A great season leads to new expectations and pressures the following year, and when you don't duplicate that production, it weighs on you. I know because I was in this situation in 2007, my second year in the league.
As a rookie, I flew under the radar as Fred Taylor's backup in Jacksonville and scored 16 total touchdowns (13 rushing, two receiving, one kickoff return for a score). Defenses adjusted to how I was being used within the offense and really stalled my production early the next season. Through the first three games of 2007, I had 156 yards on 39 touches and zero scores. It was mentally taxing trying to break out of this slump, and I remember being down on myself instead of being patient. I was pressing so hard and trying to get to the end zone on every opportunity rather than going through my reads and letting big plays develop.
In Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs, I finally hit pay dirt on a 52-yard touchdown run. The play was "Iso left" and I cut back to the right, found a crease and made the safety hesitate in the open field. To this day, that is one of my favorite touchdowns I've ever scored because of everything that led to that moment.
I got the monkey off my back, and I'd like to think it would've happened sooner had I not pressed or forced the issue so hard. I know I'm not the only player who's experienced this funk. In fact, some are going through it right now. Here are three running backs that I believe are pressing too much one quarter of the way into the 2021 NFL season.
The Raiders have a crowded backfield even with Josh Jacobs in and out of the lineup due to injury. Backup Peyton Barber leads the team in carries (37) but is slated to miss some time with mild turf toe. In Jacobs' two-game absence, Drake had 33 rushing yards on 15 carries and 79 receiving yards on eight receptions as the starter. Clearly, he's having more success as a receiver than he is as a rusher. The issue for Drake, who has yet to score this season, is scheme fit. Las Vegas utilizes a downhill, physical run game and Drake thrives as a matchup monster on screens and in the flat. He has to figure out how to tweak his game a bit -- like I had to -- to become more of a weapon in Jon Gruden's system.
Jones was the Buccaneers' RB1 for the bulk of Tom Brady's first season with the team, racking up 978 yards on 192 rushes (5.1 yards per carry) while adding seven rush TDs in 14 games. He went on the COVID-19 list for two games late in the year and lost his starting job to Leonard Fournette, who's been the featured back ever since, including during the Bucs' playoff run last season. This season, Jones fumbled in the season opener and has seen a limited role.
Through four games, Jones has just 21 carries for 77 rush yards (3.7 yards per carry). He began to make more of his opportunities last weekend against the Patriots, when he had 25 yards and his first rush TD of the season on six attempts. That's a good start, but he must build off the positive performance and avoid trying to do too much. The door is still open for Jones, as the Bucs rank 30th in the league in rushing with Fournette averaging 4.2 yards per carry and yet to find the end zone.
This offseason, I predicted Lindsay would benefit statistically from his relocation to Houston. That's not what's happened through the first quarter of the season. After registering 118 carries for 502 yards and a TD in 11 games last season with the Broncos, Lindsay has struggled mightily in Houston's crowded backfield. In four games, he has gained 31 yards on 24 carries for a dismal 1.3 yards per carry. Mark Ingram leads the team with 52 attempts for 171 yards (3.3 yards per carry) and David Johnson is second in rushing yards with 67 on 16 totes (4.2 yards per carry). Lindsay's in a tough spot because there is competition for every carry within his position group. There's a thin line between having a sense of urgency and pressing, and it's even tougher to navigate when you're relying on 10 other guys to do their jobs well so you can do yours. He's had too many bad plays, and when you only average six carries per game, it's hard to dig yourself out of that hole.
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 5.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week's rankings.
2021 stats: 4 games | 113 att | 510 rush yds | 4.51 ypc | 4 rush TD | 14 rec | 125 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
With a 17-game regular season, Henry is on pace for 2,167 rush yards, which would make him the first player in history to have multiple 2,000-yard rushing seasons. He should keep pace in Week 5 against the Jaguars, as he averages 101.3 rush yards per game in 10 career contests vs. Jacksonville.
2021 stats: 4 games | 69 att | 362 rush yds | 5.25 ypc | 3 rush TD | 4 rec | 26 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble
Kevin Stefanski's rushing attack is rolling and has gotten Baker Mayfield out of trouble more than once this season. Chubb and Kareem Hunt work in perfect tandem and I don't expect the results to change anytime soon for the Browns' top-ranked run game.
2021 stats: 4 games | 64 att | 342 rush yds | 5.34 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 7 rec | 53 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Watching Dak Prescott and Zeke lead the way for the Cowboys' offense takes me back to 2016, when they were rookies. Elliott has regained his old form over the last two weeks with 18.5 carries and 119 rush yards per game while adding three rush TDs. The Cowboys (and Zeke's knee) are trending in the right direction heading into the second quarter of the season.
