The real return of Jonathan Taylor happened a little after halftime of the wild 39-38 loss to the Browns in Week 7.
Let’s set the stage: The Colts were trailing 30-21 with 9:00 left in the quarter when they were sitting at first-and-five from the 50 following a Browns' offside penalty. Taylor was the single back behind Gardner Minshew. He took the handoff then darted and burst through a hole left of center before the first of four Cleveland defenders converged on him to bring him down after a hard-fought nine-yard gain.
Head coach Shane Steichen then put the saddle on the franchise Colt by calling his name on the next SIX plays:
Taylor rushed up the middle for a six-yard gain.
Taylor was stuffed for no gain.
Taylor ran left of center for a four-yard gain.
Minshew faked a handoff to Taylor, started to roll right and tossed a screen to Taylor for a 20-yard gain.
Taylor went into the teeth of the Browns defense for a six-yard gain.
Seven plays and 50 of the 120 scrimmage yards that Taylor gained on the day were on this drive, which left the Colts trailing just 30-28 in this shootout. The fourth-year back often went straight into the ferocious Cleveland defense, which was fresh off limiting Christian McCaffrey to 52 total yards a week prior. Suddenly, all the talk of offseason ankle surgery and a contract squabble were water off a duck’s back. The real JT was back! And fantasy managers who took a chance on drafting him rejoiced.
After a first half of Taylor and Zack Moss largely splitting the snaps (21-17 in favor of Moss) and carries (10-8, advantage Moss), the Colts put the game on Taylor’s shoulders and saw him take off. After halftime, Taylor had a slight lead in carries, 10-8, and drew both targets for the Colts.
Taylor and Moss each finished with 18 carries, and Taylor saw four targets to one for Moss. Yet the burst and power that had made Taylor one of the best running backs in the NFL looked like they had returned. The kid gloves are off, and it really looks like he’s going to be the lead back for Indianapolis for the remainder of the season.
Moss is not going away, though. He barely out-snapped Taylor, 34-33, in the game, and is very much still a healthy part of this offense.
Taylor, though, is going to be the engine for this offense after he ran against one of the toughest defenses in the NFL and finished with 19.50 fantasy points and RB7 status. Fantasy managers can start him with confidence in a season where he is now one of a few running backs who have that every-week, set-it-and-forget-it handle placed on them.
The task gets no easier for either Taylor or Moss in Week 8, as up next the Saints come to Indy with the No. 2 defense against running backs. No runner has more than 63 rushing yards against them. Though after seeing that great stretch where Taylor wore down the Browns, it’s hard to bet against him, especially at home. An easier matchup follows a week later against the Panthers.
Has Jahmyr Gibbs arrived?
Since he was drafted 12th overall by the Lions, Gibbs has had fantasy managers’ expectations hovering around the stars. What we’ve seen has been more like a rocket ship sputtering to launch, as Gibbs had a pair of uneven performances before an 80-yard rushing day in Week 3 that looked like it was the start of a breakout. Then came an uneven 44-yard effort before sitting two games to heal a hamstring injury.
Head coach Dan Campbell said that Gibbs was going to be needed in Week 7, as David Montgomery was going to be missing at least that game with injured ribs. Did the rookie ever deliver. While the Lions hardly knew what hit them before being down 35-0, Gibbs showed the dual-threat skill set that had draft pundits calling him special.
The rookie ran 44 routes and was targeted 10 times, catching nine for 58 yards. All were second on the team. As the Lions’ primary ballcarrier, he ran for 68 yards on 11 carries and scored his first NFL touchdown. In all this, he showed that special speed that fans had only seen glimpses of thus far.
If Gibbs continues his upward trajectory, he is going to take the Lions’ offense to another level. Montgomery will be the early-down back who churns on the ground, the thunder to Gibbs’ lightning. And if Jameson Williams can live up to his first-round pedigree as an outside complement to Amon-Ra St. Brown, the Lions could take off even more.
Coming up is a great section of games for Gibbs and the Lions’ rushing attack: Raiders, bye, at Chargers, Bears and Packers. All four are bottom-10 in fantasy points allowed to running backs. With all four games also indoors, it could be a good showcase of Gibbs’ speed.
If he’s available via trade in your league, get him and enjoy this next stretch of games.
