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RB Index, Week 7: Dynamic RB duos extending QB careers

It sure is nice to be a quarterback these days. Not only do they get all the guaranteed money and endorsement deals, but it seems like the older they get, the better they play.

Now, some might argue that last part is because defenders can't hit quarterbacks anymore (tell that to Deshaun Watson), but I think it's actually because all these older passers are blessed with some of the most dynamic running back duos the league has ever seen. In fact, these tandems are one of the major reasons age-defying veterans like Tom Brady and Drew Brees are having so much success this late in their careers.

As a former league rushing champion who was once the focal point of an offense, I have to admit I hate the idea of running back committees. I want the ball. Period. But I can't ignore the fact that having two dynamic, interchangeable backs makes offenses so much harder to defend. With two versatile backs at the ready, quarterbacks always have a fresh player to target, which keeps defenses on their heels. In addition, offenses can avoid tipping off defenses based on down, distance or personnel packages because either back can pose a threat in the run and pass games. Finally, these QBs are able to avoid taking big hits by checking down before rushers close in, allowing their elusive backs to pick up chunk yards when mismatched with a linebacker or safety in coverage. I saw the difference a good tandem can make firsthand when I operated out of the backfield with Fred Taylor in Jacksonville for three years (2006-08). We combined for 1,970 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 2007, leading the franchise to a playoff appearance (and postseason win).

Right now, there are seven starting quarterbacks in the NFL who are at least 34 years old: Brady (41), Brees (39), Eli Manning (37), Philip Rivers (36), Ben Roethlisberger (36), Alex Smith (34) and Aaron Rodgers (34). Brady's Patriots lead the NFL in average RB touches per game, while the Chargers (third), Redskins (fifth) and Saints (13th) are all above the league average in that category. These four teams are a combined 15-7 this year, with Rivers (Melvin Gordon-Austin Ekeler), Brady (James White-Sony Michel) and Brees (Alvin Kamara-Mark Ingram) all legitimate MVP candidates thanks in part to their RB committees.

Unlike other backfield tandems around the league that feature players with complementary skill sets, such as the one in Tennessee -- a physical, 6-foot-3, 247-pound Derrick Henry and shifty, 5-foot-8 pass-catcher Dion Lewis -- the Saints are just as happy to hand the ball off to Kamara as they are to Ingram, and the same goes for utilizing them as receivers. Shoot, even Adrian Peterson, who has never been known for his great hands, is getting involved in the Redskins' air attack, as he's averaging 19.4 yards per reception this season (his career average is 8.3).

The Giants (19th), Packers (26th) and Steelers (27th) rank below the league average in RB touches per game, but to be fair, these units haven't had two dynamic backs, either.

The Steelers have been without All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell, who has yet to sign his franchise tender, this season, but the hope is that he'll be back with the team before the Nov. 13 deadline (if he doesn't sign by that date, by rule, Bell can't play for the remainder of the season). Thus, like the Saints' duo, which will surely rank higher in RB touches per game by season's end now that Ingram and Kamara have been reunited (Ingram was suspended for the first four games), the Steelers' running backs will be taking on a much heavier workload whenever Bell returns. The Steelers haven't consistently kept their RBs involved during the first six games, too often letting Big Ben throw the ball all over the yard -- to mixed results. (Pittsburgh is 3-0-1 when James Conner has touched the ball 20 or more times and 0-2 when he hasn't.) Relying solely on Roethlisberger's arm is no longer a recipe for success, and the team has to know it. That's why I can't wait to see how scary this unit looks when the Steelers are feeding Bell and Conner the ball all game long.

As good as Saquon Barkley has been so far -- and he's been phenomenal -- the Giants have too many problem areas right now (something my colleague David Carr outlined earlier this week), so I'm not sure there's a running back tandem in the world that could extend Eli's career the way things are currently going. And with Rodgers in Green Bay, I can't remember the last time he had one dynamic back to help him out, let alone two. So unfortunately for the 34-year-old, he'll have to continue to shoulder the load for that unit and figure out ways to elevate guys like Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery to help reduce some of the burden.

The proof is in the pudding. So, to all the front offices out there, bulk up that backfield if you intend to keep your quarterback around.

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 7.

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week's rankings.

Previous rank: No. 1

It's hard to believe Gurley had a career day with everything he's already accomplished, but he did. The Rams back amassed a remarkable 208 rushing yards with two touchdowns against the Broncos last week. The last time a Rams player rushed for over 200 yards and scored twice in one game was Marshall Faulk in 2001. Not too shabby.

 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 129 att | 623 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 21 rec | 247 rec yds | 2 rec TDs 

Previous rank: No. 5

Gordon gets more physical with every passing day, and he's making defenses pay. He wore down the Browns' defense for 132 yards on the ground and three touchdowns. Gordon is meeting expectations in the run game and exceeding them in the pass game in his fourth season.

