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RB Index, Week 15: Three fresh-legged running backs who could impact the NFL playoff picture

J.K. Dobbins' electric performance last week was a welcome sight, especially for a Baltimore Ravens offense limping into the stretch run.

Dobbins returned from a six-game injury absence for a gotta-have-it matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, racking up 120 rush yards, including a 4-yard touchdown run, on 15 carries for an impressive 8.0 yards per carry in the 16-14 victory. Dobbins missed all of the 2021 season with a knee injury, and his 2022 campaign has been only slightly less frustrating. He first took the field in Week 3, only to play four games -- rushing 35 times for 123 yards (3.5 yards per carry) and one score -- before having another surgery to remove scar tissue.

"It's still not me all the way yet and I'm going to continue to get better," Dobbins said after Sunday's game. "Hopefully those 100-yard games will turn into 200-yard games. I'm going to keep getting healthier."

I'd agree with Dobbins' assessment of his performance. He's not what he was before his injury, but he showed a ton of promise against the Steelers. Week 14 brought his 2022 totals to 50 carries, 243 rush yards and two rush touchdowns in five games.

Given that he essentially has fresh legs for the stretch run, Dobbins' return couldn't have come at a more perfect time. At 9-4, Baltimore is in first place in the AFC North (over 9-4 Cincinnati, thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker, though a Week 18 showdown between the teams looms). The Bengals have caught fire, winning five straight games -- and they've got Ja'Marr Chase back from his own injury. The Ravens, who have won six of the last seven, are plagued with uncertainty at the quarterback position, with Lamar Jackson (knee) and backup Tyler Huntley (concussion) both battling their own injury issues. This could force Baltimore to roll with undrafted rookie Anthony Brown against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network).

Dobbins isn't the only running back in the NFL poised to significantly impact playoff races despite not playing much earlier this season. Here are two others who, like Dobbins, have logged 50 or fewer carries this year but could be difference-makers for their teams in the final quarter of the regular season:

Bam Knight
New York Jets · Rookie

Sitting at 7-6 after losing two straight, the Jets are the ninth seed in the AFC playoff picture heading into Week 15, so they have some work to do. The team has relied heavily on the defense, with the offense making changes throughout the season at key positions, including running back. Knight is the third back to earn starting reps in 2022, joining Breece Hall and Michael Carter. In two starts in Weeks 13-14 this season, the undrafted rookie has shown promise, putting up 161 rush yards and a rush touchdown on 32 carries (5.0 yards per carry) while adding 34 yards in the pass game. Knight's punishing running style and size (5-foot-11, 210 pounds) make him tough to tackle, especially late in the season. In light of the uncertainty at quarterback, Knight could -- and should -- become the focal point of the unit from here on out.

Jordan Mason
San Francisco 49ers · Rookie

Mason's usage has increased in each of the last four games, totaling 146 yards on 28 carries (5.2 yards per carry) in that span. He saw the most action in San Francisco's 35-7 romp of the Bucs last week, tallying 11 carries for 56 yards late in the game. Mason, an undrafted rookie who's the third back on the depth chart, could get more meaningful opportunities in the next few weeks, beginning Thursday night in a pivotal divisional matchup with Seattle, with Deebo Samuel sidelined with ankle and knee injuries. The 5-11, 223-pounder is a physical runner who could get snaps as a spell back behind Christian McCaffrey in an offense looking to lean on the run game and limit a banged-up Brock Purdy's exposure to the defense. The run game will play an even bigger role if Josh Johnson fills in for Purdy.

UPDATE: In Thursday night's win over the Seahawks, Mason had four total carries (all in the second half) for 64 yards, including a game-sealing 55-yard run on the 49ers' final drive.

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 2022 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 15.

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

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · Year 4

2022 stats: 13 games | 269 att | 1,402 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 11 rush TD | 44 rec | 346 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumbles lost

Jacobs scored the only touchdown for the Raiders, a 1-yard plunge capping the opening drive, as he was again the focal point of the offense. With 27 totes for 99 yards in the loss to the Rams on Thursday, Jacobs bumped his total over the past four games to 110 carries; at this rate, he'll far exceed his career high for carries in a season (273 in 2020). Jacobs also dealt with an injured pinky finger for half the game but managed to play through it at a high level. He should be back on the field against New England on Sunday.

Christian McCaffrey
San Francisco 49ers · Year 6

2022 stats: 13 games | 174 att | 819 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 5 rush TD | 68 rec | 593 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

McCaffrey totaled 153 yards and two scores in Sunday's convincing win over the Buccaneers, marking his 41st game with 100-plus scrimmage yards, most in the NFL since he was drafted in 2017. He tallied a season-high 119 rush yards in the win, reaching 20.27 mph on his 38-yard touchdown run -- his first touch reaching 20-plus mph since 2019, per Next Gen Stats. Man, I love watching McCaffrey fly around in this offense.

UPDATE: In Thursday night's win over the Seahawks, McCaffrey had a game-high 26 carries and 108 rush yards, including a 1-yard TD run just before halftime, and added a team-high six receptions for 30 yards.  

Tony Pollard
Dallas Cowboys · Year 4

2022 stats: 13 games | 158 att | 894 rush yds | 5.7 ypc | 9 rush TD | 29 rec | 279 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Pollard logged 14 touches for 62 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns in Dallas' narrow win over Houston, his second straight and fourth game overall this season with multiple scores. His impressive season has made him only the fifth player in Cowboys' history with 10 touchdowns over a six game span. 

