NFC Playoffs: Power Ranking Impact Running Backs

By Joey Levitt on Saturday, January 12th 2013
NFC Playoffs: Power Ranking Impact Running Backs

At first glance, power ranking impact running backs among the four remaining NFC playoff teams wouldn’t seem like a worthwhile endeavor.

The general offensive makeup of any viable team in the league these days reeks of pass, pass, pass—and pass some more, does it not?

The San Francisco 49ers notwithstanding, the three other NFC clubs feature quarterbacks with rather opulent passing numbers. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers launched 39 touchdown passes, Matt Ryan of the Falcons racked up over 4,700 yards and the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson found TD pay dirt 24 times—as third-round rookie, no less.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

All of the aforementioned teams rely on the run game in some way. Whether setting up the pass, creating play-action opportunities or running out the clock, effective ground attacks play a significant a role in these four offenses.

Let’s take a gander at the Packers, 49ers, Seahawks and Falcons, and power rank the impact of their respective running backs.

8. Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers

Note: James Starks (knee) has not played since 12/2 and is probable for Saturday’s game. He will fill a similar role if Grant cannot suit up.

The Packers reacquired Grant from Washington in October. He appeared in five games, including Green Bay’s 24-10 win over the Vikings in the Wild Card Round.

Carrying 39 times for 139 yards and two TDs isn’t anything to write home about, but Grant will serve as the No. 2 back against the 49ers. He offers veteran playoff experience and will provide a few necessary breathers for second-year RB DuJuan Harris.

7. Robert Turbin, Seattle Seahawks

Turbin was the Seahawks’ third-leading rusher behind Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson. He accumulated 354 yards and a respectable 4.4-yards per carry. He also caught 19 passes for 181 yards.

The former Utah State product will back up his fellow Oakland, CA native against the Falcons. Lynch will receive the majority of touches, but the 5’10’’, 222-pound Turbin brings power and deceiving speed to the field. He’ll help keep Lynch fresh and will give Wilson another option in the passing game.

6. LaMichael James, San Francisco 49ers

One of the most devastating backs of all time in NCAA history finds himself in an unexpected backup role for the 49ers. James is the No. 2 RB behind Frank Gore after Kendall Hunter went down with an Achilles and Brandon Jacobs was suspended. He contributed 125 yards on 25 carries with a solid average of 4.6 yards.

James will undoubtedly provide Gore with much needed rest at certain points in the game against Green Bay. He is a blazing fast, change-of-pace runner that can break off big gains to the outside. He also runs effectively in pistol formations behind Colin Kaepernick.

An underrated aspect of James’ repertoire is his effectiveness on kickoff returns. He averaged just under 30 yards, including a 61-yarder in Week 15 that set up a go-ahead TD against the Patriots. The 49ers offense will count on him in the battle for favorable field position.

5. Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons

Rodgers is the Falcons’ version of Darren Sproles. He is a three-headed monster in the running, passing and return game. He totaled 94 carries for 362 yards and a TD, and added another 53 receptions for 402 yards and a score through the air. Rodgers completed the trifecta with a 25.7-yard average on 23 kickoff returns.

The smallish 5’6’’, 196-pound jack-of-all-trades could very well serve as the Falcons’ secret weapon. Seattle will focus their defensive efforts on dual 1,000-yard receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is still one of the best in the game (93 REC, 930 YD, 8 TD) and will garner much attention from the linebackers and safeties.

Rodgers is will operate as a dynamic third-down and overall option for Ryan and the Falcons offense.

4. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons

Fellow Atlanta RB Turner is the lowest-rated starter on this list. He averaged only 14 carries per game for a total of 800 yards. He notched more than 20 rushes in a game just twice and produced a lowly average of 3.6-yards per carry.

Even though the Falcons passed 239 more times then they ran in 2012, Turner is a massive goal-line presence at 5’10’’ and 247 pounds. He rushed for multiple TDs in that scenario during the year and will look to do the same against the Seahawks. Turner had better bring his A-game—the ‘Hawks have allowed a mere eight TDs on the season.

