Last week’s premiere rushing performances included near goose eggs from LeSean McCoy and Ezekiel Elliott, multiple hurdles from Todd Gurley, more speedy excellence from Kareem Hunt, and continued frustration from Le’Veon Bell owners. Let’s take a look at some of the marquee matchups along the line of scrimmage in this week’s front seven run-game breakdown with help from our NFL Matchups Dashboard.
Miami Dolphins (Jay Ajayi) vs. New York Jets
In an offseason dominated by the Jay Cutler-Adam Gase reunion narrative, the Dolphins’ offensive philosophy didn’t change at all: Give Ajayi the ball. Overall, he racked up 30 touches for 126 yards and zero touchdowns during the Dolphins’ Week 2 win over the Chargers. Ajayi played a league-high 94.1 percent (up from 61.3 percent last season) of the Dolphins’ running back snaps last week, as Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake combined for just four snaps and one touch.
Ajayi’s explosiveness is almost unrivaled: Only Earl Campbell, Tiki Barber, and O.J. Simpson have managed to also surpass 200 yards in a game on three separate occasions during a season. Still, his big plays were complemented by plenty of stuffs last season, as the Dolphins were the second-worst offense in percentage of runs in which the running back was tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Only the Rams were better than the Jets at creating these types of drive-killing plays last season, but this isn’t the Jets defense of old.
The Jets allowed 180-plus rushing yards just once from 2014-2016, but the Bills and Raiders each managed to eclipse that mark this season. Both Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson (questionable, shoulder) rank outside of PFF’s top-75 interior defenders through two weeks, and the loss of Sheldon Richardson has hurt the defense’s ability to hold up against the run. Cutler’s 33 pass attempts in Week 2 were just a bit above his average of 32.2 attempts per game in 2015 with Gase running the Bears offense, so expect to see plenty of Ajayi with positive game script as a six-point favorite against a weakened run defense. Ajayi has been dealing with a sore knee for the better part of training camp, but last week showed he’s still a haul to bring down for four straight quarters:
Pittsburgh Steelers (Le’Veon Bell) vs. Chicago Bears
Bell’s usage resumed to his normal gargantuan levels last week, as he racked up 31 touches and played 92 percent of the team’s running back snaps. While he’s yet to break 100 yards in a game or score a touchdown this season, positive regression in his efficiency metrics could be on the way:
Bell’s Week 1 dud can be chalked up to rust and him playing a meager 72 percent of snaps. His Week 2 performance came against a talented Vikings defense that managed to focus their gameplan on Bell with the ability to essentially take away Antonio Brown with just one (very talented) defender. It’s safe to say the Bears won’t have this option in Week 3, as they could once again be without No. 1 cornerback Prince Amukamara (ankle, questionable) and haven’t been the same rush defense without middle linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Overall, the Bears have allowed 106.5 rushing yards per game with Freeman compared to 149.4 yards per game in five games without their stud middle linebacker since the beginning of last season.
Bell’s $1,000 salary drop on DraftKings leaves him with his lowest salary since November of 2016. Ben Roethlisberger‘s negative home/away splits have historically not rubbed off on Bell, and he’ll get every chance to pound the rock as a road favorite, a situation in which he’s averaged 26.3 DraftKings PPG with a +7.2 Plus/Minus and 80 percent Consistency Rating since 2014 (per our Trends tool). Bell is currently the highest-rated running back in Adam Levitan’s Pro Model.
Oakland Raiders (Marshawn Lynch) vs. Washington Redskins
Lynch hasn’t looked like a 31-year-old running back who spent last season traveling the world and out of the league. After two weeks he’s tied for fifth among all backs with seven missed tackles, while racking up four rushes inside the five-yard line and scoring once. Lynch has found himself in consecutive double-digit wins that have suited his grind-it-out running style. Volume is a concern, however: Backup running backs DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard have combined to play more snaps than Lynch this season, and he ranks outside of the top-15 running backs in actual running back opportunity rate.
The case for Lynch revolves around his status as the de facto power back on an offense with the week’s highest implied total, but he’ll have to get by a Redskins defense that has allowed an average of just 75 rushing yards per game this season. Former Bill Zach Brown has PFF’s second-best rush defense grade among all linebackers through two weeks, while first-round pick Jonathan Allen and former Raider Stacy McGee have provided stabilizing presences across the defensive line. The potential loss of every-down linebacker Mason Foster (shoulder, questionable) is a concern, but opponents averaged half a yard less per rush when in Washington last season, and Lynch historically averaged 3.8 fewer DraftKings points per game on the road during his time in Seattle. The Raiders’ beastly offensive line has been a top-five unit in adjusted sack rate during each of the past three seasons but hasn’t cracked the top-10 in adjusted line yards.
Tennessee Titans (DeMarco Murray) vs. Seattle Seahawks
Carlos Hyde gashed the Seahawks for 124 yards on just 15 carries last Sunday, continuing a trend of opposing running backs having much more success against the Seahawks in Seattle than at their own home field:
The Seahawks have been tough to run on just about anywhere, but opposing teams haven’t been able to get any type of home field relief. Overall, running backs with a salary of at least $4,000 on DraftKings have averaged an additional 1.61 DraftKings points per game with +2.0 Plus/Minus and +15 percent Consistency Rating differentials in Seattle since 2014. The Legion of Boom typically dissuades offenses from testing the Seahawks downfield, but running against their front seven – better than ever with the addition of Sheldon Richardson – hasn’t historically been a much better option.
Only the Bills averaged more yards before contact than the Titans last season, but nobody saw eight defenders in the box more often than Murray and Derrick Henry. As one of the best tackling teams in the league, the Seahawks joined the Giants and Cardinals as the only defenses to rank among the top-six units in both average second-level and open-field yards allowed per carry last season. Targeting running backs that are home favorites is usually a +EV move, but Murray is battling a hamstring injury that resulted in Henry’s career-best performance last week; the uncertainty in the backfield doesn’t help a tough matchup against a Seahawks defense that allowed a league-low 1.2 yards before contact per rush last season.
- Buffalo Bills (LeSean McCoy) vs. Denver Broncos: Only Bell has averaged more DraftKings PPG than Shady as a home favorite since 2014. Still, Gordon and Elliott combined for just 62 yards and zero rushing touchdowns on 27 carries against the Broncos over the first two weeks.
- Kansas City Chiefs (Kareem Hunt) vs. Los Angeles Chargers: Hunt is averaging an unsustainable 7.6 yards per carry but leads all backs in yards created and average second-level and open-field yards. He’ll get a Chargers defense with big name edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, although both are better pass rushers than run defenders; the Chargers have allowed the fifth-most average second-level yards this season.
- Dallas Cowboys (Ezekiel Elliott) vs. Arizona Cardinals: Last season Elliott averaged 2.2 yards before contact per rush; this season he’s averaged 0.7 YBC. The elite Giants and Broncos secondaries helped the rest of the defense focus on stopping the Cowboys’ rushing attack. The Cardinals secondary isn’t too far behind those groups, and they’ve been a top-10 unit in DVOA against the run for three consecutive seasons.
- Los Angeles Chargers (Melvin Gordon) vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Gordon’s career average of 3.67 yards per carry is tied with Jeremy Hill‘s for the lowest mark among all running backs with 400-plus carries since 2015. He’ll look to establish the run up the middle against a Chiefs defense that allowed a league-high 4.65 adjusted line yards up the gut last season.