It's not just the Eagles -- running numbers are down all over

ByJohn Clayton ESPN logo
Monday, September 21, 2015

CINCINNATI -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones further minimized the value of running backs by lettingDeMarco Murray go to the Philadelphia Eagles after a 1,845-yard season. And now Murray is off to a terrible start. Based on the first two weeks of the season, Jones' economic platform regarding halfbacks hasn't been wrong, and the Eagles at least know they have company. Rushing numbers are down everywhere.

At least for now.

With one game left in Week 2, only eight backs have had a 100-yard game, with four so far this week. There were 12 in the first two weeks last year. This year's numbers so far are similar to 2013, when there were nine 100-yard games in the first two weeks and 97 100-yard games for the season.

Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly didn't hide from his running problems. It's hard to do so when Kelly is paying three backs a combined $15.2 million per year. The Eagles had 7 rushing yards on 17 carries in a 20-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys and Murray had 2 yards on 13 carries. The three backs actually combined for minus-2 yards on 15 carries, and at $8 million per year, Murray has 11 yards on 21 carries so far this season. But as Kelly noted, the offensive line was the issue. Murray has been hit at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield on 10 of his 21 carries, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Blocking is clearly the problem in Philadelphia, as it is for many teams around the league. And it tends to be an early-season issue.

The slow starts for backs actually go back to 2009, when teams started to rotate backs instead of sticking with one workhorse. Here are the Week 1 rushing numbers: 99.9 yards per team per game in 2009; 105.6 (2010); 105.25 (2011); 98.4 (2012); 93.2 (2013); 115.4 (2014); 105.3 (this year).

The numbers eventually improve as the season continues. The average team rushing yardage for all of those seasons combined (including the first two weeks of 2015) was 114.7 per game.

"As the year goes on, injuries affect defenses and make it easier to run," Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth told me Sunday. "Teams just need to work on the running game to continue to make it efficient. As time goes on, defenses aren't as efficient. Guys start running out of gas. When teams start rolling in different defenses, that's when the huge running starts coming."

The Bengals were above average on the ground in their 24-19 win over San Diego. Starting running back Jeremy Hill ran himself onto the bench with two fumbles, but Giovani Bernard came in and had 123 yards on 20 carries.

"When we're both clicking, it's a good thing to watch," Hill said. "We complement each other well with two polar-opposite styles. Anytime we can both get going, it's very good for our defense. I can't let the fumble affect me."

Adrian Peterson also got churning again, rushing for 134 yards in Week 2 after going for only 31 in Week 1. But overall, it has been a strange start for backs. Of the eight 100-yard games, four were by backs on teams that lost. Peterson, Bernard,Carlos Hyde of the 49ers andMatt Jonesof the Redskins were the only ones on winning teams. Two of the three 100-yard games Sunday were by backups -- Bernard and Matt Jones.

Early in the season, with fresh defenses, there's a sense for some that the running game will never get going. But we know it always does. The Seahawks parlayed good running into two trips to the Super Bowl. Kelly should get things figured out. Dallas will likely run without Tony Romo. Here in Cincy, coach Marvin Lewis has a good pair of running backs, just as he had in the past.

"A few years ago when I started out here, we had Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson," Lewis said. "Corey Dillon was a pretty doggone good one."

Those were the days. Now, it seems tougher than ever to get the running game cranked up.

Inside the Huddle

On the positive side, some rookie backs are starting to emerge. As mentioned above, Jones had 123 yards for the Redskins in a 24-10 victory over St. Louis.Melvin Gordon broke several long runs in his 16-carry, 88-yard effort in the Chargers' 24-19 loss to Cincinnati. T.J. Yeldon had 25 carries for 70 yards in Jacksonville's 23-20 upset of Miami. Duke Johnson rushed for 43 yards on 12 carries in Cleveland's 28-14 win over Tennessee. We'll see more from all of those guys.

Don't minimize what Chris Johnson is doing in the backfield for the Arizona Cardinals whileAndre Ellingtonis out with an injury. Johnson got the start in a 48-23 blowout of Chicago, and he may be playing for the long-term starting job. He had 72 yards on 20 carries.

Brandon Weeden was 7-for-7 filling in for Romo in the Cowboys' 20-10 win over Philadelphia. Still, I would expect at least a 10-point drop in scoring per game for the Cowboys under Weeden. Last year, the Cowboys averaged 30 points per game in Romo's starts. Weeden-led teams have averaged 15.2 in his career. Plus, he doesn't have WRDez Bryant.

During the offseason, I kept debating whether to make the Atlanta Falcons my surprise team to make the playoffs. They entered the year with the league's easiest schedule. They have Matt Ryan at quarterback. Opening wins against Philadelphia and the New York Giants indicate I might have been on to something. First-year coach Dan Quinn has seen his defense allow an average of 22 points in its first two games, and if it can maintain that average, this team can win at least nine games.

It's starting to look as if the NFC South is a two-way battle between the Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. The Buccaneers are too young to be considered a contender. The New Orleans Saints, who lost to Tampa 26-19 on Sunday, have dropped six consecutive home games. Drew Brees is struggling on deep passes, going 2-for-12 on throws of 15 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Too soon to make this call? We'll see.

Unless the New York Giants can improve their pass rush, it could be a long season. In the opener, the Giants didn't sack Romo and hit him only once. In the loss to Atlanta, they got to Ryan for two sacks and two hits. That lack of pressure allows for late comebacks led by good quarterbacks.

The impact of Terrell Suggs' season-ending Achilles injury was felt in the Ravens' 37-33 loss to Oakland. Raiders QBDerek Carr had a career day, throwing for 351 yards. He was sacked once and hit four times. Ravens linebackerElvis Dumervil was limited to one hit and no sacks. Overall, Baltimore's pass rush was mostly nonexistent.

It's no surprise the St. Louis Rams lost to the Washington Redskins24-10. The Rams have a young roster, and young teams are inconsistent, particularly on the road. The Rams' defensive line is great but has a tendency to give up too many rushing yards in chunks, perhaps due to a lack of gap discipline. The Redskins rushed for 182 yards and proved the Rams' D-line isn't perfect yet.

QB Cam Newton is a dual threat, and that worked well in Carolina's 24-17 win over Houston, but I have one concern. The Panthers let him run 10 times for 76 yards, but when he runs a lot, it usually affects his footwork in the passing game. He completed 18 of 37 passes for 195 yards. Still, the Panthers are 2-0.

The Miami Dolphins' habit of playing down to their opponents' level could lead to another 8-8 season. They face QBsKirk Cousins, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marcus Mariota and Ryan Mallett or Brian Hoyer in the first six games. A 6-0 record against that slate would not have been out of the question. But they've already suffered their first loss, against the Jaguars on Sunday, and they barely beat the Redskins in Week 1.

If Jay Cutler is going to miss a long period of time with his hamstring injury, the Bears might lose enough games to draft a quarterback high in next year's draft. In two games, the Bears have given up 79 points. With Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, the Bears can't match what they give up on defense.