Breakout Live breaks down the key positional matchups heading into Super Bowl 53. Next up: Running backs.
Los Angeles Rams
As much as some view the Rams as a pass first team under Sean McVay, the offense all season ran through the running backs via the ground and the air.
Todd Gurley produced a carbon copy of his incredible 2017 season by rushing for 1251 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 14 games. As a major pass-catching threat out of the backfield, Gurley caught 59 balls for 580 yards and 4 more touchdowns, giving him 1831 combined yards and 21 total touchdowns. Gurley produced 2093 combined yards in 2017 and 23 total touchdowns in 15 games, making his 2017 and 2018 mirror images of one another. However, Gurley injured his knee at the end of this season and missed the final two games.
Shockingly, Sean McVay admitted after Gurley’s knee injury vs. the Eagles that it was similar to the injury he suffered in Week 1 vs. Oakland, but nobody knew of any injury in Week 1 until McVay spoke on it prior to Week 16. It would seem to be just awful timing to lose the biggest piece of your offense to injury right before the playoffs, but that was before C.J. Anderson happened.
In Gurley’s absence over the final two weeks of the season, C.J. Anderson, the street free agent who bounced around the league with stops in Carolina and Oakland, seemingly hit the lottery with the playoff bound Rams, or was it the other way around? Anderson tore it up with 299 yards on 43 carries in producing back-to-back 100-yard games against Arizona and San Francisco for a healthy 7+ yards per carry.
Now with the comfort of Anderson as an insurance policy, the bye week would allow Gurley to come back healthy to face the Cowboys in the divisional round. Gurley would produce 115 yards on 16 carries and a score, looking like his old self. The insurance policy also paid off as C.J. Anderson rumbled for 123 yards of his own and two touchdowns, making the Rams an even scarier version of the team that went 13-3 during the regular season.
In the NFC Championship, the same duo that combined for 238 yards and 3 touchdowns only mustered 54 yards and 1 score. During the regular season, only the Bears allowed fewer yards (1283 to 1280) on the ground than New Orleans, so it wasn’t alarming the Rams high-powered ground game couldn’t find its footing.
However, what was alarming is Todd Gurley only saw four carries against the Saints and apparently was stifled from getting more, not due to injury, but coach’s decision. It’s highly unusual for a player of Gurley’s magnitude to be in essence benched in the biggest game of the season when he had been ridden all year to get to this point.
Now the Rams go into Super Bowl 53 with C.J. Anderson looking like more of a sure thing than Todd Gurley. Who could’ve conceived of that a few short weeks ago?
New England Patriots
Unlike the Rams who were Gurley-centric, Bill Belichick employs a running back by committee approach with his ground game, so it was a bit of a surprise when he used a 1st-round selection on Sony Michel in the 2018 draft.
The Patriots’ new toy, Michel, was injured during training camp, so he didn’t taste any live action until Jacksonville in Week 2, where he saw 10 carries. Outside of the Bears game where he was injured in the first half, Michel would see 10 or more carries in each game the rest of the way and saw 20 or more carries in 4 of those contests in a radical departure from the committee approach favored by Belichick.
James White’s underrated self would play a major factor in 2018, but mostly as a 3rd down pass-catcher. White would top 44 yards on the ground only once, seeing double-digit carries only twice. White caught 87 passes for 751 yards and 7 touchdowns while bringing diversity to the the Patriots running back stable.
Rex Burkhead was presumed to play a major role, but he was derailed by injury and returned just before season’s end from IR to join in the playoff push.
Cordarrelle Patterson stepped up and played running back for the Pats, carrying it 11 times in a win over the Packers on a Sunday night. The shifty return specialist added a new dimension to the backfield, showing some power nobody knew he had. Pats OC Josh McDaniels sprinkled in Patterson throughout the season, giving him 42 carries for 228 yards and a team best 5.4 ypc.
Every fantasy football player’s least favorite Patriot got into the scoring act, punching in 4 short touchdowns on just 6 carries in the regular season.
Once the playoffs started the Pats turned back to their rookie from Georgia. Michel is far and away the postseason leading rusher with 242 yards on a monstrous 53 attempts. Michel’s 24 and 29 attempts in back-to-back playoff games led to two 100+ yard games and 5 touchdowns. James White also saw his playoff usage spike in the passing game, catching and unthinkable 15 passes against the Chargers. In two playoff games, White has 19 receptions, good for 146 yards in a backfield that looks like a well-oiled machine.
If this were a regular season game prior to Gurley’s injury, you’d have to give the edge to the Rams. But this isn’t the regular season. The Patriots have found a second wind and second gear with their ground game in the second season. In what could end up being a dog-eat-dog and Dawg vs. Dawg game with Gurley and Michel both being former first rounders from the Georgia Bulldogs, don’t be surprised if C.J. Anderson vs. James White isn’t the real determining factor.
With Gurley a question mark with his mysterious 4 carries against the Saints, and Michel blowing up in the playoffs along with James White, it’s hard not giving the edge to the Patriots. While Anderson has SB experience and has found the fountain of youth in Los Angeles, James White is a former Super Bowl MVP. With Gurley less than a sure thing, the battle-tested Patriots deserve the tip of the cap in this category.