Indy (6-4) currently sits atop the AFC South, thanks to a Week 7 win over the Houston Texans (6-4). But the Colts hit Houston for a rematch on Thursday night, and the winner will walk away with the division lead. You can bet Indianapolis will feel the absence of a huge component of its fourth-ranked ground game this time around.
Mack has led the run-first Colts all season, but the third-year back will be out at least this week (and likely longer) after fracturing his hand in this past Sunday's win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Mack underwent surgery Monday, and while he'll eventually be able to play with a splint on his hand, there is currently no timetable for his return. It's a big blow to the Colts, who just got quarterback Jacoby Brissett back on the field. Mack had totaled 862 rushing yards (fifth in the NFL), including 109 on just 14 carries last weekend.
The Colts did, however, get a glimpse on Sunday of the guy who's most likely to receive the majority of Mack's snaps while the RB1 is sidelined. Backup Jonathan Williams set a career high in rushing yards (116, on 13 carries) in relief against the Jaguars in Week 11. Prior to that inspired outing, Williams had logged a grand total of 32 carries for 95 yards and one touchdown over his entire four-year career. Considering the Colts' standing and the fact that they are playing without Mack, there is a ton of pressure on Williams to produce.
That's why Williams is the league's most important running back down the stretch.
Williams will share the backfield with Jordan Wilkins, who was out last week with an ankle injury, and Nyheim Hines, who is more of a change-of-pace back. This role, with Williams serving as an NFL RB1, is new to the 25-year-old. A fifth-round draft pick for the Bills back in 2016, Williams has already spent time on four NFL teams (Buffalo, Denver, New Orleans and Indianapolis). He's been with the Colts organization since October of 2018, but he's rarely been active on game days. On Sunday, though, I saw the same elusive, quick, punishing back I recall from Williams' days at Arkansas. When he had space, he made the Jags' defense pay. When he didn't have space, he created some for positive gains. A lot of Williams' success will come by way of the Colts' great offensive line and scheme.
Williams isn't the only important running back over the final six weeks of the 2019 regular season. (Let's be honest, all running backs are important!) But here are two others who are extremely crucial to their respective teams' success going forward:
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams: This season, Gurley is averaging five touches and 40 scrimmage yards per game fewer than he did in 2018. The thing is, although his touches have decreased, his production is similar. Last week against the Chicago Bears, Gurley had a season-high 25 carries (his previous high was 18 back in Week 7) and was a major reason the Rams won that game. With the Rams currently holding the seventh seed in the NFC playoff picture, it's time Sean McVay starts to utilize Gurley's abilities to the fullest. I understand that he's been banged up over the last year, but Super Bowl windows are only open for so long. The Rams must do everything in their power to get back to the promised land, and it all starts with giving your best player the ball.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: Right now, he's ninth in the league in rushing with 832 yards, but this is typically the time of year when Henry really gets going. In Weeks 12 through 17 last season, Henry averaged 6.2 yards per carry and 109.2 rush yards per game, racking up eight touchdowns in the process. He's a beast to tackle, especially in cold weather, and he'll have to continue to run well to keep the Titans' playoff hopes alive.
Now, let's get to the weekly rankings ...
Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2018 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 12.
The Panthers RB more than his did part in Sunday's lopsided loss, racking up 121 yards through the air and another 70 on the ground to reclaim the scrimmage yards lead (1,576) from Dalvin Cook (1,472). It's not McCaffrey's fault his quarterback threw four picks, or that his defense couldn't stop Calvin Ridley or Julio Jones. Maybe the Panthers should line him up at corner, too. I mean the guy's already doing everything else for this team, why not have him play both ways?
The Broncos' defense bottled up the third-year back on Sunday, limiting him to his lowest rushing total (26 yards) and second-fewest yards from scrimmage (57) of the season. He did manage to hit paydirt, though, scoring one of the Vikings' four straight touchdowns in their epic 1-in-100 -- literally -- comeback win.
In a tough, gritty AFC North game against a hated rival, Chubb toted the rock a season-high 27 times to help the Cleveland Browns grind out a difficult and needed win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's now posted five straight games with 20 or more carries, and with Thursday's 92-yard effort, has earned the first -- but definitely not his last -- 1,000-rushing-yard season of his career.
