The biggest upset so far this season came courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3. They absolutely stunned America and America's Team, beating the Dallas Cowboys 28-16 in the desert.
It was a team effort, no doubt, but running back James Conner was a huge part of the winning performance. He finished with 98 rush yards, including a 5-yard first-quarter touchdown, on 14 totes for an impressive 7.0 yards per carry against a Dallas defense that was ranked No. 1 overall entering Sunday's game.
I have to admit that I have overlooked Conner for quite some time. Despite posting 1,000 scrimmage yards in each of the last two seasons, I ranked him dead last in my preseason RB1 rankings. In my defense, Arizona's offense was a huge wild card coming into 2023 after making a late quarterback change ahead of Week 1. But after watching Conner through the early going this season, I need to right my wrong this week. As of today, I will no longer underestimate him. It stops now.
Conner has been the centerpiece of a Cardinals offense that's improved each week, averaging 5.2 yards per carry through three games (ranks sixth in the league among RBs with 30+ carries). He's produced even when defenses load up to stop him, which is a common occurrence. With the Joshua Dobbs-led passing attack not instilling fear in defenses (Arizona ranks 27th in pass yards), Conner is tied for the second-most carries against stacked boxes (17), per Next Gen Stats. He's averaging 5.3 yards per carry in those instances, third-most among players with a minimum of 10 such carries this season. He's also tied for the fifth-most rushing first downs (14) among all players.
Furthermore, Conner accounts for 28.7 percent of his team's scrimmage yards this season, tied with Tony Pollard for fourth-highest among running backs -- behind Christian McCaffrey (34.6), Bijan Robinson (33.6) and Joe Mixon (30.9) -- and 10th-highest among all players.
Conner is making the most of his opportunities and helped the Cardinals enter Week 4 with the sixth-best rushing offense in the NFL. I'm hopeful that he'll continue to be a bright spot for this rebuilding squad, and I certainly won't make the mistake of underestimating him again.
Top 15 running backs
Former NFL rushing leader and current NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2023 season. His rankings are largely based on this season's efforts. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 4.
2023 stats: 3 games | 60 att | 353 rush yds | 5.9 ypc | 3 rush TD | 11 rec | 70 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
The 49ers’ rushing attack cut through the Giants for 141 yards in the team’s 30-12 win last Thursday night. It was no surprise that McCaffrey led the way, amassing 85 yards rushing with a 4-yard touchdown on 18 attempts while hauling in all five of his targets for 34 yards. He's posted at least 100 scrimmage yards and one score in each of the first three games of the season.
2023 stats: 3 games | 45 att | 308 rush yds | 6.8 ypc | 1 rush TD | 5 rec | 14 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
The Eagles continue to have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, bulldozing through a Bucs defense that ranked fourth in rush yards allowed coming into Week 3. With Kenneth Gainwell back from injury, Swift led the way in Monday's win over Tampa Bay with 130 yards on 16 carries (8.1 yards per attempt). We are seeing Swift at his best in this Eagles offense.
2023 stats: 3 games | 62 att | 264 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 12 rec | 48 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
I was just as stunned as you were to see the Cowboys fall to the Cardinals, but give credit to an Arizona defense that forced Dak Prescott into mistakes. Pollard was a bright spot for Dallas, totaling a season-high 122 rush yards after posting 142 in the first two weeks combined.
2023 stats: 3 games | 44 att | 267 rush yds | 6.1 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 10 rec | 67 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
The Bills finally have a reliable bell cow providing balance to the offense, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. After racking up 98 yards on the ground in Sunday’s road win over Washington, Cook now has the most rush yards by a Bills player through the first three weeks of the season since 2012 (C.J. Spiller with 308).
2023 stats: 3 games | 51 att | 266 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 7 rec | 26 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
You didn’t think I would swallow my pride to rave about Conner and then NOT put him in my top 15, did you? He deserves a spot here, for all the reasons I mentioned above.
2023 stats: 3 games | 41 att | 240 rush yds | 5.9 ypc | 6 rush TD | 10 rec | 79 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
I said last week that if Mostert can consistently perform, the Dolphins’ offense would feel nearly unstoppable. Well, did you SEE Sunday’s scoring party in South Beach? (How could you miss it?) Scoring 70(!) points in a historic beatdown of the Broncos, the veteran hit pay dirt FOUR times. Let’s count ’em:
- A beautiful 20-yard scamper late in the first half.
- A 3-yard score 20 seconds after his first touchdown.
- A 1-yard run up the gut midway through the third quarter.
- A 19-yard tiptoeing catch-and-run later in the third.
