The Best Running Backs in the Playoffs, maybe

The Best Running Backs in the Playoffs, maybe
Reading Time: 6 minutes.
playoff celebration to come?
Austin Ekeler will make his first playoff start in his sixth season

Adding credence to the old “you should never pay a running back” adage the top three running backs in the league this year haven’t even made the playoffs. In the 2022 edition of the NFL we will see just three of the top seven playing in the postseason.  

Who missed out?

There’s no Henry, Jacobs, Chubb, Najee Harris, Jamaal Williams or Aaron Jones in the playoffs. Which begs two questions “is a good run game key to late season success anymore?” and “who are the best running backs playing on the 2022 playoffs?” 

Leonard Fournette

It’s the postseason so it must be time for “Playoff Lenny“, right? Well, maybe, but probably not. The Buccaneers made the playoffs because they are in a division with three teams who are even worse than them. Tampa Bay rather limped into the playoffs after winning just three of their last seven games.  

Fournette has only scored three touchdowns in the 2022 season and after battling some injuries he started just nine games. He also caught three touchdown passes, a career high and managed 1,191 total yards from scrimmage. 

Fournette hasn’t rushed for 100 yards since week 1 but he accounted for 20% of the Bucs total yards in 2022. The Buccaneers have run the ball 33% of the time this season. This week’s opponents Dallas have defended passes better than running attacks in 2022. Tampa Bay will need to lean on the run game if they are to stand any chance. Nothing suggests 27 year old Fournette can do what 25 year old Lenny did when he was a driving force in the Buccaneers playoff run. He average 5.5 yards per touch then on his way to a Super Bowl ring, but don’t be surprised if “Playoff Lenny” springs into action this week.

All sensible thinking suggests the Cowboys should beat a team who won four fewer games than Dallas did in 2022 but the big red flag here is that Dallas are 1-4 on natural grass in 2022 ad they haven’t had a winning record on “God’s carpet” according to the mailbag section of since 2017. It’s been suggested that it’s the Cowboys defence that is affected most by playing on grass so it’ll definitely be worth watching. 

Kenneth Walker III

Rookie Kenneth Walker gets to play the 49ers defence for a third time this season and quite frankly, nobody wants to do that. Although no NFL team has beaten the same opponent three times in a single season in the last 13 years.

Walker has been a key component of the Seahawks offence since his first start in week 6. The Seahawks visited the 49ers in week 2 of the regular season but Walker only played 12 snaps. If Seattle are to have a chance of an upset he’ll need to be on the field for more this week. Seattle have only lost one game this season when Walker has rushed for over 100 yards. Since he became the starting back they have only lost four games when he’s been healthy. 

After having to slog through overtime to make the playoffs in the first place the Seahawks have got a monumental task ahead of them, but the 49ers have notched an impressive number of injuries (even by their lofty standards) and they could be missing as many as 14 players so it could be an attritional battle in rainy California. 

Christian McCaffrey

Ironically given his history one of the 49ers who doesn’t appear to be injured this week in Christian McCaffrey. Since McCaffrey arrived in California the 49ers have only lost one game and that was in his first game. Shanahan eased him into his new surroundings gently, only asking him to carry the ball eight times against the Chiefs. McCaffrey has scored 10 of the 49ers touchdowns or 19% of their team total this season.  

McCaffrey has only played a single playoff game in his six year career and it was back in 2017. On that occasion he carried six times for 16 yards but caught six of his eight targets for 101 yards. He also caught a touchdowns pass from Cam Newton. McCaffrey’s Panthers offence wasn’t short of running options and Jonathan Stewart and Newton both carried more than him in that game.

There’s a bit of a traffic jam in the 49ers backfield when everyone is healthy, Elijah Mitchell returned last week to score two touchdowns, Deebo Samuel carried once and both Jordan Mason and Tyrion Davis-Price carried the ball too as the 49ers cruised past the Cardinals. Even with the competition for carries it’s difficult to imagine McCaffrey’s skillset won’t be vital to the 49ers playoff run, if he can ease the pressure on Brock Purdy San Francisco’s playoff run could end in February. 

Tony Pollard

Tony Pollard is also involved in a running back log-jam in Dallas alongside Zeke Elliot and even Malike Davis (who averages 5.1 yards per touch) but after he crossed the 1,000 rushing yards mark he should be at the front of that queue. Pollard scored 12 touchdowns this season and averaged 5.9 yards per touch (making him fourth in the running back ranks). Along with Elliott who the Cowboys have used particularly effectively in short yardage and goal-line situations Pollard has combined to provide the second highest scoring rush offence in the league (behind only the Eagles). 

The Cowboys wildcard opponents Tampa Bay have struggled to defend the run this season and are allowing 4.5 yards per carry but they have forced 14 fumbles. Even though the Cowboys haven’t really had any turnover problems this season Mike McCarthy team’s do appear to have a penchant for making costly errors in playoff games.

Dalvin Cook

Dalvin Cook has had a good season scoring 10 touchdowns and averaging 4.8 yards per touch but Alexander Mattison and even Kirk Cousin have helped out with the Vikings run game, Mattison has five touchdowns of his own and Cousins has scored two rushing touchdowns on 31 attempts. The Vikings have run the ball 36% of the time this season and against a Giants defence that is ranked ninth in the league when it comes to their number of pass touchdowns allowed in the 2022 season their rushing attack will be really important.  

Cook hasn’t played a playoff game since 2019 and in the two postseason games he has played he only made 112 rushing yards but he did score two touchdowns on 37 carries. 

Saquon Barkley

Saquon Barkley will be on the opposite sideline in Minnesota on Sunday and he could have a huge say in the result. 25 year old Barkley has started 16 games of the 2022 season and while the Giants haven’t relied on him to carry them all the way through the season (he only had 11 touches against the Eagles in week 14) he has accounted for 29% of their total yards. Barkley’s 1650 yards from scrimmage was 926 yards more than the Giants second most productive player Darius Slaton. Barkley also recorded 10 rushing touchdowns in 2022 (48% of the team’s total) but he’s yet to catch a touchdown pass.  

For their part Minnesota’s defence have had two major weaknesses in 2022, the number of passing yards they allowed, only one team conceded more than their 4,515 and the number of rushing touchdowns they’ve conceded. They allowed 19 touchdown passes which is the same number as the Browns and Falcons. This looks like a perfect game for Saquon to make his playoff debut in. 

Austin Ekeler

By far and away the best running back left in the 2022 season has to be Austin Ekeler. 2022 was a stand out year for the 27 year old Nebraska native in terms of usage, Ekeler touched the ball 311 times, 35 more than before. 2022 was the first time he started every game of the season and the first time he managed more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage. Ekeler’s 1,637 yards were 742 more than Mike Williams, the Chargers second most productive player. He also led the Chargers in rushing and receiving touchdowns scoring 18 in total. 

This will be Ekeler’s third playoff game, his first since 2018 and he wasn’t a regular starter back then. Ekeler only started three games in the 2018 season as he backed up Melvin Gordon, he only rushed 11 times in that playoff run for 29 yards and he caught seven passes for 33 yards so he’ll be raring to go this time round. 

The Jaguars defence has found some very impressive form in their last three games. They have only conceded 22 points in that time. Last week they held Derrick Henry to 3.6 yards per carry his fifth lowest average of the season. In his last game of the season against a very good Broncos defence Ekeler averaged 3.09 yards per carry but 9 yards per catch so how the Chargers go about challenging the Jaguars defence will be interesting but Ekeler’s versatility will be key. 

Banner Image: McCaffrey soars to grab the reception TD of his triple crown against the Rams. Image from SBnation.

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