Around the NFL  

 

Most improved rushing attacks: Titans, Texans rising

Print

Immediately after the new league year's free agency and draft period, Around The NFL handed out awards for the best performances by scouts and general managers during the roster-reconstruction phase of March and April. Three months later, offseason practices and training camp reports have advanced our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each team.

Now that camps are wrapping up, it's the perfect time to study which position groups across the NFL appear to be significantly improved heading into the 2016 season. Let's start with the backfields, where the AFC South is leading a resurgence this summer.

1) Tennessee Titans

Which is the more damning statistic: that Antonio Andrews' 520 yards were the second-lowest of any team's leading rusher last season, or that quarterback Marcus Mariota's 252 rushing yards were good for the second-highest total on the Titans? This backfield has graduated from a picture of ineptitude to a frightening "Thunder and Thunder" attack that gashed the Chargers defense for a league-best 288 yards in the first week of the preseason.

This ranking isn't just reflective of a dominant showing versus a vanilla defense in a meaningless August contest, though. Planning to take advantage of the league's passing fancy, the Titans constructed their 2016 roster with the idea of pushing smaller, quicker nickel and dime defenses around via brute force. Veteran trade acquisition DeMarco Murray is flashing smooth, pre-Philadelphia form, while linebacker-sized rookie Derrick Henry resembles Jamaal Charles on superhero juice.

"You are talking about every down, we've got a fresh, physical player running the football or blocking for us," Titans coach Mike Mularkey crowed after the draft. "It's a really nice thing to have."

Don't be surprised if the Titans vault from 25th in rushing to pacing the entire league with their run-first, smashmouth offense.

2) Houston Texans

When Arian Foster went down with a season-ending Achilles tear last October, coach Bill O'Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey were forced to use smoke and mirrors to generate a ground attack. Special teams ace Alfred Blue was asked to churn out tough yards in the trenches, Jonathan Grimes assumed passing-down duties and the occasional pitch-out, Akeem Hunt was tried as a satellite back and wideout Cecil Shorts even experimented with the Wildcat.

If all goes according to plan in Houston, none of those players will have a major backfield role this season. Foster was released -- the veteran has since landed with the Dolphins -- and Lamar Miller was signed to handle feature-back duties after going unappreciated and underutilized under three different offensive coordinators (and two head coaches) in Miami. When Miller needs a breather -- especially on passing downs -- the Texans can turn to athletically explosive fourth-round pick Tyler Ervin, a multi-phase weapon with speed, elusiveness and big-play potential, in the change-of-pace role. An offense that had been overly reliant upon receiver DeAndre Hopkins added four players with game-breaking speed, enabling O'Brien and Godsey to open the playbook in 2016.

3) Dallas Cowboys

Jason Garrett was Troy Aikman's backup quarterback during the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s, witnessing first-hand the effects of a dominant rushing attack on the team's quest for league supremacy. As head coach, Garrett oversaw a return to that style of play in Dallas two seasons ago, with DeMarco Murray capturing Offensive Player of the Year honors on his NFC East-winning squad. The Cowboys aim to recapture that success behind No. 4 overall draft pick Ezekiel Elliott, viewed by many as the most complete running back prospect of the past decade.

Elliott's ability to run power as well as zone gives offensive coordinator Scott Linehan a chance to keep defenses guessing. In the event of an injury, Linehan can turn to proven veterans Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden, with the latter having authored more 100-yard rushing games than any player save Adrian Peterson (who had seven) and Todd Gurley (who tied McFadden with five) last season.

With Elliott leading the backfield and Dez Bryant winning on the outside, Tony Romo is set up to direct a well-balanced offense, capable of converting third down after third down to burn the clock, shorten games and keep a suspect Dallas defense off the field.

4) Jacksonville Jaguars

T.J. Yeldon might have drawn comparisons to Le'Veon Bell as a rookie in 2015, but his game lacked the dynamic playmaking ability of the Steelers' All-Pro-caliber back. Perhaps more disconcerting, the Jaguars were especially reluctant to use Yeldon near the goal line. Enter former Jets bruiser Chris Ivory, who has long inspired comparisons to Marshawn Lynch for his reckless, tackle-breaking style.

Whereas Lynch was an improbable picture of durability for a half-decade in Seattle, Ivory tends to wear down under the weight of nagging injuries deeper into the season. Landing in Jacksonville with a limited workload as Yeldon's between-the-tackles sidekick should increase his efficiency as well as his durability. Throw in an up-and-coming aerial attack featuring one of the NFL's best young receiver duos, and Blake Bortles could be directing a pick-your-poison offense in 2016.

5) Baltimore Ravens

By the end of last season, coach John Harbaugh's squad was down its top two quarterbacks (Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub), top two running backs (Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro), top two receivers (Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman) and top two tight ends (Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore). What a difference eight months make.

Baltimore's preseason opener showed the contrast in depth between the backfields of the Ravens and Panthers. While Carolina is in dire straits if Jonathan Stewart goes down, Baltimore might be forced to cut ties with a quality runner when the final roster is set. General manager Ozzie Newsome has selected a fourth-round running back in each of the past three drafts while hitting the lottery with undersized veteran Forsett as an afterthought free-agent signing in 2014. Given how impressive Terrance West has been in training camp and the first preseason game -- running downhill with decisiveness, vision and burst -- it's reasonable to believe Newsome has another successful reclamation project on his hands.

In an ideal world, West proves too effective to stash on the bench, teaming with passing-down specialist Buck Allen as a productive one-two punch while leaving impressive rookie Kenneth Dixon as a change-of-pace option. Still on the active/PUP list with a foot injury, power back Taliaferro appears to be the odd man out of the early-season rotation.

Honorable mention: Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals.

Print