The Baltimore Ravens were one of the most physical rushing teams a season ago, and though they have that same persona this season, I saw nothing of the sort in their Week 3 loss to the Chiefs. They retreated from their true run-first identity, compiling just 21 total carries -- and QB Lamar Jackson had nine of them.
I don't think this is necessarily a sign that the Ravens lost their run game for good, especially when you consider that they were trying to keep up with a Chiefs offense that scored nearly 30 points before halftime. But Baltimore must stick to its strengths, especially when facing the league's best.
Enough with the past; it's time we focus on the teams that are taking advantage of a physical run game. I'll say one thing before we dive into this week's ranking: It's more about the number of rushing attempts than it is about the style with which these teams play.
Now that that's settled, here are the five most physical rushing teams in the NFL right now.
Last year, the Rams struggled to find an offensive identity. This year, it's clear Sean McVay wants his team to be physical -- and it is. The Rams lead the league in rushing attempts through three weeks, averaging 37 carries per game, and their committee approach -- featuring Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown -- allows them to trot out fresh legs on nearly every play, from start to finish, even if one player (Henderson, lately) ends up with more carries than the others. Akers missed Week 3 with a rib injury, but when he's healthy, he'll rejoin Henderson and Brown in wearing defenses down behind an offensive line that has the second-highest run-blocking grade (79.0) by Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, the Rams lead the league in forced missed tackles with 26 (five more than any other team). You might expect that kind of performance with a high-profile star like Todd Gurley in the backfield, but Gurley is gone -- and this unheralded group is putting the league on notice.
While making an unexpected quarterback change early in the season, the Chargers have stayed extremely dedicated to their ground game, averaging just over 35 attempts per contest. Leaning on Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley has allowed the offense to open up the passing game, setting up big play-action gains for rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. Ekeler is the leading force out of the backfield, averaging 5.0 yards per carry on 47 totes this season as a do-it-all weapon, while the rookie Kelley is more of a downhill runner with good contact balance. This dynamic combination has been tough to bring down -- the Chargers are one of two teams to have more than 300 rushing yards after contact (323), trailing only the Cleveland Browns (380).
Seeing the Titans on this list shouldn't surprise anybody. After all, they rode the legs of star running back Derrick Henry all the way to the AFC Championship Game last season. With the 6-foot-3, 247-pound back logging 27.3 carries per game, the Titans are in good position once again to wear teams down as the season progresses. Henry's physical style has him sitting at a league-leading 319 rushing yards on the season, and 214 of those came after contact, per PFF. Still doesn't seem like a lot? Look at it this way: Henry has more rushing yards after contact than the New York Giants and Houston Texans have total.
The Patriots are one of the few teams able to morph from leaning on a five-wide receiver set one week to pounding the ball in the run game the next. They have done a nice job finding an identity with Cam Newton (Tom Brady's polar opposite) under center, with coordinator Josh McDaniels allowing his new QB to use his strengths in a zone-read offense. Along with Newton (149 rushing yards and four rushing TDs on 35 carries), the Patriots have a ton of guys in the backfield contributing to the run game's success, with Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, J.J. Taylor and James White all earning touches. Through three weeks, the Patriots lead the league with 178 rushing yards per game on 35 carries per contest. We saw just how dangerous this unit is when it gets in a rhythm on Sunday against the Raiders, tallying a whopping 250 rushing yards in a 36-20 win.
The Browns made a concerted effort in the offseason to better the offense, hiring Kevin Stefanski, signing RT Jack Conklin, drafting LT Jedrick Wills Jr. and C Nick Harris and extending backfield dynamo Kareem Hunt. So far, they've been really dedicated to the run game, and it's paying off for all parties, including QB Baker Mayfield, who's on his way to a nice bounce-back season just three weeks in. Nick Chubb is the engine of this entire unit as a no-nonsense runner, while Hunt provides some sizzle in space. According to PFF, Chubb has 4.3 yards after contact per attempt (first in the league among players with at least 25 carries) and Hunt's 3.8 mark is tied for third. This duo is why the Browns' offense is getting closer to hitting its stride heading into October.
Top 15 Running Backs
Entering the 2020 NFL season, former All-Pro running back and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew examines all RBs and ranks his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the Ground Index rankings are based on a combination of:
1) Player accomplishments prior to the 2020 season.
2) Weekly performances, factoring in strength of opponent.
Rankings will be based solely on this season's efforts following Week 4. Now, let's get to it. Entering Week 4, here is MJD's pecking order:
2020 stats: 3 games | 31 att | 153 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 27 rec | 285 rec yds | 3 rec TDs
Good lord, Kamara is fun to watch! He looked like an eighth-grader running circles around the elementary school kids on Sunday night. And THIS play ... I love it! The Saints are lucky to have him right now, because this Michael Thomas-less passing attack ain't cuttin' it otherwise.
2020 stats: 3 games | 50 att | 303 rush yds | 6.1 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 10 rec | 95 rec yds | 1 rec TD
People love to gawk at Aaron Rodgers, but I still think Jones is one of the most underrated running backs in the league. He's earned this ranking with his knack for getting in the end zone and providing balance to Green Bay's offense. The Packers are set to face the Falcons on Monday Night Football this week -- and a prime-time game at Lambeau Field has a HUGE performance from Jones written all over it.
