League's top backs finally made their presence felt in Week 4
A number of top running backs broke out in Week 4 after slow starts
Some run defenses have been playing at a historically bad rate
After having one of the best run defenses ever in '10, Steelers are struggling
Call it the Revenge of the Running Backs: A slew of big-name ball carriers who dominated in 2009 and then struggled in 2010 are suddenly on the rebound here in 2011.
In fact, while quarterbacks generate most the headlines, there's a long list of ball carriers back in peak form or poised for historically productive seasons lugging the leather.
But is it just a great year for running backs, or is run defense the big casualty of the 2011 lockout? Maybe it's a little of both, as you'll see below.
At the very least, rebounding running backs is something of an unusual phenomenon in the Not For Long League, where life is especially fleeting for ball carriers.
With a few notable exceptions, most running backs sparkle brightly for a year or two and then burn out under the weight and velocity of their own over-use.
But consider the cases this season of Tennessee's Chris Johnson, San Francisco's Frank Gore and the Carolina tandem of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
Each dominated the 2009 season. Each fell off badly in 2010. Each started the 2011 season poorly. But all four rebounded with big Week 4 performances.
Johnson authored one of the great seasons of all time in 2009: 2,006 rushing yards, 14 TDs and an incredible seven touchdowns of 50 yards or more (5 rushing, 2 receiving). He also caught 50 passes. His production dropped off noticeably in all areas in 2010.
Johnson had a very public spat and holdout with Titans management over the summer and he struggled in the early weeks of 2011: just 98 yards rushing in his first three games.
But Johnson returned to 2009 form in Tennessee's 31-13 Week 4 win at Cleveland (23 carries, 101 yards). It was his first 100-yard effort since Week 14 of the 2010 season.
San Francisco's Gore rushed for 1,120 yards on just 229 carries in 2009, a very productive 4.9 YPA. He also hauled in 52 passes out of the backfield (409 yards) and totaled 13 TDs. But Gore scored just 5 TDs in 11 games in 2010.
It appeared the end was near for the oft-injured star. And he looked no better in his first three games of 2011: a total of 148 yards and a lifeless 2.5 YPA.
But Gore also sparkled in Week 4, gashing Philadelphia's troubled defense for 127 yards on just 15 carries (8.5 YPA). It was his first 100-yard effort since Week 8 of the 2010 season.
Stewart and Williams, meanwhile, were one of the great tandems of all time in 2009. They joined the short list of backfield mates in NFL history to each top 1,000 yards, combining for 2,250 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. But Stewart and Williams were a shadow of that historic tandem in 2010: a total of 1,131 yards and five rushing TDs as the Carolina offense struggled just to get first downs, let alone touchdowns.
Like Johnson and Gore, the struggles continued over the first three weeks of 2011.
But both regained the dominance of 2009 in Carolina's 34-29 loss at Chicago on Sunday: they totaled 134 yards and did it on just 18 carries, an awesome average of 7.4 YPA against what was supposed to be one of the league's better defensive units.
Meanwhile, players such as Darren McFadden in Oakland, Matt Forte in Chicago and Fred Jackson in Buffalo are running the ball better than ever. Each averages well over 5.0 YPA -- rarified statistical air for a running back.
In McFadden's case, he's already ripped off 468 yards on just 75 attempts, an incredible average of 6.2 YPA. A little perspective? Only two players in NFL history have carried the ball 300 times and topped 6.0 YPA: O.J. Simpson in 1973 and Barry Sanders in 1997.
The changing fortunes and rising trajectory of all these running backs is not an isolated incident.
Big passing performances have generated most of the headlines, as they so often do. But running backs are moving the ball better than ever this year. Or, put another way, run defenses are softer than ever.
In fact, it seems defense in general, and run defense in particular, is the big casualty of the lockout that dominated the 2011 offseason.
Consider this bit of NFL history: just 19 teams since the creation of the league in 1920 (and only six teams in the Super Bowl Era) have surrendered more than 5.0 YPA on the ground.
But five teams are on pace to join that list this year: Oakland, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Carolina and Chicago. Each is getting gashed on the ground at a historic rate.
And there are some highly notable, even historic, defensive failures already this season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, have undergone a dramatic reversal of fortunes on defense. Last year, the AFC champs fielded the best run defense in football, allowing opposing ball carriers to generate just 3.0 YPA on the ground.
It wasn't just the best run defense of 2010, it was one of the best of all time: only five teams in the Super Bowl Era stopped the run better than the 2010 Steelers.
Fast forward to 2011 and the Steelers suddenly can't stop anybody: they've been ripped for 4.8 yards every time an opponent carries the ball. You have to go all the way back to 1934 -- when they were called the Pittsburgh Pirates -- to find a Pittsburgh defense as bad against the run as the 2011 unit.
How about the Oakland Raiders? Most fans know that the Oakland offense offers one of the league's great ground attacks. Thanks largely to McFadden, the Raiders have rushed for 715 yards and 9 TDs -- each a league high -- and an awesome 5.6 YPA.
But as great as that ground attack has been offense, Oakland has been even worse on defense. The Raiders have surrendered an abysmal 5.9 YPA on the ground through four games -- putting them on pace to be the second-worst run defense in the history of football.
Only the long-forgotten Cincinnati Reds of 1934 surrendered a higher average per attempt (6.4) on the ground. (Interesting that you have to go all the way back to 1934, the virtual Stone Age of NFL history, to find comparisons for the failures of both the Oakland and Pittsburgh defenses.)
The 1934 Reds were so bad, by the way, that they failed to win a single game and folded at the end of the season.
Of course, there's little danger of the Raiders packing up the tents after the 2011 season.
But there's plenty of reason to believe the Raiders -- and other defensive units -- will continue to get gashed on the ground in what's shaping up as a historic year for revenge-seeking running backs.
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