Plus, the Falcons need some semblance of balance in their otherwise pass-happy offense.

3. DuJuan Harris, Green Bay Packers

A guy with a grand total of 34 carries and 157 yards all season wouldn’t normally earn such a lofty spot in the power rankings. Harris, however, possesses a ceaseless motor and brings a tough, hard-nosed attitude to the gridiron. Such qualities come in handy when facing the NFL’s No-4-ranked rushing defense.

San Francisco won convincingly at Green Bay because the Packers had to abandon all attempts at running the ball. Rodgers threw 44 times compared to just nine carries by Cedric Benson. The Packers employed a one-sided, and rather predictable offensive attack without any form of a run game.

Harris will serve as the featured back against the 49ers. Rodgers and co will count on him to provide a new wrinkle to the offense. A steady amount of carries by Harris will prevent San Francisco’s safeties from cheating deep in the passing game. His success running against the 49ers’ nickel and dime formations is a crucial key towards a Packers’ win on Saturday.

2. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

Please make your acquaintance with Mr. Lynch, the man with a Skittles addiction and known otherwise known as “Beast Mode.” The NFC’s second-leading rusher with 1,590 yards and 11 TDs routinely pulverizes opposing defenses and is nearly impossible to bring down. He put up five yards per carry this season and threw in another 23 catches for 196 yards and a score.

Lynch was the offensive MVP of Seattle’s 24-14 win over the Redskins last week. He produced an obscene 6.6-yard average on 20 carries for 132 yards. His 27-yard 4th-quarter score proved the game-winner for the Seahawks.

Seattle’s No. 1 back isn’t No. 1 on this list because of Turbin and Wilson’s success running the ball behind him. Turbin is an established quality backup that can shoulder the load if the need ever arose. And Wilson, for his part, racked up 489 yards and four TDs on the ground this season, not to mention 67 yards in the Wild Card matchup.

The Seahawks could still feasibly beat the Falcons behind Turbin, a stout defense and an efficient, turnover-free Wilson in the passing and run game. To be sure, we are by no means diminishing the importance of Lynch and one of the NFL’s most dominant backs. He’ll contribute substantially to Seattle’s winning efforts on Saturday.

But if he couldn’t suit up, there are capable options available to the Seahawks.

1. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

The heart and soul of the 49ers resides in the tireless body of Frank Gore. San Francisco’s leading running back rushed for 1,214 yards and eight TDs on 258 carries. He supplied another 234 yards and one TD in the passing game.

Gore, a 2012 Pro-Bowler, didn’t produce quite the gaudy stats as Lynch. That said, he represents the fundamental core of San Francisco’s offense. The entire unit runs through Gore, and derives nearly all of its success behind the eighth-year back.

Against the Packers in Week 1, Gore totaled 112 yards on an outstanding seven-yards per carry. His 23-yard TD around right end sealed the game for the 49ers in the final quarter. He was the essential reason why San Francisco won time of possession, kept Rodgers off the field and eventually secured its 30-22 victory.

Kaepernick is a fine, poised and multi-talented quarterback that can beat teams in numerous ways. But we also must not forget his status as a second-year QB and first-year starter. His success is predicated on Gore establishing a consistent and productive rushing attack. It takes pressure off Kap and the depleted receiving corps, infuses balance in the offense and, as mentioned, relegates Rodgers to the sideline.

If Gore doesn’t produce or must leave the field early for whatever reason, the 49ers will have an incredibly difficult time taking a second win over the Packers. James could not sustain the beating of an every-down back; he simply does not possess the physicality or experience. And as prolific as Kaepernick is at running the ball, not having Gore would reduce his effectiveness in the pistol offense.

The 49ers must pound the rock with Gore to ensure victory on Sunday. As such, Gore earns the No. 1 ranking on this NFC running back power ranking.

Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16

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