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RB Index, Week 8: To help Lamar Jackson, Ravens MUST get more from the run game

The Ravens don't have a single running back averaging more than 36 yards per game -- and yet, they rank fourth in the NFL in rushing as a team, with 149.4.

This incredible statistic can be explained by the presence of all-world quarterback Lamar Jackson, who ranks sixth in rushing (480 yards) through Week 7 and is on pace for his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. He's helped the Ravens to a 5-2 record heading into their Week 8 bye, inserting himself into the MVP conversation -- and to say he's done more with less would be an understatement.

With injuries ravaging the running back group (J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill were all lost for the year prior to Week 1), Baltimore turned to a cadre of veterans (Latavius Murray, Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman) and rookie Ty'Son Williams. But the replacements haven't really shown up. Since Week 4, the Ravens' RBs are tied for 30th in the NFL in yards per carry (3.4) and rank 27th in rushing yards over expected (-54). Jackson, meanwhile, accounted for nearly half of the team's rushing yards in that span, in which the Ravens went 3-1.

Jackson can lift Baltimore to victory against most NFL teams, but he'll need help against playoff contenders. We saw that in the Ravens' Week 7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who overtook the top spot in the AFC, with Jackson putting up 88 of his team's 111 rushing yards in the loss. A lack of support on the ground also helped lead to Baltimore's early exit last postseason.

Murray has had the largest role of the veteran backs, logging 33 carries for 120 yards and two TDs his last three games, but an ankle issue sidelined him in Week 7, while Bell (17 attempts, 34 yards, one TD in three games) and Freeman (15 attempts, 72 yards, two TDs in four games since Week 4) have failed to leave their stamps on the unit. Williams, on the other hand, has taken a backseat -- he was even inactive in Week 6 -- after having a breakout Week 2 performance. Williams has had a measly 16 yards on six carries in October.

Something must change. The question is, what?

Many observers would no doubt like to see the Ravens deal for a running back before the Nov. 2 trade deadline, but I don't necessarily think that's the way to move forward here. First and foremost, offensive coordinator Greg Roman must get Williams more involved -- even when Murray returns from injury. He's averaging 5.5 yards per carry this season, and his physical, downhill rushing style provides a nice complement to Jackson's. Giving his carries to a veteran crew that hasn't been as efficient doesn't make a ton of sense.

But I'm also not ready to give up on the vets. Roman must use Bell and Freeman in different ways and put them in favorable positions in an effort to lessen Jackson's load. It's clear Bell, whose style doesn't match what the Ravens want to do in the run game, isn't the same player he was in his Pittsburgh heyday. Still, his greatest asset was always his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield -- and yet, he's been targeted just three times in Baltimore so far. Why not use him more on draws, screens or counters, so he can pick up chunk yards via his vision and stop-start quickness, or line him up out wide? Freeman, meanwhile, is a one-cut slasher and good check-down option for Jackson. This pair of vets can still provide a spark, even if the bulk of the usage should go to Williams.

I know it's not ideal, but Baltimore has to figure out how to squeeze more production out of the backs on hand. Hopefully Murray will get healthy, Williams will step up and Freeman and/or Bell will click somehow. The Ravens' schedule toughens up considerably from Week 12 on, with five division contests (two each vs. the Browns and Steelers, a home game vs. the Bengals) and two games against current NFC playoff contenders (Packers and Rams) in that stretch.

The time is now to get the rushing attack back on track -- or things could get quite bumpy down the stretch.

Top 15 running backs

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 2021 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 8.

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

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans

2021 stats: 7 games | 191 att | 869 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 10 rush TD | 18 rec | 154 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles

Henry didn't have his best performance against the Chiefs, but he didn't need to. The Titans got the win, and he's still the most dominant player in the league right now. Here's how he compares to the last four backs to win MVP through seven games:

Table inside Article
Player Season Scrimmage yds Scrimmage TDs
Derrick Henry 2021 1,023 10
Adrian Peterson 2012 787 3
LaDainian Tomlinson 2006 959 11
Shaun Alexander 2005 808 12
Marshall Faulk 2000 1,182 10
Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys

2021 stats: 6 games | 102 att | 521 rush yds | 5.1 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 16 rec | 105 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles

I love the way Zeke is playing, and he should look even more dynamic coming off a week of rest. He's logged four consecutive games with 100-plus scrimmage yards, and there's a good chance that streak continues against a Vikings defense that's allowing 358.3 yards per game in 2021.

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts

2021 stats: 7 games | 105 att | 579 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 5 rush TD | 18 rec | 213 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles 

After losing a fumble on his first carry of the game, Taylor came through for the Colts during a slog fest with the San Francisco 49ers. He finished the game with 18 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown to help Indianapolis improve to 3-4. He also jumped up to No. 2 in the league in rushing yards.

Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints

2021 stats: 6 games | 114 att | 419 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 1 rush TD | 25 rec | 241 rec yds | 4 rec TDs | 0 fumbles

Kamara was a jack of all trades Monday night, logging 20 carries for 51 yards and 10 catches for 128 yards and a TD to help the Saints win back-to-back games for the first time this season. With the tremendous effort, Kamara reached 3,000 rushing yards and 3,000 receiving yards in 66 career games, the fewest games to reach both milestones in NFL history -- breaking the previous mark set by Roger Craig (70 games).

Joe Mixon
Cincinnati Bengals · RB

2021 stats: 7 games | 123 att | 539 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TD | 13 rec | 90 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble

The Bengals' offense is firing on all cylinders with a balanced attack spearheaded by Joe Burrow's arm and Joe Mixon's legs. The latter has battled injury but has delivered each time he's stepped on the field. Mixon has scored a touchdown in four straight games (the longest streak of career).

Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · RB

2021 stats: 7 games | 89 att | 404 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 26 rec | 184 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 2 fumbles

There's a lot of pressure on Jones heading into Thursday night's game against Arizona, with Davante Adams and Allen Lazard on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The good thing is, the Pro Bowl running back has performed well in games without the Packers' WR1, posting nine scrimmage TDs in six such games since 2019. We can break that down even further:

Jones' numbers with Adams since '19: 4.0 targets/game, 3.0 rec/game, 21.9 rec ypg

Jones' numbers without Adams since '19: 6.0 targets/game, 4.8 rec/game, 56.2 rec ypg

James Robinson
Jacksonville Jaguars · RB

2021 stats: 6 games | 84 att | 460 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 5 rush TD | 17 rec | 116 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Robinson has leveled up the last four games, scoring five rushing touchdowns and averaging 5.71 yards per carry over 68 attempts. He has an opportunity to continue his high production this week against a Seahawks defense that was just run over by the Saints.

Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · RB

2021 stats: 4 games | 80 att | 366 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 2 rush TD | 12 rec | 73 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Since 2020, Cook has logged 10 games with at least 100 rush yards, second-most in the NFL, despite missing four games. Coming off the bye week, the Vikings host the Dallas Cowboys, against whom Cook has averaged 26.5 carries and 106 rushing yards per game in two career contests. 

Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers

2021 stats: 6 games | 73 att | 356 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 4 rush TD | 27 rec | 242 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles

In two career games vs. New England, the Chargers' Week 8 opponent, Ekeler has only mustered up 44 yards on 10 attempts. Expect the veteran to have much different results this time around, simply because he's more confident and productive this year than he was in those first two meetings (2017, 2020).

Leonard Fournette
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · RB

2021 stats: 7 games | 93 att | 413 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TD | 27 rec | 222 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble

The Bucs have unlocked Fournette's potential in his second season with the team. With an 81-yard, one-TD performance in Sunday's win over the Bears, Fournette has logged consecutive games with at least 80 rush yards and one rush TD for the first time since Weeks 11-12 of 2018. It's good see the former fourth overall pick showing what he can do. 

Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · RB

2021 stats: 6 games | 102 att | 388 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 2 rush TD | 34 rec | 244 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles

The Steelers rookie has steadily improved each week and leads all first-year running backs in scrimmage (632) and rush yards (388). Coming out of the bye week, he'll have to show up against the Browns to help the Steelers work their way out of the division cellar.

Darrell Henderson
Los Angeles Rams · RB

2021 stats: 6 games | 96 att | 417 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 4 rush TD | 15 rec | 138 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles

The Rams let QB Matthew Stafford lead the way in his revenge game vs. Detroit, which limited Henderson to 15 carries for 45 yards. And though it was a bit of a letdown performance, he still ranks in the top 10 in rushing yards this season. 

James Conner
Arizona Cardinals · RB

2021 stats: 7 games | 89 att | 336 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 6 rush TD | 5 rec | 34 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble

Conner is slowly working his way into a bigger role within the Cardinals' offense. After averaging 40.2 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry in Weeks 1-5, Conner has been more efficient over the last two weeks, with 67.5 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. Providing Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense with balance will be essential down the road, and Conner gives us confidence that the unit will have it.

Tony Pollard
Dallas Cowboys · RB

2021 stats: 6 games | 61 att | 366 rush yds | 6.0 ypc | 1 rush TD | 15 rec | 115 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble

Pollard has been a key part of Dallas' rejuvenated rushing attack and leads all NFL running backs with 6.0 yards per carry (min. 50 attempts).

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · RB

2021 stats: 5 games | 60 att | 204 rush yds | 3.4 ypc | 5 rush TD | 14 rec | 110 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles

Jacobs was averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scored on an 8-yard TD run before exiting Sunday's game vs. the Eagles with a chest contusion. Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia said Jacobs "should be fine," but the running back also has the bye week to get right. 

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

The Ground Index presented by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Check out the weekly FedEx Air NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote after Sunday Night Football.

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