As recently at late last season, the NFC North looked to be one of the strongest divisions in the league. The Minnesota Vikings had the upper hand with future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson carrying the ball, but each of the other three teams had running backs that have made an impact – Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy, Chicago’s Jeremy Langford and Matt Forte, and Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah.
As the NFL kicks off its seventh week of the 17-week season, there isn’t a team in the division that appears to have a strong running game.
The Vikings have their fallback plan in place – the tandem of Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. Two years ago, when Peterson was sidelined, Asiata was initially given the starting job, but when he wasn’t producing big plays the job was handed over to McKinnon. McKinnon crumpled under the strain of being the starter and finished the 2014 season on injured reserve.
When Peterson went down in Week 2 this year, the Vikings reverted to the two-headed McKinnon/Asiata tandem. Under ordinary circumstances, the Vikings’ running game could be viewed as a weakness in the NFC North.
But, given the current landscape of the division, the Vikings may have the strongest running game, not the weakest, despite what the statistics say.
The Packers lost primary backup running back James Starks two weeks ago and Lacy was placed on injured reserve Thursday. Thursday night, the Packers played Chicago and, as things currently stand, the leading rusher on the roster is quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Without a running game, the primary runners for the Packers were wide receivers Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb. Just by their nature, when wide receivers run, they do so upright because they don’t take the between-the-tackle hits that pure running backs do. The Packers called up Don Jackson from the practice squad and he got knocked out of the game in the first half. In a desperation move, the Packers made a trade with Kansas City to acquire versatile running back/special teamer Knile Davis, but the bottom line is that Green Bay likely isn’t going to win a lot of games when Rodgers is exposed to throwing 56 passes in a game.
Detroit lost Abdullah in Week 2 and has been scrambling ever since. Receiving back Theo Riddick was given the starting job, but never had more than 11 carries in a game and averaged just 3 yards a carry in that span. Even under a part-time workload, he was sidelined last week and the Lions had to sign street free agent Justin Forsett to fill the void. Last week against the Rams, fullback Zach Zenner was the primary ball carrier for Detroit.
In Chicago, the team allowed Forte to leave via free agency, willing to give the starting job to Langford and have fifth-round rookie Jordan Howard as the primary backup. Langford went down in Week 3 and has missed the last four games. Howard began strong, putting together a pair of 100-yard rushing games against Detroit and Indianapolis but has struggled the last couple of games and has been much less effective than backup Ka’Deem Carey. Suffice it to say, just like everything else in Chicago – from their quarterback on down – things seem to be in flux with more questions than answers.
In a season in which all four teams in the NFC North entered the season with a firm plan in place as to how their running games were in place, we’re only in Week 7 and all four of the teams have been forced to make changes to the original blueprint for their season.
Clearly, Chicago is out of the mix. Down to their No. 3 quarterback and with just one win through their first seven games, the Bears are a non-factor in the postseason race that will be run in November and December.
The Vikings have the 32nd-ranked rushing offense, Detroit is 26th, Chicago was 23rd entering Week 7 and Green Bay was 16th.
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For the Vikings and Packers, both of whom have realistic playoff runs in them, they’re looking to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. For Detroit, which will need plenty of good bounces to be a playoff contender, it is grasping at straws to keep Matthew Stafford from being forced to throw 50 times a game (yet again).
In a passing era, the NFC North had a distinct intent of running the ball offensively in 2016. All four teams are on the second or third options … and we haven’t even reach the midway point of the season.