2017-Present - McVay's run

Super Bowl LIII Positional Preview: The Running Backs

Rams Talk will be breaking down each positional match-up between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots leading up to Super Bowl LIII. Today, we’ll be breaking down a position of strength for both teams: running back.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams rushing attack is led by 2018 First-Team All-Pro Todd Gurley. He followed up a career year in 2017 with another dominant campaign, totaling 1,831 yards and 19 touchdowns over just 14 games. Gurley proved unstoppable at times, rushing for 100 yards in half of his games and was one of just three players this season to record a 200-yard game. He led the NFL in total touchdowns in 2018.

Gurley dominated the Rams backfield until his injury in Week 15, when the team was forced to sign veteran C.J. Anderson to fill the void. Anderson seized the opportunity in a huge way, recording three consecutive 100-yard performances and out-snapping Gurley in the NFC Championship Game.

The Rams backfield is at it’s best when both Gurley and Anderson are producing, as evidenced by their performance against Dallas in the playoffs. The two complement each other well. While Anderson is a between-the-tackles bruiser, Gurley is more elusive and can run both inside and out. Gurley is the better receiver, but Anderson is better in pass-protection.

It’s rare that a team can have two quality running backs that can both produce on running and passing downs. The Rams haven’t had a dual-threat backfield since the brief overlap of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson in 2004. When you can spell one of the best players in the NFL and not miss a beat, you’re in great shape. This Rams backfield should be a key to success in the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots

Injuries affected the Patriots backfield throughout the 2018 season, but the group is at full health heading into the big game.

Rookie Sony Michel has led the way for the Patriots on the ground this season. Michel ran for 931 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season, and he’s maintained that level of play in the playoffs. He’s scored five touchdowns in two playoff games and leads all players in rushing this postseason. The Patriots relied on the rookie more and more as the season has progressed, and he’s continued to produce.

Veteran James White has been the Patriots’ primary pass-catcher out of the backfield. White led the Patriots in receptions and receiving touchdowns this season, and even added five touchdowns on the ground. He struggles to find carries in a healthy New England backfield but is reliable when called upon. Still, expect the Patriots to throw the football when White is on the field.

A healthy Rex Burkhead has added a third cog in this Patriots backfield. Burkhead has been successful both on the ground and through the air. He scored two critical touchdowns in the AFC Championship, including the game-winning touchdown.

While Burkhead didn’t play much in the Patriots’ first playoff game, the trio combined to almost control much of the AFC Championship. Michel’s usage rate was through the roof in this game, netting 29 carries on just 34 snaps. Burkhead netted 16 total touches and White had 10 himself. The Patriots relied on this trio to carry them past the Chiefs and they delivered. There may not be a Todd Gurley in this group, but it is an immensely productive backfield.

How Do They Compare?

Even with C.J. Anderson in the fold, the Patriots still take the cake in terms of depth. White and Michel find ways to produce despite the predictability of the offense when they take the field. White rarely runs, Michel rarely catches passes, and yet they’re both still able to produce at a high level. The Patriots threw the ball on just 14% of Michel’s snaps on Sunday. Still, he dominated the Chiefs on the ground. The addition of Burkhead has given them another dimension, as the team has trusted Burkhead well enough in both the run and the pass. This three-headed monster was a major factor in New England’s victory over Kansas City.

Still, it’s hard for anyone to claim that this group is better than the Rams backfield with a healthy Todd Gurley. The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year was a huge disappointment against New Orleans, but he’s had one bad game this season. He’s torn defenses apart week after week on the ground and through the air. He’s one of the most lethal players in the league whenever he touches the ball. And if you can find a way to stop him, there is still Anderson waiting.

Anderson has been a problem to take down in his four games with the Rams. He did whatever he wanted against a Cowboys defense that finished fifth in the NFL against the run. When both Anderson and Gurley are on, this backfield is simply better than the Patriots’ backfield.

Advantage: Rams.

Steve Rebeiro is a staff writer and host of the Butting Heads podcast for Rams Talk. He is an alumni of Marquette University. For more of his opinions, follow him on Twitter here.

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