2021 stats: 4 games | 78 att | 297 rush yds | 3.81 ypc | 0 rush TD | 10 rec | 62 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 0 fumbles
Kamara has recorded his lowest scrimmage yards per game (89.8) through four games since his rookie season, but he has posted a career-high in rush yards per game (74.3). Kamara, who didn't have a target in a game for the first time in his career last week, is such a dynamic weapon in the pass game that I'm not sure I love how Sean Payton's using him right now, especially considering the Saints' thin receiving corps.
2021 stats: 4 games | 56 att | 206 rush yds | 3.68 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 13 rec | 126 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 1 fumble
Jones has posted at least 200 rush yards, 100 receiving yards and five total TDs through four games for the second straight season. He's tied for the league lead in scrimmage TDs heading into a meeting with the Bengals' seventh-ranked defense.
2021 stats: 4 games | 83 att | 353 rush yds | 4.25 ypc | 2 rush TD | 7 rec | 29 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Mixon played a big role in the Bengals' comeback win over the Jaguars (16 carries, 67 yards and a touchdown), but an ankle injury sidelined him for the game-winning drive. Now he's day-to-day ahead of a big matchup against the Packers.
2021 stats: 4 games | 50 att | 283 rush yds | 5.66 ypc | 2 rush TD | 18 rec | 141 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Justin Herbert deserves a ton of credit for the Chargers' early offensive success, but Ekeler's contributions shouldn't be overlooked. He leads the team in scrimmage yards (424) and has four scrimmage TDs. He's often underrated, but I don't think that will be the case for long.
2021 stats: 4 games | 69 att | 309 rush yds | 4.48 ypc | 3 rush TD | 6 rec | 49 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Montgomery had one of his best rushing outings of the season against the Lions with 106 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, helping Justin Fields to his first win as a starter. A hyperextended knee is expected to keep Montgomery sidelined for 3-5 weeks, but last week's performance deserves mention on this list.
2021 stats: 3 games | 51 att | 226 rush yds | 4.43 ypc | 1 rush TD | 10 rec | 70 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble
The Vikings' offense struggled against the Browns with Cook limited due to an ankle injury (3.8 yards per carry on nine totes). Cook won't stay on this list for long -- and the Vikings could fall even further away from the division-leading Packers -- if he can't get healthy.
2021 stats: 4 games | 52 att | 186 rush yds | 3.58 ypc | 2 rush TD | 14 rec | 130 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Barkley's 6-yard touchdown run in overtime gave the Giants their first victory of the season and spoiled the Saints' homecoming. The Giants' offense is starting to click thanks to Barkley's re-emergence over the last two games (40 touches, 220 scrimmage yards, 5.5 yards per touch, three scrimmage TDs).
2021 stats: 4 games | 58 att | 274 rush yds | 4.72 ypc | 1 rush TD | 11 rec | 81 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Taylor was slow out of the gate with 14 carries and 57 rush yards per game through Week 3, but he had his best outing of the year against the Dolphins last week. He tallied 103 yards on 16 carries for a monster 6.4 yards per carry and added a TD. This is the kind of performance the Colts need on a weekly basis.
2021 stats: 4 games | 43 att | 234 rush yds | 5.44 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 12 rec | 121 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
The Browns' passing attack has taken a step back in 2021, and the fact that Hunt leads the team in receiving yards proves it. Don't get me wrong, he's a hell of an asset for Baker Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski, but he can't be the only guy moving the chains through the air.
2021 stats: 4 games | 58 att | 291 rush yds | 5.02 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 7 rec | 50 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 2 fumbles
The second-year back is coming of a 102-yard effort on the ground against the Eagles, which helped get the Chiefs out of their September funk. I like the way he has bounced back after some turnover issues, but he's got to clean that up.
2021 stats: 4 games | 37 att | 250 rush yds | 6.76 ypc | 1 rush TD | 8 rec | 65 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Mike McCarthy's offense is full of stars and Pollard's right there in the mix as part of the Cowboys' dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield. With Zeke providing consistency to the run game, Pollard offers a chunk plays, as evidenced by his 6.76 yards per carry.
2021 stats: 4 games | 43 att | 255 rush yds | 5.93 ypc | 0 rush TD | 20 rec | 140 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Though Edmonds hasn't seen the end zone yet this season, he's done a good job moving the chains for Arizona. He's one of just three running backs with at least 20 receptions this season, joining Najee Harris and D'Andre Swift, and he ranks seventh among RBs in receiving yards. What's most notable, though, is Edmonds is the only player in the NFL with at least 20 catches and 200 rush yards in 2021.
DROPPED OUT: Chris Carson, Seahawks (previously No. 9); Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (No. 10); Antonio Gibson, Washington (No. 15).
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