I love watching Mostert hit his stride in Mike McDaniel’s offense, which will have a much stiffer test in Week 4 at Buffalo.
2023 stats: 3 games | 47 att | 204 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 8 rec | 73 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
Despite scoring two touchdowns in a Week 2 win over Detroit, Walker had yet to break 65 yards in a game heading into Week 3. That was until Sunday’s performance against Carolina, when he had 97 rush yards, a pair of rush touchdowns -- on 1- and 7-yard runs -- and a career-high 59 receiving yards. The Seahawks are 6-0 when Walker has at least 110 scrimmage yards in a game, so it’s best to keep feeding him the rock.
2023 stats: 3 games | 47 att | 216 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 3 rec | 49 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
While Sam Howell was stifled by the Bills’ defense, Robinson had a decent day on the ground, finishing with 70 yards on 10 attempts, including a long of 23 yards in the third quarter. Playing from a deficit against an upper echelon team like the Bills is never a good thing for a running back, but Robinson made the most of his limited opportunities by averaging 7.0 yards a pop.
2023 stats: 2 games | 48 att | 210 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 1 rush TD | 6 rec | 42 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
Moss has only played in two games -- he missed Week 1 as he made his way back from a broken forearm -- but he's averaging 105 rush yards per contest as Indy's RB1 replacement for Jonathan Taylor. In last week’s overtime win at Baltimore, the fourth-year pro recorded career-highs in carries (30) and rush yards (122). Also, he posted 23 receiving yards, including a 17-yard touchdown reception. According to Next Gen Stats, Moss found most of his success on the ground when rushing to the left, racking up 108 of his 122 yards when running behind left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Bernhard Raimann.
2023 stats: 3 games | 39 att | 213 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 14 rec | 102 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost
After racking up 255 yards from scrimmage in Atlanta’s first two games, the rookie running back had a quiet 60 such yards in the team’s first loss of the season. The Falcons were bullied up front, as Detroit posted seven sacks and held them to 183 total yards on 65 offensive plays, including 44 yards on the ground. Robinson averaged just 3.3 rush yards a pop. Best to just forget that one and look ahead to next week’s clash with Jacksonville across the pond.
2023 stats: 3 games | 51 att | 163 rush yds | 3.2 ypc | 1 rush TD | 5 rec | 71 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
The Titans’ offense had a pitiful 94 yards in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland. The Browns’ D consistently won in the trenches to kill any momentum, and perhaps no one felt it more than Henry, who was held to 20 yards on 11 carries. It was the second-fewest rush yards he's ever had in a game where he carried the ball at least 10 times. The only instance when he had fewer rush yards on 10 or more carries was against Cleveland in Week 7 of the 2017 season.
2023 stats: 3 games | 49 att | 205 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 1 rush TD | 11 rec | 79 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
The Jaguars’ offense struggled to keep up with the C.J. Stroud-led Texans outfit on Sunday, failing to score in the first half. All they could produce in the first two quarters was a pair of punts, a lost fumble, a missed field goal and blocked field-goal attempt. Jacksonville opened the second half with a seven-play, 67-yard touchdown drive, in which Etienne accounted for 49 yards with a 16-yard gain on the ground and tackle-breaking 17-yard catch-and-run. Despite the loss, Etienne was more productive than he was a week ago, amassing 138 scrimmage yards on 23 touches.
2023 stats: 2 games | 19 att | 208 rush yds | 10.9 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 5 rec | 34 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
Achane cracks the list after a HUGE outing that saw him rack up 233 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns in Miami's 70-20 win over Denver. We’ll see if this continues, but I have to give the rookie his due after that performance. He became just the third rookie running back to post at least 200 scrimmage yards and at least four touchdowns on fewer than 25 touches since 1950, joining Gale Sayers and Clinton Portis.
2023 stats: 3 games | 31 att | 139 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 10 rec | 59 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
With David Montgomery sidelined, Gibbs made his first career start on Sunday and was up to the challenge in the win over Atlanta. He racked up 80 yards on 17 carries for 4.7 yards per attempt -- outpacing his 59 rush yards from the first two games combined. He looks explosive and reliable in Ben Johnson’s offense. Now let’s see him get into the end zone.
2023 stats: 3 games | 35 att | 155 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 1 rush TD | 7 rec | 47 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost
Pacheco has been a steady presence for the Chiefs’ offense. He scored his first touchdown of the season during Kansas City's explosive performance in Week 3, punching in a 1-yard run right before halftime. He's making a difference in the passing game, too. Pacheco already has seven receptions for 47 yards after posting 13 catches for 130 yards in his rookie campaign.