2020 stats: 3 games | 82 att | 319 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 5 rec | 26 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
This is the Derrick Henry we're accustomed to seeing. When the Titans needed to kick it into high gear in the second half of their game against the Vikings, they turned to the reigning rushing champion, and Henry came through (no surprise there) with back-to-back 1-yard TD runs to get Tennessee back into it. Three weeks into the season, Henry leads the NFL in carries (82), rushing yards (319) and rushing yards per game (106.3).
2020 stats: 3 games | 51 att | 292 rush yds | 5.7 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 3 rec | 17 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Kevin Stefanski's imprint is all over this offense, with running backs Chubb and Kareem Hunt setting the tone and paving the way for QB Baker Mayfield to reclaim his rookie form. I love the fact that, by Chubb's standards, a 108-yard, two-TD rushing performance isn't anything special. The third-year pro has earned the right to be the focal point of this unit, and he's handling the pressure as well as expected.
2020 stats: 3 games | 48 att | 294 rush yds | 6.1 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 5 rec | 24 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
The Vikings' offense looked much improved in Week 3 by leaning on Dalvin Cook. (I know, who would've thought?) The star running back set a new career high with 181 rush yards -- rookie receiver Justin Jefferson, meanwhile, did the same with 175 receiving yards. Alas, miscues by other elements of the offense, along with the defense's inability to stop a second-half surge by Tennessee, dropped the Vikings to 0-3.
2020 stats: 3 games | 58 att | 219 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 15 rec | 88 rec yds | 1 rec TD
I was surprised to see Zeke struggle so much against the Seahawks. No matter how stout a defense is against the run, Zeke tends to be a guy who can deal and still get his gains. He was tackled in the end zone for a safety and averaged just 2.4 yards per carry in the loss. Dallas needs more from its star.
2020 stats: 3 games | 55 att | 240 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 1 rush TD | 11 rec | 102 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Edwards-Helaire fits like a glove into the Chiefs' offense, holding his own in a unit full of superstars. After leading the Chiefs with a team-high 134 scrimmage yards in Monday night's win over Baltimore, he leads all rookies and ranks seventh overall in the league with 342 scrimmage yards through three games.
2020 stats: 3 games | 47 att | 236 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 1 rush TD | 16 rec | 142 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Ekeler has been more productive with Justin Herbert in as the starter, averaging 145.5 scrimmage yards per game over the last two weeks after logging 87 scrimmage yards per game in Week 1. The Chargers rank sixth in rushing heading into Week 4, and Ekeler is a big reason why.
2020 stats: 3 games | 43 att | 210 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 3 rush TD | 10 rec | 129 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
While other Jaguars have faltered, the undrafted rookie has been a bright spot from week to week. With 129 scrimmage yards and two rushing TDs on 17 touches in Thursday's loss to Miami, Robinson joined Leonard Fournette as the only players in franchise history with 150-plus rushing yards and two-plus scrimmage TDs in the first three games of their careers. Furthermore, Robinson's 339 scrimmage yards are the most by any undrafted player through his first three career games since the 1970 merger. I love when teams find a diamond in the rough.
2020 stats: 3 games | 68 att | 252 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 10 rec | 75 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
The Raiders looked out of sorts at times, giving up three critical fumbles, including on in the first quarter by Jacobs that the Patriots recovered on their own 13-yard line. It's hard to get in a rhythm, like Jacobs did in the first two weeks of the season, when turnovers plague any gains made by the offense. Jacobs has to get his groove back quickly, because the undefeated Buffalo Bills come to the desert this weekend.
2020 stats: 3 games | 54 att | 219 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 1 rush TD | 5 rec | 20 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Drake continued to be a reliable, steady backfield option in Week 3's contest. In his last six games, he's racked up 108.7 scrimmage yards per game and eight scrimmage TDs -- proving he's a guy Kliff Kingsbury can (and should) turn to.
2020 stats: 3 games | 39 att | 204 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 1 rush TD | 8 rec | 42 rec yds | 2 rec TDs
The Browns' smart decision to extend Hunt this offseason is paying off. With three scrimmage TDs over the last two games, Hunt is a perfect complement to Chubb -- both players are on pace for at least 1,000 rushing yards. Hunt and Chubb will continue to carve up defenses and put Cleveland in good position.
2020 stats: 3 games | 40 att | 224 rush yds | 5.6 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 8 rec | 63 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
It's nice to see Conner back at the top of the weekly rushing charts after he was hampered by injuries throughout 2019. He had a sluggish Week 1 but has been phenomenal for Pittsburgh ever since, with back-to-back 100-yard rushing games against Denver and Houston. He could very easily continue the trend against a Titans defense that allowed Dalvin Cook to rush for 181 yards last week -- whenever Pittsburgh and Tennessee play.
2020 stats: 3 games | 35 att | 201 rush yds | 5.7 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 3 rec | 46 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Los Angeles has been waiting for Henderson to emerge as a versatile playmaker since he was drafted last offseason, and he's finally taken over the reins in the backfield because he's confident in his abilities. He is extremely explosive with great contact balance and has started to get some usage in the pass game.
2020 stats: 3 games | 52 att | 164 rush yds | 3.2 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 7 rec | 58 rec yds | 0 rec TDs
Mixon has been held to less than 50 rush yards in back-to-back games. I get that there's shiny new talent (and a healthy A.J. Green) in the Bengals' new-look air attack, but coach Zac Taylor must find a way to get the run game going. Otherwise, expect Cincinnati to have trouble getting into the win column.
DROPPED OUT: Raheem Mostert, 49ers (previously No. 8); Chris Carson, Seahawks (No. 11); Jonathan Taylor, Colts (No. 15).