AFC South Running Backs: Great or Lucky?

ESPN did a running back power ranking this week, and the results were fascinating.

Three of the top four running backs were in the AFC South.

That struck me as highly unlikely.  After all, only one of the three was a first round pick (Chris Johnson went 24th). There are two possibilities to explain the phenomenon.  The first is that AFC South teams have constructed elite run games so as to provide a competitive advantage over the Colts, who traditionally play the run poorly. If this is true, it would be expected that the top runners would be in the South. That would be by design.

The other possibility is that the AFC South backs are just lucky to play the Colts twice a year. They pad their stats against poor Indy run defenses and look better than they really are.

Chris Johnson was the top name on the list.

Att Yards % Total YPC TD Rec Yards % Total TD
2008 v Rest 232 1151 92.3% 5.0 8 39 226 92.2% 1
2008 v Colts 19 77 6.7% 4.1 1 4 19 7.8% 0
2009 v Rest 322 1859 92.7% 5.7 14 42 466 92.6% 2
2009 v Colts 36 147 7.3% 4.1 0 8 37 7.4% 0
2010 v Rest 274 1214 89% 4.4 10 30 126 51.4% 0
2010 v Colts 42 150 11% 3.6 1 14 119 48.6% 1
Total v Rest 828 4224 91.9% 5.1 32 111 833 82.6% 3
Total v Colts 97 374 8.1% 3.9 2 26 175 17.4% 1

Johnson played 12.5% of his games against Indy in 2009 and 2010. In 2008, he played 6.7% of his games against the Colts. For his career, he has played 10.6% of all his games against the Colts.

Chris Johnson is not making his living against the Colts, at least not on the ground.  He actually has performed consistently worse against Indy than against the rest of the league. The one area where he has done better against Indy has been catching the ball out of the backfield.  Chris Johnson is certainly not the product of playing the Colts twice a year.

Maurice Jones-Drew was third in the rankings.

Att Yards % Total YPC TD Rec Yards % TD
2006 v Rest 138 672 71.4% 4.7 11 41 423 94.8% 1
2006 v Colts 28 269 28.6% 9.6 2 5 23 5.2% 1
2007 v Rest 143 664 86.5% 4.6 7 36 385 94.6% 0
2007 v Colts 24 104 13.5% 4.3 2 4 22 5.4% 0
2008 v Rest 158 626 76% 4.0 11 51 435 77% 2
2008 v Colts 39 198 24% 5.1 1 11 130 23% 0
2009 v Rest 264 1184 85.2% 4.5 13 43 318 85% 0
2009 v Colts 48 207 14.8% 4.3 2 10 56 15% 1
2010 v Rest 258 1173 88.6% 4.5 3 30 279 88% 1
2010 v Colts 41 151 11.4% 3.7 2 4 38 12% 1
Total v Rest 961 4319 82.9% 4.5 46 201 1806 86% 4
Total v Colts 180 929 17.1% 5.2 8 34 293 14% 3

MJD played 12.5% of his games against the Colts in 2006, 13.3% in 2007, 12.5% in 2008 and 2009, and 14.3% in 2010. Overall, he played 13% of his total games against Indianapolis.

Jones-Drew has played well against the Colts, better than he has against the rest of the league.  A healthy chunk of his success in 2006 and 2008 came against the Colts.  However, in the last couple of years, the Colts have played him about to league average.  I’d say two games a year against Indy has helped his reputation, but have not made his reputation.

Arian Foster was ranked fourth in the poll.

Att Yards % Total YPC TD Rec Yards % Total TD
2009 v Rest 279 1283 79.9% 4.6 12 56 532 88.1% 2
2009 v Colts 48 333 20.1% 6.9 4 10 72 11.9% 0

Foster played 12.5% of his games against the Colts in 2010.

Foster certainly thrived against the Colts, and his standing in the top 5 backs may be inflated because of two games against Indianapolis, but his numbers apart from games against the Colts are better than respectable.

Conclusion:

Three of the best four backs in football may or may not be in the AFC South, but it certainly does seem that they are not basing their reputations entirely on two games a year with Indianapolis.  The other three teams in the South have clearly focused on run offense as a way of building their teams, likely as a response to the style of defense the Colts run.  They’ve developed strong running attacks that are particularly effective against the Colts, but also good throughout the year. 

For the record, here is where Indy has ranked in run defense since 2006:

Rank Yards Rank YPC
2006 32 32
2007 15 6
2008 24 17
2009 24 19
2010 25 25
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