It's been rough going for the New York Jets on the ground this season, as the once proud run-first offense has dropped to 30th in the league (71.0 yards per contest). Coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer spent the week selling their recommitment to a "three yards and a cloud of dust" mentality. "We're not panicking," Schottenheimer told reporters, "we're working."
It might be a good week for change. The Jets' opponent -- rival New England -- has allowed 4.8 yards per carry. And while opposing backs have not put up big-time fantasy point totals against the Patriots, the formula is there. Fred Jackson (6.2 yards per carry), Darren McFadden (5.4) and Ryan Mathews (5.3) all consistently logged positive yardage against New England, but failed to deliver the big payoff because their respective offenses chose to limit the running game (most often out of need to keep pace with Tom Brady).
New York has a pass defense good enough to keep Brady and New England's aerial assault in check, which is to say New York may be able to keep its ground attack alive long enough for it to produce. "One thing about me," Ryan told the media after last week's loss to Baltimore, "there's a lot smarter guys than me, but there's nobody more competitive." Or stubborn, so when Rex wants to run, you can expect New York will do all it can to run.
The biggest benefactor should be Shonn Greene, who has become irrelevant to fantasy owners (39.2 yards a game, one touchdown). But he remains the team's best option, and he gained 140 yards on 30 carries (4.6 yards per carry) in two visits to Foxboro last season.
Life has been miserable for the Lions backfield thus far, as no rusher has gained more than 72 yards in any of the team's four games. Perhaps things will pick up this week. Chicago is one of five NFL defenses to allow 5.0 or more yards per carry, and in the past two weeks the Bears have been trampled by the likes of Ryan Grant (17 carries for 92 yards) and DeAngelo Williams (10 for 82).
The Eagles were supposed to be the dominant pass defense in the NFC this season. What gives? The secondary has given up 10 passing scores -- tied with Kansas City for most in the league -- and only Denver's defense has yielded a higher rating to opposing quarterbacks. Last week, four San Francisco receivers registered a catch of 25 or more yards; the week before, unknown Victor Cruz lit up the Eagles for 110 yards. Philadelphia has managed to neutralize opposing teams' No. 1 target, but secondary receivers have been Eagles killers.
The Saints defense ranks among the Top 10 in rushing yards allowed -- just 94.0 per game -- and has allowed just two rushing scores. In part, that's because the Saints have dictated the pace of their first four games, forcing teams to abandon the run early. Those are hardly selling points for Carolina ground success. Despite its 1-3 record, Carolina has played to within seven points of every opponent this year, including contests against last year's NFC Championship Game participants, Chicago and Green Bay. The Panthers rushing attack has looked sharp each of the past two weeks. This could be their best week to date; even though the Saints allow few yards, they have given up 4.6 yards a carry.
Ben Roethlisberger's foot injury is a concern, but not as much of one as Tennessee's ability to limit the big play. Through four weeks the Titans have allowed just four passing scores and rank second in the league in yards allowed per attempt (5.7). Opposing quarterbacks have completed 61.5 percent of their attempts with a QB Rating of 72.5. Hmm, sounds like a good reason for Pittsburgh to pound the football.
Beanie Wells has had an excellent start to the 2011 season, but the honeymoon could be over. Minnesota ranks fifth in rushing yards allowed per contest (76.3) and sixth in yards allowed per carry (3.3). And no ballcarrier has gained more than 75 yards to date. So far, the Vikings have shut down Thomas Jones (11 carries for 37 yards), Dexter McCluster (seven for 26), Jahvid Best (12 for 14), Ryan Mathews (12 for 45) and Mike Tolbert (12 for 35).
The only team to find success running the ball against Minnesota this year has been Tampa Bay (LeGarrette Blount gained 71 yards and scored twice), but the Vikings do not compare to San Francisco's run defense. No team has run the ball into the end zone against San Francisco -- the only NFL defense able to claim that -- and the 49ers have made star backs look like scrubs. Last week it was LeSean McCoy (nine carries for 18 yards), the week before it was Cedric Benson (17 for 64). And only once have the 49ers surrendered a run of 20 or more yards.