NFL Analysis: How Great are AFC South Running Backs? - Opposing Views

NFL Analysis: How Great are AFC South Running Backs?

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ESPN did a running back power ranking this week, and the results were fascinating.

Three of the top four running backs were in the AFC South.

That struck me as highly unlikely.  After all, only one of the three was a first round pick (Chris Johnson went 24th). There are two possibilities to explain the phenomenon.  The first is that AFC South teams have constructed elite run games so as to provide a competitive advantage over the Colts, who traditionally play the run poorly. If this is true, it would be expected that the top runners would be in the South. That would be by design.

The other possibility is that the AFC South backs are just lucky to play the Colts twice a year. They pad their stats against poor Indy run defenses and look better than they really are.

Chris Johnson was the top name on the list.


Att
Yards
% Total
YPC
TD
Rec
Yards
% Total
TD

2008 v Rest
232
1151
92.3%
5.0
8
39
226
92.2%
1

2008 v Colts
19
77
6.7%
4.1
1
4
19
7.8%
0

2009 v Rest
322
1859
92.7%
5.7
14
42
466
92.6%
2

2009 v Colts
36
147
7.3%
4.1
0
8
37
7.4%
0

2010 v Rest
274
1214
89%
4.4
10
30
126
51.4%
0

2010 v Colts
42
150
11%
3.6
1
14
119
48.6%
1

Total v Rest
828
4224
91.9%
5.1
32
111
833
82.6%
3

Total v Colts
97
374
8.1%
3.9
2
26
175
17.4%
1

Johnson played 12.5% of his games against Indy in 2009 and 2010. In 2008, he played 6.7% of his games against the Colts. For his career, he has played 10.6% of all his games against the Colts.

Chris Johnson is not making his living against the Colts, at least not on the ground.  He actually has performed consistently worse against Indy than against the rest of the league. The one area where he has done better against Indy has been catching the ball out of the backfield.  Chris Johnson is certainly not the product of playing the Colts twice a year.

Maurice Jones-Drew was third in the rankings.


Att
Yards
% Total
YPC
TD
Rec
Yards
%
TD

2006 v Rest
138
672
71.4%
4.7
11
41
423
94.8%
1

2006 v Colts
28
269
28.6%
9.6
2
5
23
5.2%
1

2007 v Rest
143
664
86.5%
4.6
7
36
385
94.6%
0

2007 v Colts
24
104
13.5%
4.3
2
4
22
5.4%
0

2008 v Rest
158
626
76%
4.0
11
51
435
77%
2

2008 v Colts
39
198
24%
5.1
1
11
130
23%
0

2009 v Rest
264
1184
85.2%
4.5
13
43
318
85%
0

2009 v Colts
48
207
14.8%
4.3
2
10
56
15%
1

2010 v Rest
258
1173
88.6%
4.5
3
30
279
88%
1

2010 v Colts
41
151
11.4%
3.7
2
4
38
12%
1

Total v Rest
961
4319
82.9%
4.5
46
201
1806
86%
4

Total v Colts
180
929
17.1%
5.2
8
34
293
14%
3

MJD played 12.5% of his games against the Colts in 2006, 13.3% in 2007, 12.5% in 2008 and 2009, and 14.3% in 2010. Overall, he played 13% of his total games against Indianapolis.

Jones-Drew has played well against the Colts, better than he has against the rest of the league.  A healthy chunk of his success in 2006 and 2008 came against the Colts.  However, in the last couple of years, the Colts have played him about to league average.  I'd say two games a year against Indy has helped his reputation, but have not made his reputation.

Arian Foster was ranked fourth in the poll.


Att
Yards
% Total
YPC
TD
Rec
Yards
% Total
TD

2009 v Rest
279
1283
79.9%
4.6
12
56
532
88.1%
2

2009 v Colts
48
333
20.1%
6.9
4
10
72
11.9%
0

Foster played 12.5% of his games against the Colts in 2010.

Foster certainly thrived against the Colts, and his standing in the top 5 backs may be inflated because of two games against Indianapolis, but his numbers apart from games against the Colts are better than respectable.

Conclusion:

Three of the best four backs in football may or may not be in the AFC South, but it certainly does seem that they are not basing their reputations entirely on two games a year with Indianapolis.  The other three teams in the South have clearly focused on run offense as a way of building their teams, likely as a response to the style of defense the Colts run.  They've developed strong running attacks that are particularly effective against the Colts, but also good throughout the year. 

For the record, here is where Indy has ranked in run defense since 2006:


Rank Yards
Rank YPC

2006
32
32

2007
15
6

2008
24
17

2009
24
19

2010
25
25

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