Somebody in the Bay Area please buy Mike Mayock a drink, because that man crushed the 2019 NFL Draft. As productive as rookies Maxx Crosby, Foster Moreau and Hunter Renfrow have been this season, Jacobs has been next level. The 24th overall pick posted his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the year on Sunday, more than all other rookie running backs combined, and has continued to put highlight after highlight on his season reel.
Fresh off a bye (and before that, his best game of the season, when he put up 188 yards and 2 TDs on 23 carries), Henry should keep on rolling Sunday against a Jacksonville defense that just allowed Marlon Mack and Jonathan Williams to both eclipse the 100-yard mark. Henry tends to run hot as the season goes on, with four of his six career 100-yard rushing games coming after Week 10, including a 238-yard effort last year against ... you guessed it, the Jags.
For the first time in his illustrious career, Elliott was limited to under 50 yards rushing in back-to-back games -- not exactly what Jerry Jones was hoping for when he made his RB1 the highest-paid back in the league in September. Zeke is still averaging 4.3 yards per carry, but he's clearly taken a backseat to Dak Prescott of late. If yards on the ground continue to be so hard to come by, I'd like to see OC Kellen Moore cue up some more passes for Elliott, who's been targeted just six times in the last three games.
I hope Jones spent the bye week resting and relaxing, because the Packers will need to lean on him big-time come Sunday night. Against the 49ers' second-ranked pass defense, Green Bay will have to feed Jones the football and let him drive the offense. His TD numbers above will have to total 16 or 17 by weekend's end if the Pack hope to come out of San Francisco with a W.
Carson's averaging the fourth-most rushing yards per game since Week 5 (98.5) but is tied for 15th in touchdowns (3). Russ has gotta stop hogging all the TDs! Hard to see the RB's scoring numbers increasing this week with a road matchup against the Eagles' stout run D on tap.
Ingram is running with power, vision and an eye for the end zone this season, showing he's a perfect piece for this game-changing Ravens offense. I know his stats from the past couple weeks might not be the flashiest, but his impact goes beyond just his on-field production. He's a veteran leader, who's doing everything he can to support his MVP-caliber QB -- even conducting hyped-up press conference intros.
Before you get up in my business about including a guy who's set to miss some time with a fractured hand, remember the man just ran for 109 yards and a TD on 7.8 yards per. He's been essential to the Colts' success this year, in large part because of his ultra reliability with the rock: He's one of just two RBs (Christian McCaffrey) with 175 or more attempts and zero fumbles lost. That's pretty good company to keep.
As I mentioned earlier, the Rams finally relied on Gurley's legs to win the game last week against the Bears. Gurley won the Rams a ton of games in 2018, so they'd be wise to continue running the offense through him. And he should be ready and even more effective down the stretch, having had a lighter load early in the season. If the Rams are to defeat the Ravens on Monday night, Gurley must get the opportunities to be a major factor.
Fournette was effective early on with an average of 102.1 rush yards per game over the first seven games. He hasn't been even close to the same guy in the last three games, though, averaging 46.3 rush yards per game. I get that Nick Foles is back, but that doesn't mean the run game can disappear. If anything, you'd think his QB's return would motivate him more. With the Jags' playoff hopes slipping away quickly, Fournette has no room for error.
The Texans' run game was perhaps the only thing working last time out. Deshaun Watson was routinely pressured and extremely limited by the Ravens' defense, but Hyde was able to find some success on the ground. He totaled 65 rush yards on nine carries (7.2 yards per carry), including a 41-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Texans' only score. I'm sure Bill O'Brien wants to erase last week and focus on facing the Colts, so let's do that. Hyde could be a deciding factor in this game, especially if teams continue to find ways to limit Watson like the Ravens did.
Gordon was sluggish in his first four games back after ending his holdout. Luckily, for him and the Chargers, his play has improved immensely over the last three games. He's had 56 carries for 257 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and three rush TDs in that span. Now on a bye week, Gordon's got to kick it in gear to leave a lasting impression as he heads into a big offseason.
I've got to give the Bengals some love, and Mixon's earned it with his play over the last two games, averaging 100 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. With the final spot in my rankings changing by the week, Mixon must keep at least that pace against the Steelers to fend off the likes of Alvin Kamara and Adrian Peterson.