One of the more interesting storylines heading into Super Bowl 53 is the emergence of Patriots and Rams running backs during the playoffs.
For Los Angeles, Todd Gurley was their breakout star throughout the regular season, but recently signed C.J. Anderson has picked up most of the reps while Gurley has been used less. It’s unclear if Gurley is battling an injury (he says he’s not) or if the Rams are rolling with a running back tandem, much like the Saints’ Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
Meanwhile, rookie Sony Michel has emerged as a dynamic rusher for the Patriots and has helped ease the load for veteran James White. Quarterback Tom Brady has been relying more and more on his running backs, especially with receiver Josh Gordon missing the postseason and tight end Rob Gronkowski not producing as much this year.
Here, we break down their performances to this point and what to expect from the championship showdown Feb. 3 in Atlanta — with the help of our colleagues at Opta. (If you like what you see here, give @OptaJerry, the official Twitter page for Opta’s NFL and NCAA stats-driven football coverage, a follow.)
How they stack up this season
Beyond the numbers
An intriguing aspect is the UGA factor — Michel was Gurley’s backup at Georgia, with Gurley being one of the Bulldogs’ most memorable players in the past decade and Michel known as half of the “Thunder and Lightning” duo with Browns running back Nick Chubb.
Once Gurley was drafted in the first round by the Rams in 2014, Michel had a breakout year for his sophomore season. Like Gurley, Michel was drafted in the first round and like Gurley, Michel helped establish UGA as “Running Back U.”
Don’t forget about Burkhead
A notable mention is Rex Burkhead, who has been used sparingly throughout the season, but is the reason the Patriots are in the Super Bowl. Burkhead played in just eight games in the regular season and had no touchdowns in that time, but scored three touchdowns on 16 carries in the two playoff games.
It was Burkhead’s 2-yard touchdown run in overtime against the Chiefs that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the third year in a row.
Is Gurley OK?
Gurley has been quiet in the postseason and had his worst game to date in the NFC championship. Enter Anderson, who was a relief to Gurley as he battled knee inflammation at the end of the season. While the Rams say Gurley is healthy, it’s been Anderson who has flourished in the postseason.
Gurley said after the NFC championship that he simply had a bad game, but it’s going to take both running backs being on point if the Rams want to win their second Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.