Zach Evans, we hardly knew ye
When news came out that both Kyren Williams and Ronnie Rivers were going to miss games, the focus centered on rookie Zach Evans, who appeared to be the logical next man up in the Rams’ running back room. Fantasy analysts and managers who followed the NFL Draft closely had a wide range of opinions on Evans, who had gotten plenty of praise from head coach Sean McVay for his work in practice. However, Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic pointed out in her 11 Personnel podcast that Evans had only gotten work on the scout team, and had not gotten reps running the Rams offense until prep for Week 7. We learned that to be important.
As the Rams elevated Royce Freeman from the practice squad and re-signed Darrell Henderson and signed Myles Gaskin, that running back room got crowded quickly. McVay told writers how he liked Henderson’s work in pass protection — always an indicator for extra snaps. Rodrigue even pointed out Henderson’s experience might give him more playing time.
The result? Henderson led Freeman in snaps, 36-26, while Evans did not take the field with the offense. Henderson took 18 carries and two targets, turning them into 66 yards. Freeman matched that yardage output, though all on the ground.
How the Rams proceed will be a work in progress. Gaskin could figure into the workload at some point. Evans has the distinction of falling into the Emari Demercado zone, as the player that fantasy managers used a bunch of their FAB on, and then many cut him for the light workload. Word of warning, Demercado led the Cardinals with 13 carries and five targets last week, with Damien Williams the only Cardinal to touch the ball last week (one carry).
With a road game to play the Cowboys up next, the running back opportunities might not be plentiful. Dallas is seventh in fewest fantasy points allowed per game to the running back position, and since James Conner ran on the Cowboys for 98 yards in Week 3, no back has more than 69 in Week 5. This may be a backfield to avoid, instead looking ahead to start Henderson in fantasy against the Packers in Week 9. Evans would have to gain a large share of the touches this week to consider him anytime soon.
If there ever is a lesson to be learned about the importance of pass protection to playing time for running backs, this is it.
Cleveland Browns backfield rocked again
Browns fans have seen this before. Lead back Nick Chubb ran the ball 10 times before suffering a major knee injury that knocked him out for the season. Last week, Jerome Ford twisted his ankle on his 11th carry and came out of the game. While Ford’s injury is nowhere near as serious as Chubb’s — Ford is expected to miss no more than three weeks — it’s still a hit to the depth at the position.
Kareem Hunt stepped in with a pair of touchdowns, including a one-yard plunge for the go-ahead score with 19 seconds to go in the wild game against the Colts. Pierre Strong Jr. had three carries earlier on that 80-yard drive, so it’s hard to anoint Hunt the top dog in the Dawg Pound. Hunt had 10 rush attempts for 31 yards and Strong ran eight times for 25 yards. Strong barely out-snapped Hunt, 20-19.
Hunt’s previous four years in Cleveland give him an edge in experience, the last three of those seasons with head coach Kevin Stefanski. Strong has great speed, running a 4.37 40 at the NFL Combine. Will either be able to get going against an improved Seattle defense that is No. 7 in the NFL with 87.2 rushing yards allowed per game? Give Hunt the advantage in this prognostication for touches, but with the tough matchup and possibly playing with backup QB P.J. Walker, this backfield may be a pass.
And speaking of passes — some committees
The Washington Commanders are devolving into a rushing attack that’s looking like a frustrating committee. After seeing 20 touches each in the first two games, Brian Robinson has been losing opportunities gradually. In two of the last three games, Robinson has less than 10 carries.
In a 14-7 loss to the Giants, Robinson went 8-23-1 while rookie Chris Rodriguez Jr. put up 7-23-0. Robinson led in touches, 26-9. But running against the Philadelphia Eagles’ top-ranked defense this week? Considering how generous the Commanders’ pass defense has been, this sets up as a negative game script, and thus probably passing on the running backs.
Another backfield to watch is the Houston Texans. On Oct. 12, Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik talked about how different the rushing attack is than what Dameon Pierce ran last season. Then Devin Singletary won the snap advantage over Pierce, 31-21. Pierce ran 13 times for 34 yards, while Singletary took 12 carries for 58 yards. This is trending in the wrong direction for fantasy managers who drafted Pierce in the fourth round.
Coming off the bye, the Texans go to Carolina, which has allowed 100-plus rushing yards to David Montgomery and Raheem Mostert in its most recent games. In this good matchup, either running back can be started, but fantasy managers may need a touchdown for either to pay dividends.