by Bill Barnwell
While watching Green Bay demolish Minnesota this week, I was very impressed at the ability of the Packers' offensive line to create holes for former Giants fourth-string back Ryan Grant to run through. When that hole was created, Grant looked every bit the legitimate NFL running back, running with authority and one simple rule: Get to the outside, away from where the Williams lie. That was only furthered once the Packers ran their second shovel pass of the afternoon and Pat Williams pretty much enveloped Grant, but Grant did a very nice job.
I was even more impressed when I considered the quality of the Vikings' rush defense. Even after last week's performance, their rushing defense DVOA is a miserly -32.2%, now second in the league behind Baltimore. In the entire DVOA era, that would put the 2007 Vikings rush defense seventh overall. So then, when you take a team that's been last in the league in raw rushing yardage for most of the year and see their afterthought of a running back go for 119 yards on 4.8 yards per carry, well, it's time to start doing some research.
In the essay I wrote on fantasy matchups in this year's book, I explained how matchups had a real effect on fantasy players that ranged anywhere from 15 percent to 33 percent, depending upon the position and intensity of the matchup. The essay unfortunately predicted Alex Smith would outscore Carson Palmer in Week 1, but overall, it's been pretty accurate when selecting which players to recommend or avoid in my Rotoworld column each week.
Using some of that data, let's drill down on running backs against those elite-level run defenses, and see how they perform and how unexpected Grant's performance was on Sunday.
First, to define the dataset, I'll be looking at the performance of every game where a running back carried the ball 15 or more times from 1996 to 2006, for a total of 3,939 games. Limiting the elite-level defenses to those with a DVOA greater than the Vikings presents serious sample-size issues, so we'll instead go with an admittedly arbitrary figure of ten percentage points below the Vikings figure, at -22.2% and worse.
There's a dramatic difference in performance when looking at those elite defenses versus the others, as you might expect. The average running back with 15-plus carries averages just over 15 fantasy points per game in a non-point per reception league against any given defense. Against the elite-level defenses, that falls to 12.3 fantasy points per game, a difference of 18 percent. Grant put up 19.9 fantasy points last week.
Where the difference is more dramatic is in rushing yards. Against the average defense, a runner with 15 or more carries in a game averages 4.18 yards per carry. When those runners come up against the elite defenses, they average 3.16 yards per carry, a full yard lower. Grant averaged 4.8 yards on 25 carries; only 10 of the 110 performances that qualified against the best rush defenses could do better than that.
So then, now that we've compiled the data, here's a list of arguably the most interesting fantasy rushing performances of the era against elite defenses:
1. Steven Jackson, 2006 Week 17, St. Louis vs. Minnesota: I'd argue this one shouldn't count. It was a meaningless game between two teams who'd been eliminated from playoff contention played in front of a half-empty stadium. It's also an incredible outlier -- Jackson ran for 142 yards, averaged 5.7 yards per carry, and scored four times en route to 40.6 fantasy points; no one else has put up more than 29.6 against defenses of this caliber. The record books count it, though, so it has to be the most impressive performance of the era.
2. Priest Holmes, 2001 Weeks 5 and 8, Kansas City vs. Pittsburgh and San Diego: Back in the glory days of Holmes and the Chiefs' offensive line, Priest put up mammoth days against both these teams -- 331 yards and three scores on 50 carries in the two games combined. Outside of these two games and the Jackson one, the yardage numbers are way down for the rest of these running backs -- Larry Johnson has one 120-yard day, Jamal Lewis has a 116-yard day, and no one else can get above 105 yards or so against these elite defenses, no matter how many carries they get.
3. Stephen Davis, 2000 Week 6, Washington vs. Baltimore: Davis' numbers on the day don't seem that great: 21 carries for 91 yards with five receiving yards and one touchdown is, really, no big whoop -- that is, until you consider that Davis was playing the absurdist Ravens rush defense that put up a -41.3% rushing DVOA against that year. The average yards per carry for the other guys brave enough to run 15 times against the Ravens that year: 2.87, 3.18, 2.94, 2.61, 3.61, 2.75, and 1.44. That makes Davis' 4.3 look like yeoman's work.
4. Bam Morris, 1998 Week 12, Kansas City vs. San Diego: Morris gets this for the absolute ugliness of his real-life line as opposed to his rather successful fantasy line: 23 carries, 39 yards, 3 touchdowns. He also threw in two receptions for zero yards in what must've been a glorious day for his DPAR. Sometimes, it's easy to understand why some people hate fantasy football.
5. Eddie George, 1998 Week 2, Tennessee vs. San Diego: This line actually happened before the Curse of 370, but it would sure fit in as a post-peak George line, too: 15 carries, 11 yards. How is that even possible? It's beautiful and impossible. I get the feeling a montage of George's runs in this game would make a great Youtube clip.
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Loser Leaguers of the Week
As we enter into the second half, let's see who did their new papas proud.
QB: It's always good to see a pair of zeros at the top of the leaderboard. Sure, negative figures are nice, but there's something beautiful about the ol' donut. There were two veteran quarterbacks at the end of their respective ropes with nothing this week, one losing the only real starting job he ever had, the other probably in his last year after a long career built around almost always starting. Damon Huard and Steve McNair have had entirely different career paths, but this week, they were both equal. In sucking.
RB: On the other hand, the two running backs tied for worst in the league have similar body-types and levels of performance, but they're at different points of their career. While Jamal Lewis appears to be holding the juggernaut offense of the Browns back, LenDale White is almost the only thing the Titans have on offense, as feeble as that seems. They both mustered a single point.
WR: No tie here. If you had faith in the Bengals slot receiver getting just enough opportunity to do nothing, well, you were rewarded this week with Antonio Chatman's two passes for eight yards. If you were slightly more conventional with your selecting, you may have gone for the still-striped Chris Chambers (two catches, 17 yards), Marty Booker (same), or Ashley Lelie (two catches, 18 yards).
K: There were rumblings of an Irrational Gostkowski-Vinatieri thread last week ... and then Monday rolled around, and it was silenced for at least a little while. Adam Vinatieri's two missed field goals and lone extra point make him the Losingest Loser of the Week with a whopping -3 points. Little ups go to Ryan Longwell and Joe Nedney, who each contributed nothing to the proceedings by virtue of their teams being shut out. Oh well.
Keep Choppin' Wood Award
After some debate on who should chop wood this week, the KCW Committee (me) decided that it was Vinatieri who was worthy of the prize this week. When you have the rep as the clutch kicker based upon four kicks you made, well, you've gotta get called out when you miss one. Small sample size goes both ways. Missing a 42-yard kick in the second quarter doesn't add much in the way of credit to Vinatieri's day.
1-2 last week, 12-14-1 overall
Thank god betting is illegal. Anyone want to do an old friend a favor and invoke the FOMBC this week?
Pittsburgh (-10) over NEW YORK JETS
Yeah, maybe I didn't learn my lesson about big favorites on the road last week, but ... these are the Jets we're talking about here.
INDIANAPOLIS (-15.5) over Kansas City
This is a bet based on two things: The giant gap between the Colts' and Chiefs' DVOA, mixed in with the fact that Peyton Manning is angry.
New York Giants (-3) over DETROIT
I know -- me? Bet on the Giants? It seems strange, too, but the Lions have the worst pass-blocking offensive line in football according to Adjusted Sack Rate, and the Giants can get enough pressure with the front four to make things miserable for Jon Kitna. It's a good matchup for them.