Analysis  

 

Five running backs who could lead a playoff push in 2012

This Era of the Quarterback -- and the rules and strategies that have opened up passing games -- has diminished the value of running backs. The Saints, Colts, Packers, Steelers, Giants and Patriots played in the past three Super Bowls without a standout ball carrier, so to some degree, that argument holds water.

But some teams don't have an elite quarterback like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli or Peyton Manning, though, and have to be more reliant on the ground attack -- if not a stud running back like Houston's Arian Foster -- to push into the playoffs. There could be another weakness, like a subpar receiving corps, that further strengthens a running back's value.

There are a handful of teams that are almost good enough to make a playoff push and it could be the production of a running back that leads to a breakthrough in 2012. Let's examine:

Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans

In his fourth season, CJ2K totaled career-lows with 1,047 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. He simply wasn't the same player. His holdout didn't help, and neither did getting just 262 carries. The interior offensive line play and a shift in offensive philosophy also played a role. With Johnson participating in offseason workouts and being in the second year of offensive coordinator Chris Palmer's system, it shouldn't matter if Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker starts at quarterback. Johnson should be a difference maker.

The Titans were on the verge of making the playoffs last season, finishing a game behind the Texans. If the defense continues to improve and free-agent guard Steve Hutchinson has enough left to stabilize the offensive line, a rebound year from Johnson -- especially if he builds on a career-best 57 catches in 2011 -- could help Tennessee emerge as a sleeper that nobody is talking about right now.

Roy Helu, Washington Redskins

A rookie quarterback's best friend is a good running game, and Helu could deliver enough relief to Robert Griffin III to ease his transition and keep opponents off balance. Helu led Washington with 640 yards on 151 carries. With more totes expected in Mike Shanahan's zone-read run scheme -- and a quarterback that is a threat to alter defenses because of his ability to run -- Helu could surpass 1,000 yards, maybe easily.

Washington's defense is good enough. If Griffin can minimize turnovers and strike in the passing game off run-action spurred by an effective Helu, the Redskins might finally turn the corner.

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Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

Lynch rushed for 12 touchdowns and 1,204 yards last season, and the Seahawks still finished 7-9. Not much has changed in that Seattle is still unsteady at quarterback, regardless of whether Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson or Russell Wilson starts. The rising defense could be better and more opportunistic, and if one of the quarterbacks minimizes turnovers, it could provide enough low-risk opportunity for Lynch's production to translate into wins.

Every opponent knows slowing Lynch is the first priority, but that was the case last season, too. If the quarterback play improves moderately, more opportunities could open up for Lynch and he could be even more productive.

Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

Offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp has taken heat at previous stops for not being overly imaginative in his play calling, but numerous coaches and executives in the NFL say his zone-blocking, West Coast offensive scheme could cause major problems given the Raiders' talent.

McFadden appears fully recovered from a nasty foot injury that sidelined him and sacked the Raiders after a strong start in 2011. He could flourish with the stretch runs that lead to quick-hitting gains or big-chunk cutbacks in Knapp's scheme. Oakland won't throw the ball a ton with Carson Palmer, but it will take shots downfield. New head coach Dennis Allen will tighten up a lot of the confusion that plagued the Raiders' defense, and if it can make more timely plays, McFadden could have more opportunities.

Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

Coach Norv Turner is expecting big things from Mathews, who quietly totaled 1,546 yards (455 receiving) and six touchdowns last season.

"I am putting a lot of pressure on Ryan the way I'm talking about him," Turner said. "He's grown the past two years -- now it's time."

Mathews had an arthroscopic procedure after the season that Turner declined to specify, but having him in the facility to rehab has resulted in Mathews being in the best shape he's been in since being drafted in the first round in 2010. Yes, this team has a highly capable quarterback in Philip Rivers. But this is a make-or-break year for Turner, and with a roster that lost wide receiver Vincent Jackson and running back Mike Tolbert in free agency, Mathews will be asked to do more.

The Chargers will have to improve defensively, especially since every team in the division appears to be getting better on offense. Mathews can ease that burden somewhat by moving the chains on the ground and in the short passing game.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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