matter — the Saints star should enjoy a heyday.
2021 stats: 1 game | 20 att | 61 rush yds | 3.0 ypc | 1 rush TD | 6 rec | 43 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
Cook’s Week 1 ended in unfortunate fashion, with a costly (though controversial) fumble in overtime that eventually led to a game-winning Bengals field goal. His ability is off the charts, but a team like Minnesota can’t turn the ball over and still expect to come out victorious.
2021 stats: 1 game | 15 att | 83 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 2 rush TD | 2 rec | 18 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
No one was surprised to see Chubb start quick out of the gates, as he racked up 101 scrimmage yards and two scores against the Chiefs last week. We’re at the point where this is what we expect from Cleveland’s lead back. The Browns will be right there in January as long as their rushing attack continues to lead the way.
2021 stats: 1 game | 11 att | 33 rush yds | 3.0 ypc | 0 rush TD | 2 rec | 6 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Zeke has averaged fewer rush yards per game with each passing season in the NFL: 108.7 in 2016, 98.3 in ’17, 95.6 in ’18, 84.8 in ’19 and 65.3 in 2020. With only 33 yards last week, I sure hope this isn’t a trend that continues in 2021. If it is, Zeke can certainly say goodbye to his top-10 ranking.
2021 stats: 1 game | 29 att | 127 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 1 rush TD | 4 rec | 23 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
The one year I don’t predict Mixon to finish in the top 10 in rushing yards, he leads the NFL in Week 1. This is the kind of performance I want week in and week out. If he stays healthy, the 25-year-old could be in for a career year.
2021 stats: 1 game | 16 att | 108 rush yds | 6.8 ypc | 1 rush TD | 1 rec | 10 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Montgomery led the NFL in yards per carry in Week 1 (min. 15 carries) and did it against a stout Rams defense. Like with Mixon, I’m looking for consistency from Montgomery this season. The Bears’ offensive success depends on it.
2021 stats: 1 game | 15 att | 57 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 1 rush TD | 0 rec | 0 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Ekeler got scoring started for the Chargers in the Brandon Staley era with a 3-yard TD scamper in the first quarter. And though the veteran back averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry, this was a positive step for Ekeler (and the Chargers) after an injury-plagued 2020.
2021 stats: 1 game | 5 att | 9 rush yds | 1.8 ypc | 0 rush TD | 2 rec | 13 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
There’s good news and bad news, so let’s get the latter out of the way first … The bad: In the Week 1 loss to New Orleans, Jones had his fewest touches, rush yards and scrimmage yards in any game since Matt LaFleur became the Packers’ head coach in 2019. The good: Since 2019, Jones has recorded 1,165 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games vs. NFC North opponents. Monday night vs. Detroit can’t get here soon enough.
2021 stats: 1 game | 10 att | 34 rush yds | 3.4 ypc | 2 rush TD | 1 rec | 6 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Jacobs didn’t consistently move the chains, but came through when the Raiders needed him most in the red zone. Las Vegas will need a more complete effort from the bell cow against T.J. Watt and the Steelers’ D if the Raiders intend to improve to 2-0.
2021 stats: 1 game | 17 att | 56 rush yds | 3.3 ypc | 0 rush TD | 6 rec | 60 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
There’s always fear of a letdown after a player shines as a rookie, but Taylor put those thoughts to rest with 116 scrimmage yards vs. the Seahawks. We all want to see Taylor get more involved in the passing game in Year 2, and Week 1 was a fine start on that front.
2021 stats: 1 game | 16 att | 91 rush yds | 5.7 ypc | 0 rush TD | 3 rec | 26 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost
Fumble aside, Carson was impressive in Seattle’s season-opening victory, averaging nearly 6 yards per carry over 16 totes. With Rashad Penny out for multiple weeks due to a calf injury, Carson has a great opportunity to build on his stout Week 1 effort.
2021 stats: 1 game | 11 att | 101 rush yds | 9.2 ypc | 1 rush TD | 3 rec | 17 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Gordon had a strong start to his second season in Denver, and now he’s looking to put up back-to-back 100-yard rushing games for the first time since 2018. It’s definitely in play against a rebuilding Jags squad.
2021 stats: 1 game | 26 att | 85 rush yds | 3.3 ypc | 1 rush TD | 0 rec | 0 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
The Texans went through it all this offseason and entered the 2021 campaign with subterranean expectations, which is why it was so pleasing to watch this group of cast-offs grab their lunch pails and go to work in a 16-point win over the Jags. Ingram’s first-quarter touchdown seemed to help the Texans settle in — exactly what they need from a proven veteran like Ingram. A much tougher test awaits this Sunday in Cleveland.
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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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