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RB Index, Week 9: Bears must lean equally on Khalil Herbert and David Montgomery

Things are looking bleak for the Chicago Bears right now. They are coming off three straight losses with a road game at Pittsburgh on Monday night before their Week 10 bye. Rookie quarterback Justin Fields is experiencing growing pains while leading an offense that ranks in the bottom two of the league in scoring, total offense, passing, yards per play and sacks allowed.

On the outside of the playoff picture midway through the regular season, the 3-5 Bears still have time to work their way back in. And if they have any hope of a better second half of the season, they need to lean heavily on one of the few offensive bright spots: the run game.

The Bears' rushing attack ranks fifth in the league thanks in large part to the efforts of David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert. In Weeks 1-4, Montgomery logged a pair of 100-yard performances and three rushing touchdowns before a knee sprain landed him on injured reserve. Despite losing their RB1, who's coming off a 1,000-yard season, the Bears haven't seen a drop-off from Week 5 on with Herbert handling a majority of the load. The sixth-round pick has racked up 351 rush yards (fifth among rookies) and 395 scrimmage yards (sixth) despite only having three touches in the first four weeks.

Montgomery is eligible to return from IR this week. Head coach Matt Nagy told reporters the third-year RB is improving every day and that the team is working through his status for Monday's game. (UPDATE: Montgomery will return to practice on Thursday.) As for Herbert, I'm going to be honest here: I wasn't all that high on him coming out of Virginia Tech, ranking him 27th among RBs in the 2021 rookie class. However, he's shown some quickness and the ability to gain chunk yards as a slasher at the next level. Since Week 5, Herbert has 344 rush yards (86 per game), the fourth-most in that span behind Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor and Damien Harris.

When Montgomery does return to the gridiron, even if it's not until after the bye week, the Bears must use their top two backs equally; they can't revert to giving Herbert a measly three touches like they did early in the year when Montgomery was healthy. The rookie has proven more valuable than that. The duo's usage should be similar to how the Jacksonville Jaguars used me and Fred Taylor early in my career. Fred would take the lead on a series or two and I'd come in as a spell back, then vice versa. Doing so allowed us to have fresh legs on the field throughout a 60-minute contest.

Leaning on the run game will take some pressure off of Fields and give the Bears the best chance to reverse their fortunes over the remainder of the season -- that is, if the defense plays a lot better than it did last week. Come on, Matt Nagy, you know what to do. Don't mess this one up.

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 9.

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

Rank
1
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans

2021 stats: 8 games | 219 att | 937 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 10 rush TD | 18 rec | 154 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble


The Titans are currently the top seed in the AFC after defeating the Colts in overtime. Unfortunately, they've lost their most valuable player to a broken foot. Henry underwent surgery on Tuesday and there is no timetable for his return. You never want to see anyone get hurt, and that's especially true when the player is having such an incredible season.

Rank
2
Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys

2021 stats: 7 games | 118 att | 571 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 20 rec | 128 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles


While Zeke's numbers weren't anything special in Dallas' prime-time win over Minnesota, he made one of the biggest plays of the game when the Cowboys' backs were against the wall. Trailing by three and already in field goal range, Zeke broke several tackles after catching a short pass from Cooper Rush to earn a first down on third-and-11. The effort set up a game-winning touchdown on the next play. 

Rank
3
Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts

2021 stats: 8 games | 121 att | 649 rush yds | 5.4 ypc | 6 rush TD | 21 rec | 265 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles


Taylor has gone on a tear over his last five games, averaging 95.6 rush yards per game and scoring six rush TDs. He's one of the most explosive rushers in the league right now. He ranks in the top five in rushing yards over expected on runs both inside (+60) and outside (+123) the tackles among rushers with a minimum of 40 such attempts, per Next Gen Stats. The Colts can't ask for much more from their second-year back. It's time for Carson Wentz to step up.

Rank
4
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints

2021 stats: 7 games | 133 att | 480 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 2 rush TD | 28 rec | 256 rec yds | 4 rec TDs | 0 fumbles


Kamara might be taking on the greatest challenge of his career in the wake of Jameis Winston's injury. The running back is going to get a ton of attention from opposing defenses, but the offense's success will go hand in hand with how Kamara performs. He's also likely to get more action in the passing game and fewer carries moving forward with Mark Ingram back in the mix.

Rank
5
Joe Mixon
Cincinnati Bengals · RB

2021 stats: 8 games | 137 att | 572 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 5 rush TD | 17 rec | 148 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 1 fumble


The Bengals' run game was stuffed by the Jets, with Mixon gaining just 33 yards on 14 carries. He did score a pair of touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) to extend his streak to five consecutive games with a scrimmage TD.