 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 91 att | 466 rush yds | 5.1 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 30 rec | 279 rec yds | 3 rec TDs 

Previous rank: No. 3

In the Chiefs' loss to the Patriots, Hunt had a whopping 185 scrimmage yards, the third-most in a game in his career. This week, he'll attempt to outduel fellow 2017 draftee Joe Mixon for bragging rights.

 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 103 att | 456 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 10 rec | 171 rec yds | 2 rec TDs 

Previous rank: No. 4

With 811 scrimmage yards this season, the rookie ranks second in the league to only Todd Gurley. Barkley could build off his career-high outing (229 scrimmage yards vs. Philly) this weekend against a struggling Falcons defense, which has allowed 121.7 rush yards per game.

 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 84 att | 438 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 40 rec | 373 rec yds | 2 rec TDs 

Previous rank: No. 8

The Elliott-led Cowboys offense sent the smack-talking Jaguars home in silence after a 40-7 pounding in Jerry World. Dallas is finally looking like the dominant offensive unit it was in 2016.

 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 117 att | 586 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 23 rec | 166 rec yds | 1 rec TD 

Previous rank: No. 2

Kamara slides not because of his play but due to his lack of touches last time out, with a season-low nine in the Saints' Week 5 win over Washington.

 **2018 stats:** 5 games | 62 att | 299 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 38 rec | 351 rec yds | 1 rec TD 

Previous rank: No. 14

With Le'Veon Bell yet to report, Conner is definitely taking advantage of his opportunities. He's provided a great spark to the offense, especially in last week's win over Cincinnati when he had 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 103 att | 453 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 26 rec | 257 rec yds | 0 rec TDs 

Previous rank: No. 11

Averaging 108.8 scrimmage yards per game, Mixon will need to have a big-time performace to help the Bengals keep pace with the Chiefs on Sunday. Fortunately for him, the second-year back is facing a defense that ranks 27th against the run.

 **2018 stats:** 4 games | 71 att | 336 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 13 rec | 99 rec yds | 1 rec TD 

Previous rank: No. 7

McCaffrey couldn't get going against the Redskins and wasn't able to gain 90 scrimmage yards in a game for the first time this season. The Panthers need to stay the course with their run-first offense, even if Cam Newton's favorite target (tight end Greg Olsen) is back.

 **2018 stats:** 5 games | 71 att | 349 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 34 rec | 238 rec yds | 1 rec TD 

Previous rank: No. 13

The Redskins are 3-0 when Peterson rushes for at least 90 yards. They'd be wise to keep leaning on the veteran, who's excelling behind a stout run-blocking offensive line.

 **2018 stats:** 5 games | 77 att | 339 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 7 rec | 136 rec yds | 0 rec TDs 

Previous rank: Not ranked

Michel had a quiet start to his rookie season but has provided the Patriots with a consistent ground game of late. As I mentioned above, the Patriots running backs are getting a league-high 33 touches per game -- as if they needed another offensive strength -- with Michel getting the most love with 19.4 touches per game.

 **2018 stats:** 5 games | 91 att | 400 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 3 rec | 18 rec yds | 0 rec TDs 

Previous rank: Not ranked

He's been heating up for the Bears, recording more than 120 scrimmage yards in each of the last two games. It's not too surprising since Cohen is a viable weapon who is tough to tackle in space. We should see Matt Nagy start to utilize the dual threat more going forward.

 **2018 stats:** 5 games | 32 att | 170 rush yds | 5.3 ypc | 1 rush TD | 21 rec | 259 rec yds | 1 rec TD 

Previous rank: No. 6

The Browns couldn't get anything going against the Chargers, but they must find a way to get back in the win column. It starts with the run game and Hyde, who has a major challenge this week against the Buccaneers' fifth-ranked run defense.

 ***UPDATE:** The Browns traded Hyde to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 2019 fifth-round pick on Friday, sources told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.* 
 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 114 att | 382 rush yds | 3.4 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 6 rec | 29 rec yds | 0 rec TDs 

Previous rank: No. 12

White always seems to chime in with a big play at the opportune time. He's been a big part of a running back committee that's gaining 181.7 scrimmage yards per game this season -- third in the NFL behind the Rams and 49ers.

 **2018 stats:** 6 games | 29 att | 149 rush yds | 5.1 ypc | 1 rush TD | 37 rec | 323 rec yds | 4 rec TDs 

Previous rank: No. 10

What a painful goal-line fumble in last week's overtime loss. There is no excuse for that. Howard needs to turn it around if the Bears plan to stay atop the NFC North. He's averaging just 3.5 yards per carry this season, a yard less than his career average.

 **2018 stats:** 5 games | 78 att | 272 rush yds | 3.5 ypc | 1 rush TD | 10 rec | 78 rec yds | 0 rec TDs 

Dropped out:T.J. Yeldon, Jaguars (previously No. 9); Isaiah Crowell, Jets (No. 15).

The Ground Index delivered by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Check out the FedEx Ground NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote.

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