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Tom Oates: Versatile running backs the name of the game in this Super Bowl

February 3, 2019

If you have a horse in the race, you tend to look at the Super Bowl one way.

But if you have no rooting interest, you tend to look at it from an entirely different angle, usually through the prism of the team you follow.

Fans of 30 teams, including the Green Bay Packers, will watch Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in Atlanta and ask the same question: What are they doing that my team isn’t?

The simple answer is they’re using running backs more often, more creatively and more effectively than their NFL brethren.

The Patriots and Rams were top-five rushing teams during the regular season, in part because they had healthy, well-seasoned offensive lines and in part because they committed to the run more than most teams in the pass-happy NFL. And Sunday’s Super Bowl combatants have run the ball even more effectively during the playoffs than they did in the regular season.

But these aren’t just old-school, ground-and-pound offenses. Both teams also use their backs extensively in the passing game, elevating the importance of a position that had been devalued in the modern, wide receiver-centric NFL.

Patriots backs led the NFL by a wide margin in touches — rushing and receiving — with almost 36 per game during the regular season. Rams backs were 12th with almost 28 per game. Both teams have upped those numbers in the playoffs. Patriots backs have 106 touches in two games; Rams backs have 63, also in two games.

To be sure, there are major differences in the teams’ offensive approaches. The Patriots frequently throw to their backs in their dink-and-dunk passing game, especially former University of Wisconsin star James White, who was third among NFL backs — and 16th overall — in receptions with 87. The Rams’ Todd Gurley was second in the NFL in rushing yards, setting up the team’s bread-and-butter play-action passing game. But he also caught 59 passes, the eighth-best mark among backs in the league.

It appears the pendulum is swinging back toward the running back in the NFL, with the difference being there is now a great deal of creativity and versatility thrown in. That’s what makes this Super Bowl matchup so intriguing ... and so hard to pick.

All week the storylines have centered on the Patriots’ vast experience versus the Rams’ youthful enthusiasm. First, there is the coaching matchup of New England’s Bill Belichick and Los Angeles’ Sean McVay, who, at 33, is half Belichick’s age. Then there is the quarterback matchup of the Patriots’ Tom Brady, who is looking for his sixth Super Bowl win at age 41, and the Rams’ Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

The on-the-field matchups are much better, however, and whoever wins those will walk off with the Lombardi Trophy. The game will pit two young, cutting-edge offensive masterminds against two 60-plus defensive coaches who are among the best at game-planning for a specific opponent in the history of the NFL.

Belichick and Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is 71, consistently come up with great game plans, especially when they have two weeks to draw one up. McVay, who directs the Rams offense, has taken the NFL by storm with an attack that liberally employs college spread concepts to create indecision for the defense. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has perfected the quick passing game, whether it is throwing to the backs or to slot receiver Julian Edelman.

A little-known but always-vital fact at this time of year: The Rams and Patriots have had the NFL’s healthiest offensive lines this season. Los Angeles has started the same line in all 18 games. New England’s five linemen have missed a total of five starts.

Having lines that consistently open holes in the running game and provide excellent pass protection has been a critical element in the success of both teams, especially in the playoffs. That won’t change Sunday.

When the Patriots have the ball, their line must contend with a Rams front four that is among the best in the NFL, especially on the interior with Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Brady has always been susceptible to a pass rush up the middle, but he has been throwing the ball so quickly and his protection has been so good that he hasn’t been sacked in the playoffs. In fact, he’s barely been touched.

One key to the airtight protection has been the emergence of rookie Sony Michel as a workhorse runner in December and January. The Patriots have rushed for 165 yards per game during the postseason, which is 10 fewer than the Rams but still second-best among the 12 playoff teams. The Rams defense doesn’t sub much, so look for the Patriots to try to wear it down with an uptempo attack and long drives that mix runs and short passes.

When the Rams have the ball, their success will depend on how much Gurley and C.J. Anderson can run the ball effectively and set up Goff’s play-action passes. Anderson thrived while Gurley battled a knee problem late in the season, but Gurley’s light workload — only four carries in the NFC Championship Game — and two weeks of rest could spell trouble for a Patriots defense that is strong up the middle but has been vulnerable to outside runs.

If the Patriots can limit the running game, they will force Goff into obvious passing situations, when play-action isn’t a factor. Then Belichick’s ability to use stunts and games up front to put pressure on Goff will be most effective.

The two most important players in the Super Bowl are Donald and Gurley because their success is vital to everything the Rams do. If Donald can disrupt Brady and Gurley can move the chains, the Rams will win. However, the guess here is Belichick won’t allow either one of those things to happen and the Patriots will prevail.

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