Rank
6
Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · RB

2021 stats: 8 games | 104 att | 463 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 33 rec | 237 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 2 fumbles


Jones played an instrumental role in Green Bay's victory over Arizona in prime time, finishing with 59 rush yards and one TD while also leading the short-handed Packers with a career-high 11 targets and seven receptions for 51 receiving yards. It speaks volumes about Jones' ability as a pass catcher that he was the only Packer with at least one target from four different alignments Thursday (backfield, wide, slot, tight), per NGS.

Rank
7
4
Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · RB

2021 stats: 7 games | 128 att | 479 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 3 rush TD | 37 rec | 273 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles


The key to the Steelers' offensive success is Harris, and the proof is in the pudding. The rookie running back has had at least 20 carries in each of the team's last three games (all wins), including a career-high 26 carries for 91 yards and a TD in Sunday's big win over Cleveland.

Rank
8
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · RB

2021 stats: 5 games | 98 att | 444 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 2 rush TD | 12 rec | 73 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles


While Cook averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 18 attempts against the Cowboys, the Vikings royally struggled to get anything going in the passing game. Minnesota is in trouble at 3-4 with a game against Baltimore up next. One thing we'll see in that tilt, however, is a rushing clinic from Cook and Ravens QB Lamar Jackson.

Rank
9
3
Darrell Henderson
Los Angeles Rams · RB

2021 stats: 7 games | 110 att | 507 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 5 rush TD | 16 rec | 141 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles


Henderson is coming off his best game of the season with a season-high 90 rush yards (6.4 yards per carry) and two scrimmage TDs (one rush, one receiving) against the Houston Texans. The Rams' offense has been lopsided all season long with Matthew Stafford and the passing attack far out-producing and out-ranking the run game. Now, I'm looking for Henderson to build off his Week 8 outing, but it won't be easy against a Titans team that boasts the league's eighth-best run defense. 

Rank
10
1
Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers

2021 stats: 7 games | 84 att | 420 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 5 rush TD | 33 rec | 302 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles


Ekeler played well coming off the bye week against the Patriots, racking up 124 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown. He now has seven scrimmage TDs since Week 3, second to only James Conner's eight in that span. Ekeler's doing what he can to lift the Chargers and, like Taylor in Indy, needs help from his QB.

Rank
11
4
James Robinson
Jacksonville Jaguars · RB

2021 stats: 7 games | 88 att | 482 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 5 rush TD | 18 rec | 133 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles


Robinson suffered a heel injury against the Seahawks and is now listed as day to day. The Jags better hope Robinson is on the field if they have any intention of moving the chains against Sean McDermott's Bills squad on Sunday.

Rank
12
2
Leonard Fournette
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · RB

2021 stats: 8 games | 101 att | 439 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TD | 30 rec | 239 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble


The Bucs too often rely on Tom Brady and the passing game when in reality they should turn to their deep backfield to move the ball, control the clock and put points on the board. I'm not saying they need to be a run-first team, but having Brady throw the ball 40 or more times a game isn't always the answer -- it wasn't vs. the Saints. Fournette has worked his tail off to earn the RB1 job and has the ability to get it done on the ground. 

Rank
13
James Conner
Arizona Cardinals · RB

2021 stats: 8 games | 94 att | 358 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 8 rush TD | 5 rec | 34 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble


On Thursday night, Conner did what Conner does best -- get in the end zone. He had a 2-yard TD run in the third quarter and a 9-yard TD run in the fourth, bringing his season total to eight rush TDs. That's second to only Derrick Henry. The Conner signing is turning out to be very valuable for Kliff Kingsbury.

Rank
14
NR
Damien Harris
New England Patriots · RB

2021 stats: 8 games | 118 att | 517 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 6 rush TD | 10 rec | 60 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles


Harris has impressed over his last three games, rushing for at least 75 yards and a touchdown in each. In total, he's racked up 287 yards and four rush touchdowns in Weeks 6-8 -- a major help for rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Harris is keeping the Patriots' offense on the field while moving the chains with his consistent play. They have a legit path to the postseason if Harris, Jones and the offense continue to play this way.

Rank
15
Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · RB

2021 stats: 5 games | 60 att | 204 rush yds | 3.4 ypc | 5 rush TD | 14 rec | 110 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles


Jacobs returned to practice Wednesday after suffering a chest injury in Week 7. Derek Carr is having one of his best seasons, but Las Vegas ranks 29th in the league in rushing and the QB could use more help from the ground game. A healthy and productive Jacobs could be key to getting back to the playoffs.

DROPPED OUT: Tony Pollard, Cowboys (previously No. 14).

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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