Backup RBs emerging from backdrop
Prevalent two-headed running attacks allowing reserve backs to shine in playoffs
To advance to the Big Dance in Miami next month, NFL teams might have to resort to a bit of a two-to-tango philosophy.
At least when it comes to running the football.
The wild-card games demonstrated the significance of depth at running back, and the divisional round possibly could extend that pattern. It's rare when a team that adopts a tailback-by-committee approach goes all the way to the Super Bowl, but the league appears to be embracing a trend in which second-line tailbacks take on a pretty good share of the running game workload.
"It's great to have another guy [who can be effective running the ball]," said Baltimore starter Ray Rice after rushing for 159 yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday's lopsided upset of the New England Patriots. "You can go all-out every snap and not have to pace yourself at all, because you know there's a quality guy to take up the slack, and get yards when you're not in the game. It's a good feeling."
Not many runners have backups like Rice, whose caddy is seven-year veteran Willis McGahee, a former No. 1 back whose résumé includes 64 regular-season starts, 50 rushing touchdowns and three 1,000-yard seasons. McGahee rushed for 62 yards and one touchdown on 20 attempts against New England, but he was hardly the only reserve tailback who posted meaningful numbers in the opening round of postseason play.
In fact, in the four wild-card contests, backup tailbacks overall outrushed the starters (522 to 452 yards) and scored almost as many touchdowns (3 to 4). The No. 2 tailbacks for the four winning teams last weekend had more than twice as many rushing yards (440-216) as the starters had. Three franchises had backups who registered at least 14 attempts each, and three had No. 2 tailbacks who gained at least 62 yards.
Reserve tailbacks Felix Jones of Dallas and Shonn Greene of the New York Jets each ran for more than 100 yards in their team's victories. Getting most of the action while starter Marion Barber rested his injured knee, Jones rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Greene, a rookie third-rounder whose playing time was expanded after Leon Washington was lost to a season-ending knee injury, ran for 135 yards and a touchdown.
It might be difficult to repeat that kind of gaudy production this weekend, given that there has been only one 100-yard performance by a backup tailback in the divisional round since 2002 (when the NFL implemented the eight-division format), but teams are expected to continue to lean on their No. 2 runners.
"It's a pretty nice problem to have," Ravens left tackle Jared Gaither said of the two-headed monster approach to running the ball.
And most of the eight teams in the divisional round seem to have it.
In addition to the backup runners for last weekend's four wild-card winners, the bye-week franchises that will play host to games in the second round feature outstanding No. 2 tailbacks such as Chester Taylor (Minnesota), Darren Sproles (San Diego), Mike Bell (New Orleans) and to a lesser extent Donald Brown (Indianapolis). The Colts ranked last in the league in rushing offense during the regular season, but Brown is a first-round rookie who seems to be healthy again after an injury-impacted year.
The Colts selected Brown in the first round in April after starter Joseph Addai slumped the previous season (only 3.5 yards per carry in 2008), but both backs are capable of solid games even in Indianapolis' pass-oriented offense.
San Diego was 31st in rushing offense during the season, but Sproles is a proven game-breaker, and starter LaDainian Tomlinson is no longer the only go-to runner on the Chargers' roster. The Cardinals were 28th in rushing yards, but rookie first-rounder Beanie Wells, while second on the Arizona depth chart, has supplanted nominal starter Tim Hightower as the top back, and led the team in rushing by nearly 200 yards during the regular season. The Jets (No. 1), Ravens (No. 5), Saints (No. 6), Cowboys (No. 7) and Vikings (No. 13) all ranked in the top half of the league in rushing offense during the regular season.
Entering the divisional round, it's clear the eight franchises remaining in the playoffs don't rely on just their starters for a productive running game.
"When you come in off the bench, or on third down, you want to make something happen," said the Vikings' Taylor, a former starter who in 2006 ran for more than 1,200 yards, and who now spells Adrian Peterson. "There's not that big a drop-off."
Fact is, a few of the surviving teams can actually go three-deep at running back.
The Ravens, beyond Rice and McGahee, have Le'Ron McClain. The three-year veteran has played primarily at fullback in 2009, but last season rushed for 902 yards, started in three playoff contests and was named to the Pro Bowl. Dallas' No. 3 tailback Tashard Choice, who logged 14 carries in the wild-card round victory over Philadelphia, would probably challenge for a starting job with some NFL teams. And Reggie Bush, who has become a superb situational player, is a pretty nice complement to Bell and starter Pierre Thomas for the New Orleans' offense.
"[Starter Thomas] Jones is still the guy we depend on most in the running game," Jets coach Rex Ryan said after his team's victory at Cincinnati. "But it's comforting at the same time to know you've got someone else who can make that kind of impact running the ball."
And who, like many of the other No. 2 tailbacks playing this weekend, can get a team tough yards in big games.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Lions table talks with Suh until after season
- NFL VP defends length of Rice suspension
- Source: Gordon hires former Sherman rep
- Peterson: Vikes' offense no longer 'predictable'
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
2009 NFL PLAYOFFS: ROAD TO MIAMI