Fantasy Football: Chris Johnson And Matchup Dependent Running Backs

Chris JohnsonIt’s natural for fantasy football owners to get huffy about a running back who terrorizes the NFL’s worst run defenses while struggling against middle-of-the-road and elite front sevens.

These runners can be the ultimate fantasy tease, carrying you to victory whilst trampling a defense that bleeds rushing yards just one week before posting numbers so ugly you can hardly look at your fantasy scoreboard without dry heaving.

The key is to avoiding this maddening back and forth — this unapologetic toying with your fragile fantasy psyche — is to know which running backs have a history of nuking bad run defenses, and which guys do just fine against any defense.

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Figuring this out isn’t a foolproof method of perfecting your decision-making process — nothing is — but it’s a good start in improving that process, just as finding matchup-proof runners in the first round of drafts is critical in securing players with the highest weekly floor.

This exercise might be especially important for fantasy owners determined to stock up on the game’s most reliable pass catchers in the first few rounds. Waiting until the fifth or sixth round to draft a back is known as the Zero RB approach. It creates utter chaos and can be a magnet for verbal barbs from your league mates who pray at the (outdated) altar of value-based drafting (VBD).

How, you might ask, could this article be helpful for Zero RB adherents? For one, the running backs you snag in the middle of your upcoming fantasy drafts likely won’t be unquestioned every-week starters. It’s good to know which of these Zero RB candidates only thrive against soft run defenses, and which ones post consistent numbers regardless of matchup.

I’ve used the RotoViz Game Split app to generate the below numbers. That app might just deliver peace in our time.

The “in split” column shows how each running back has fared against top-16 run defenses, while the “out of split” column documents how each back does against bottom-half run defenses. There’s more analysis below the chart.


Player Current ADP In Split Out of Split
Alfred Morris RB12 12.4 14.4
Zac Stacy RB14 12.3 14.4
C.J. Spiller RB15 9.2 9.8
Reggie Bush RB17 10.6 14.1
Ryan Mathews RB20 11.8 13.3
Rashad Jennings RB21 12.4 9.2
Frank Gore RB22 13.4 14.7
Shane Vereen RB23 9.4 8.7
Chris Johnson RB24 13.1 18.6
Trent Richardson RB25 11.3 11.8
Stevan Ridley RB29 8.4 10.3
Steven Jackson RB30 14 16.3


  •  Let’s just be up front about it: CJ?K, that indestructible runner who fooled us with that 2,000-yard season eons ago, has been the ultimate matchup-dependent runner for quite some time. His splits are the stuff of nervous breakdowns: Johnson has averaged a measly 68.6 rushing yards against top defenses while running roughshod over weak defenses to the tune of 101.2 yards. That’s a difference of more than 30 yards, if you’re scoring at home. CJ?K scores .68 touchdowns out of this split — a great number — and .39 touchdowns in the split. He may or may not face the prospect of a timeshare in his first season with Gang Green, making his early fifth-round ADP a little on the questionable side. CJ?K has always, after all, been a creature of volume. If you land Johnson in the middle rounds, be sure to stare into the eyes of the above splits.
  •  Steven Jackson’s splits aren’t horrendous over the course of his never-ending career. His splits during his first year in Atlanta were, as you might expect, not great. He notched 9.3 fantasy points against top-16 units and 13.5 points against bottom-16 defenses. It’s the classic small sample, but a closer look at how SJax was deployed in games against the league’s best run defenses shows something slightly more concerning: He was given just 11.4 carries in those matchups, and gained 29.4 yards on average. Atlanta’s offense was an abomination for most of 2013, so maybe that explains Jackson’s general struggles. The splits don’t scare me enough to look past his very affordable late sixth-round ADP though. Jackson, unless and until his ADP rises, is a clear target for the Zero RB crowd.
  • We’re going to be able to prove the irrefutable existence of the multiverse before we prove that we know how New England running backs are used. Perhaps the above game splits give us some clue as to how Ridley, that murderer of fantasy dreams, is used by The Hoodie. When we drill down to Ridley’s 2013 splits, we see that he averaged 11.6 fantasy points against bad run defenses and 6.3 points against top-16 units. He also gets three more carries per game against sub-par front sevens. Maybe the Patriots use Ridley to pound away at weak run defenses while saving their pass catcher (Shane Vereen, mostly) to combat the NFL’s best run defenses.
  • We shouldn’t draw too much from Jennings’ splits because he’s rarely had a backfield to himself, and his pass-catching ability made him the beneficiary of garbage time production in Oakland. It’s a good sign though, as Jennings is cause for an equity score dance party at his fourth round ADP. In the split — against tough run defenses — Jennings averages 39.3 receiving yards and 32.8 rushing yards. He notches 6.2 receiving yards and 46.3 rushing yards against easier competition. His aerial usage has clearly been dictated by matchup, and unless Tom Coughlin has another running back-related temper tantrum, I think Jennings is in for upwards of 275 touches in the Giants’ new offense. He remains a target of mine.
  • Reggie Bush’s splits in 2012 and 2013, after leaving New Orleans for Miami and Detroit, are pretty damn ugly. Bush scores 11.7 points in the split and 16.1 points out of the split. The difference mostly lies in his touchdown prowess: he basically doesn’t score touchdowns against tough defenses, averaging .12 scores against top-16 units. Bush averages .59 touchdowns against lesser opponents. It’s just another reason to fade last year’s FPPRR deity.
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C.D. Carter Fantasy Football Analyst
C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.