Week 4 Start 'Em, Sit 'Em: Breaking Down Tough Calls at Running Back

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27: Running back Le'Veon Bell in action during a Pittsburgh Steelers training session at the Twyford Avenue Sports Ground on September 27, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Harry Engels/Getty Images)
Harry Engels/Getty Images

Selecting your starting running backs can be a sorry chore if you didn't pick right on draft day.

Those who selected Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew and David Wilson are desperately scouring the globe for a replacement, but few serviceable options remain. Even heralded options such as Joique Bell, Bilal Powell and Bernard Pierce were scooped up in most leagues as insurance options. How many free-agent backs have risen to stardom?

James Starks had his week once Eddie Lacy got injured, but then Starks got hurt and Johnathan Franklin took charge. Before Franklin can get a chance to shine, the Green Bay Packers have a bye this weekend.

That means many owners are stuck with their guys, but could that forced loyalty yield unfortunate results? Injuries challenge these players' value while one commonly battered star is underperforming during a rare healthy campaign.

Here's how to handle some of this week's toughest decisions at running back.


Bernard Pierce (at Buffalo Bills)

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 22:  Running back Bernard Pierce #30 of the Baltimore Ravens scores a touchdown in the second half against the Houston Texansat M&T Bank Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Texans 30-9.
Larry French/Getty Images

Stay away, Ray Rice. Don't ruin this for us.

Bernard Pierce made his first NFL start against a tough Houston defense that has surrendered a stiff 3.3 yards per carry. Yet he plowed through with a resourceful 65 yards and touchdown. As a reward, here come the Buffalo Bills, who have allowed 405 rushing yards through three games.

Now that a friendlier opponent is on the horizon, Rice is attempting to return from a hip injury that kept him out of action last weekend. The Baltimore Ravens' team page said he is questionable for this weekend's contest.

Matt Zenitz of the Carroll County Times is painting a bleaker portrait, reporting that the Pro Bowl running back is not a safe bet to play this Sunday.

If Rice can't suit up, Pierce is an easy start. If Rice is ready to go, Pierce is still worth starting.

If his status remains this uncertain as of Thursday night, Rice will unlikely be 100 percent by Sunday. Even if he plays, Pierce should get at least half of the touches for a team that is looking to run often with Anquan Boldin gone and Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones hurt.

Owners would feel a lot better about starting Pierce without Rice, but they should still take the plunge on him if the fantasy first-rounder is in the mix.

Verdict: Start


Ryan Mathews (vs. Dallas Cowboys)

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 15: Running back Ryan Mathews #24 attempts to elude defensive end Trent Cole #58 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half in a game at Lincoln Financial Field on September 15, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Ch
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

On the bright side, Ryan Mathews is still healthy. It turns out a healthy Ryan Mathews isn't all that great.

The injury-prone running back has logged all three games as the San Diego Chargers' starting running back this season, but none have yielded positive results. Mathews has averaged 3.6 yards per carry and scored just one touchdown during the season.

In 45 carries, Mathews has only engineered one run of more than 10 yards, which is a far cry from the back who once inspired first-round consideration with the "if healthy" warning label.

While touchdowns are fickle, Mathews has always struggled to find the end zone. He has never garnered more than seven touchdowns in a season and has only scored two touchdowns during his last 15 games.

This is not the week to count on Mathews' revival. Dallas' defense has allowed 66.3 rushing yards per game, the lowest mark in the NFC. Jamaal Charles mustered a mere 55 yards against the Cowboys, and he is far better than Mathews.

As long as a decent alternative exists on the bench, sit Mathews this Sunday.

Verdict: Sit


Le'Veon Bell (vs. Minnesota Vikings in London)

The Pittsburgh Steelers could receive some much-needed help at running back for their trip to England.

After missing the first three games with a foot injury, rookie Le'Veon Bell could make his team debut on Sunday. The team's official Twitter page lists him as probable.

Pittsburgh's rag-tag rushers have combined for an AFC-low 155 rushing yards on 52 rushes. While only two teams have attempted fewer carries, Mike Tomlin is eager to get the ground game going. 

We have no NFL stats to appraise Bell, who was selected in the second round to become the Steelers' newest workhorse back. We don't know if he's ready for the big show, but we'll get a chance to find out if he plays.  

The Vikings have allowed 120.7 rushing yards per game and are tied for worst with five rushing touchdowns surrendered. Considering the alluring matchup, take a leap of faith on Bell and insert him in your flex spot.

Verdict: Start