After three years and several upgrades to their roster, the Los Angeles Rams are back in the Super Bowl. The last time they made it this far, their running game was crucial to their success. The same can’t be said this year, and the Rams’ running backs have underwhelmed in the last few weeks. Can they make an impact in Super Bowl 56?
The Los Angeles Rams’ running backs weren’t particularly productive this season
Going into the playoffs, the Rams were not an especially run-heavy team, ranking near the bottom of the league in total rushing yards. Most of those yards came from two players: Sony Michel contributed 845 yards and 4 touchdowns, while Darrell Henderson added 688 yards and 5 touchdowns before injuring his knee in Week 16.
The playoffs have seen different players take charge but with similar results. Michel hasn’t been a significant contributor so far, totaling just 78 yards on the ground, and Henderson has yet to return from his injury. Shouldering more of the load in the postseason has been Cam Akers, who, after an impressive rookie campaign, totaled just 3 yards on 5 carries during the regular season.
However, Akers’ playoff production hasn’t been anything special, with 151 rushing yards through three games. And we mustn’t forget that he also played a big part in giving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a chance to win in the Divisional Round with a pair of fumbles.
Clearly, the Rams haven’t relied on their running game to get this far.
The advanced metrics also reflect poorly on the Rams’ running game
It’s not just the traditional statistics that have reflected poorly on the Los Angeles running backs. The advanced metrics don’t do them any favors either. As evidence, let’s turn to the Offensive Value Metric (OVM). The OVM is a grading system created by the (Bx) Movement to measure how much of a player’s statistical production they were actually responsible for.
Akers barely played in the regular season, so naturally, he didn’t earn an overall grade. But the Los Angeles running backs who did reach the necessary threshold were unimpressive.
Michel earned a grade of 8.57, which ranked 23rd out of 52 qualifying players at the position. That’s not awful, but it isn’t exactly awe-inspiring either. And Darrell Henderson’s grade was simply abysmal; at 4.65, it ranked as the fourth-worst grade in the NFL.
On the whole, the Rams’ running game was neither productive nor efficient during the regular season, which isn’t a great combination.
Henderson and Michel’s weekly grades were extremely inefficient
To give more context to Henderson and Michel’s overall performances, let’s look at their grades from each week of the regular season.
In the charts below, you can see how their grades varied from week to week, marked by the black dots. For comparison, the yellow line represents the average OVM grade for running backs during the regular season.
Given his overall grade, it should come as no surprise that many of Henderson’s grades were subpar. In fact, more of his grades were in the negatives than were above the league average.
Michel wasn’t nearly as ineffective, but he still spent a great deal of time below the league average this season.
Explaining Henderson and Michel’s regular-season grades
To understand why the Rams’ running backs earned such low grades in the regular season, we need to look at the advanced metrics involved in calculating them.
Opposing defenses didn’t seem to respect Henderson, only placing eight of more defenders around the line of scrimmage against him (8+D%) on 12.75% of his snaps, the fourth-lowest percentage in the league. Despite facing limited resistance, Henderson’s average yards per carry, while relatively high at 4.6, was 0.2 yards lower than expected according to the NFL’s projections.
Michel faced more resistance, with an 8+D% of 24.52%. As a result, his average was naturally slightly lower than Henderson’s, at 4.1 yards on average. However, that number was still 0.13 yards below expectations.
Playoff performances have been particularly troubling from the Rams’ running backs
While the Los Angeles running backs’ grades from the regular season are far from impressive, their postseason grades have been disastrous.
They started reasonably well; against the Arizona Cardinals on Wild Card Weekend, Akers earned a grade of 8.67 and Michel a grade of 10.13. But in the two games since, Akers and Michel have received three grades between them.
Let me list them for you:
- Akers, Divisional: -0.75
- Akers, Conference: -2.32
- Michel, Conference: -5.29
Yes, you’re reading that right; the Rams’ running backs haven’t earned a positive grade in the last two weeks.
So, what’s going on? Well, it’s a similar pattern to what we saw with Darrell Henderson’s regular-season statistics. In the first game, Akers had a relatively low 8+D% of 12.5%. Despite that, he averaged just 2 yards per attempt, 0.86 yards below expectations.
During the Conference Championship, the 49ers’ defense didn’t focus on the running game at all. They didn’t put eight or more defenders in the box on any of Henderson or Michel’s snaps.
And the Rams’ running backs responded with staggeringly inefficient performances. Henderson managed 3.7 yards per attempt, which isn’t awful on the surface. But according to the NFL’s projections, it was 1.45 yards below expectations. Michel was even worse, averaging 1.6 yards per attempt, a full 1.86 yards lower than expected.
It really hasn’t been a great few weeks for the LA running backs.
Can the Rams’ running backs turn things around against the Bengals?
In the last two games, the Rams played against teams who were stout against the run. Both Tampa Bay and San Francisco had highly ranked run defenses. The team they performed well against, the Cardinals, ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in that category.
Unfortunately for the Rams, Cincinnati also has a solid run defense, although they’ve floundered in the postseason. Even with Henderson expected to return, it is difficult to expect much from a group of running backs who have struggled all season. Odds are, if Los Angeles does win Super Bowl 56, it won’t be because of their running game.