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · Year 7

2022 stats: 13 games | 275 att | 1,199 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 11 rush TD | 26 rec | 320 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

The Titans are lucky they are in the AFC South, as they remain in first despite having dropped three games in a row. Turning the ball over four times in Week 14 did not help, with Henry surprisingly accounting for two of those turnovers (his first lost fumbles of the season). The Titans' run game did show signs of life as they surpassed 100 yards for the first time since Week 9, but it's still worrisome that Henry's monster first half, where he rushed for 119 yards, was followed up with only 2 yards on the ground in the second half. That's a tough pill to swallow.

Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · Year 5

2022 stats: 13 games | 231 att | 1,153 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 12 rush TD | 20 rec | 172 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

Chubb struggled again in Week 14, rushing for just 34 yards on 14 totes against the Bengals. He also posted 20 receiving yards, but this is not the Nick Chubb we all expect to see on game days. The Browns' offense has looked out of sorts since Deshaun Watson's return. In Sunday's loss, Cleveland played from behind and was forced away from the run game. Chubb will look to turn things around against the Ravens; in their last meeting, in Week 7, he racked up 91 rush yards and a score.

Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers · Year 6

2022 stats: 13 games | 153 att | 634 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 8 rush TD | 93 rec | 623 rec yds | 5 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

All Ekeler does is make plays for a Chargers team that's still very much in the AFC playoff picture. Ekeler totaled 104 yards, notching a 1-yard TD run just before halftime against the Dolphins on Sunday night that brought his TD total to 33 since 2021 (most in the NFL, with the next-closest player having 24). Cue the air guitar!

Miles Sanders
Philadelphia Eagles · Year 4

2022 stats: 13 games | 204 att | 1,068 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 11 rush TD | 18 rec | 85 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Sanders ran wild against the Giants for 144 yards and two scores on 17 attempts. He really turned it on in the second half capping his day with an explosive 40-yard touchdown run. He has now set career highs this season in rush yards and touchdowns.

Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · Year 6

2022 stats: 13 games | 213 att | 950 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 29 rec | 170 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

Cook had a pedestrian 23 yards on 15 carries in the loss to the Lions; his per-carry mark of 1.5 yards was the lowest of his career in a game in which he had double-digit carries. He also lost a critical fumble in the second quarter near the goal line that could have changed the flow of the game for the Vikings. Cook has struggled as of late, unable to surpass 100 scrimmage yards in a game since Week 10.

Rhamondre Stevenson
New England Patriots · Year 2

2022 stats: 13 games | 164 att | 742 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 4 rush TD | 58 rec | 385 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Stevenson did not get a chance to show off his game on the prime-time stage after exiting in the first half with an ankle injury. Hopefully, he's not sidelined for long, considering the Patriots are holding on to the final AFC wild-card spot and need his versatility.

Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · Year 5

2022 stats: 13 games | 251 att | 1,083 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 8 rush TD | 42 rec | 261 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Barkley has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry over the last four games, with the Giants going winless during this unfortunate streak. Things will not get any easier for Barkley and Co. as they play the rested and stout Commanders' defense during Sunday Night Football.

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · Year 3

2022 stats: 10 games | 192 att | 861 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 4 rush TD | 27 rec | 130 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 3 fumbles lost

The last time we saw Taylor, he surpassed 100 total yards and looked like the 2021 version of Jonathan Taylor. Coming off their Week 14 bye, the Colts travel to play Saturday against the Vikings, where the raucous environment (if not necessarily the Minnesota defense) will make for a tough day for such a limited offense.

Jamaal Williams
Detroit Lions · Year 6

2022 stats: 13 games | 204 att | 806 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 14 rush TD | 9 rec | 57 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

Wait ... Williams didn't score a touchdown on Sunday? I'm truly shocked! He's been an end-zone magnet in 2022. Williams was limited to 37 yards on 16 carries against Minnesota, but the Lions are still leaning on him over D'Andre Swift as they head into the stretch run.

Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · Year 6

2022 stats: 13 games | 164 att | 847 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 2 rush TD | 48 rec | 328 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

After a much-needed Week 14 bye, Jones and the Packers will look to stay afloat in the NFC playoff picture when they welcome the Baker Mayfield-led Rams to Lambeau Field on Monday night. It is worth remembering Jones was banged up in Week 13, but all signs point to him playing on Monday coming off the break.

Dameon Pierce
Houston Texans · Rookie

2022 stats: 13 games | 220 att | 939 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 4 rush TD | 30 rec | 165 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

Pierce was productive with 78 yards and a TD on 22 attempts -- it was his first rushing score since Week 5 -- as the Texans nearly beat the heavily-favored Dallas Cowboys. He did lose a fumble in Texans territory, but thankfully the defense came up with a big goal-line stand to keep that turnover from leading to points. Pierce's status is up in the air for Sunday's game against Kansas City due to an ankle sprain. Facing the Chiefs will be an uphill climb for Houston with Pierce, let alone without him.

UPDATE: The Texans announced Friday that Pierce has been ruled out for Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · Year 7

2022 stats: 11 games | 172 att | 716 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 9 rush TD | 14 rec | 73 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Dallas boasts a premier rushing duo that's come on strong of late, and it's time I listen to Cowboys nation about getting both Pollard and Zeke in here. Elliott failed to hit pay dirt on a key drive in the third quarter that resulted in a turnover on downs, but he came up clutch on the game-winning drive, registering a 2-yard TD run with 41 seconds remaining in the game to help the Cowboys avoid a Texas-sized upset.

DROPPED OUT: Travis Etienne, Jaguars (Previously No. 15)

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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