When looking at the Los Angeles Rams run game this season, the stats would show that there was nothing wrong with it. By most measure, the Rams were doing just fine in the run game, despite losing Cam Akers to a season-ending torn achilles. Among running backs with at least 125 carries, Akers’ fill-in Darrell Henderson ranked 11th in yards and and sixth in yards per attempt.
Not too bad, right?
It gets more impressive when looking at the advanced analytics.
Henderson is currently the number eight running back via DVOA and DYAR. His success rate of 58% ranked fifth in the NFL. Additionally, in EPA per rush, Henderson is currently tied for eighth. However, despite the Rams offensive line creating the fourth most adjusted line yards, Henderson ranked 21st in rush yards over expected and the Rams run game ranked 25th in open field yards.
In other words, while the Rams offensive line was creating holes, Henderson wasn’t getting much more than what was there.
While statistically speaking there wasn’t anything wrong with the Rams run game, it felt like something was missing. The run game seemed to not be able to get into any sort of rhythm, whether that was due to play-calling, personnel, or the ball carrier missing opportunities. It’s worth noting that it’s possible that Henderson’s bumps and bruises that he’s dealt with this year also began to pile up and take their toll.
After the Packers game, it was pretty obvious that the Los Angeles Rams really missed Cam Akers and his explosiveness.
However, the Rams’ mentality in the run game changed on Sunday against the Jaguars. They got back to the heavy personnel, utilized a physical running running back, and from a play-calling perspective they stuck with it. That dedication to the run game paid off.
Michel’s 0.22 EPA/rush was the highest for a Rams running back since Week 8 when Henderson record an EPA/Rush of 0.37. His 0.11 rush yards over expected was also the highest since Week 8 when Henderson record a RYOE of 1.86.
That’s not a coincidence. Week 8 against the Houston Texans was the last time that the Rams offense had significant usage out of 12 personnel and it resulted in Henderson rushing for 90 yards. The Rams were 14% in 12 personnel in Week 8 and haven’t been higher since 2% since.
There are reasons for this. The Rams have swayed away from 12 personnel since Johnny Mundt‘s injury after Week 6. During the first five weeks of the season, the Rams offense had run 24% of 12 personnel or higher in three of the first five games.
On top of 12 personnel, the Los Angeles Rams also ran more jumbo sets. In other words, instead of a second or third tight end, Joseph Noteboom came in. In jumbo formations, the Rams averaged nine yards per carry.
Mundt’s injury changed the offense as the blocking tight end. The Rams have had significant injuries to the tight end position. Additionally, Robert Woods went out which also hampered the team’s ability to block in the run game. As fans know, the Rams use Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods in the run game as blockers quite often.
Between jumbo formations and switching personnel, the Rams simply became more versatile in the run game. Prior to Sunday, the Rams were primarily a zone running team. This made sense considering Henderson’s success in wide-zone running schemes at Memphis. Against the Jaguars, the Rams again switched it up. They ran 13 “zone” running plays compared to 11 “gap”. This is good for an offensive line that isn’t going to overpower anyone.
After losing Cam Akers in the offseason, the Rams traded for Sony Michel from the New England Patriots. However, in only one game in Week 3 was he the featured back. Henderson was injured for that game against the Buccaneers. In that game against a stout run defense, Michel had 20 carries for only 67 yards.
It’s not necessarily that the Rams needed to replace Henderson. However, it was clear after the first 11 games of the season that the running game needed a spark. Michel provided that.
For the first time this season, Sony Michel gave the Los Angeles Rams a 100 yard rusher. With that accomplishment, he became the 12th 100-yard rusher in Matthew Stafford‘s career. The impressive part is, he hit 100 yards in just over three quarters of play. Michel gave the Rams run game a physical element that it just hasn’t had this season in yards after contact.
This season, Henderson had been averaging just 1.9 yards after contact per rush. That number ranked 30th in the NFL. On Sunday against the Jaguars, Michel created the fourth-most yards after contact with 80. This means that 80 of Michel’s 121 yards, or 66%, came after contact. Additionally, Michel forced five missed tackles which was the third-highest number in Week 13.
The Los Angeles Rams are going to need the run game moving forward and going down the stretch. Sean McVay’s new toy in Matthew Stafford is fun to watch, but even with his arm, he can’t do it all. The Rams still need to be able to compliment him with a good running game and play action.
The good running game also helps out the offensive line and helps them get settled in. Replacement center Coleman Shelton alluded to this after the Jaguars game.
Coleman Shelton came in early on for his first substantial minutes at C with this particular line. He noted that the steadiness and physicality w which Sony Michel was running gave him “all the confidence in the world” in his own ability to settle in.
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) December 6, 2021
Despite the opponent being the Jaguars, the Rams accomplished this and seemed to make those adjustment. They’ll need to continue that for the remainder of the season, especially this week against the Arizona Cardinals. In games that have been close this season, the Cardinals have given up a lot on the ground.
Davin Cook ran for 121 yards and six yards per carry in what should have been a win for the Vikings. The Jaguars almost led the Cardinals going into the fourth quarter. In that game, James Robinson rushed for 88 yards and 5.9 yards per carry. In the Packers’ win over the Cardinals – the only loss that the Cardinals have with Kyler Murray under center, AJ Dillon had 78 yds and 4.9 yards per carry. While it was Colt McCoy under center, Christian McCaffrey had 95 yards on 13 carries for an average of 7.3 yards per attempt.
The Cardinals are giving up the second-highest yards per carry this season. Their defense is one of the best in the league, but they can be exploited on the ground.
Running the ball makes things so much easier for the Los Angeles Rams offense and it’s the key to beating the Cardinals. Given the success that Michel had, the Rams should absolutely roll with the hot hand and keep riding Sony Michel. His physicality and ability to be decisive and hit the hole is something that Henderson hasn’t done this season consistently.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the Rams need to abandon or completely bench Darrell Henderson. He certainly has a role in the offense. We’ve seen his ability in the passing game. He’s very good down field as a receiver. He has two receiving touchdowns this year – both of which were impressive catches against the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
Henderson has also been very good in pass protection whereas Michel struggled in this area on Sunday against the Jaguars. In fact, Henderson has been the seventh-highest graded running back in pass protection via PFF in the NFL. Henderson has yet to give up a sack in pass protection this season.
The Los Angeles Rams running back out of Memphis is what he is at this point. He’s not something that’s going to carry the load. Henderson is a good compliment back and will continue to be that moving forward. He’s still capable of making plays and shouldn’t be completely taken out of the game plan. Michel just makes more sense as the every down back.
After three straight losses, the Rams desperately needed a ‘get-right’ game. They got that last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars and they may have found their running game in the process.