In a little over a week, the New England Patriots will play in their third consecutive Super Bowl. They have represented the AFC in four of the last five Super Bowls, and have been to 9 Super Bowls in 19 years. One major reason for this continued dominance is, of course, Tom Brady. Since 2001, he and Bill Belichick have captained the dynasty. Some crew members have changed over the years, and enemies have tried, and tried again, to sink the Patriots’ pirate ship.
Brady and Belichick undoubtedly deserve much of the credit for this prolonged success. It wasn’t all them this year, however. The New England running attack has emerged as a legitimate threat this season and will continue to play a role as the Patriots’ look to finish the job against the Rams.
Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White have taken some much-needed pressure off an aging Brady this year. The backfield trio combined for 176 rushing yards against the Chiefs last Sunday, pacing the offense and keeping the defense away from Number 12. With just a game separating Brady and the Patriots from their sixth Super Bowl title, how can each running back exploit the Rams’ 23rd ranked rush defense?
Taken with the 31st overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, Sony Michel enjoyed a very productive season as the Patriots’ early down back. In the 13 games he suited up for, the 23 year-old started eight of them. Michel avoided what looked to be a serious knee injury in an October matchup against the Bears, as he came back and ended the regular season with a team-high 931 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns.
The Georgia product is off to a scorching start in these playoffs. In two games, Michel has rushed for 242 yards and 5 touchdowns, all while averaging over 4 yards per carry. The Rams rush defense allows just over 120 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry to opposing backs. Michel carried the ball 24 and 29 times against the Chargers and Chiefs respectively, moving the ball on the early downs and keeping it away from the opposing offense. He will have a similar role against Jared Goff and the Rams’ top-two offense.
It would be remiss of me to not mention that this Super Bowl will feature a matchup between two former teammates at Georgia. Michel and Rams’ superstar Todd Gurley played on the same college team as Bulldogs. The two first-round picks will now face off on opposite sidelines as their respective team’s leading rushers.
The Patriots inked Burkhead to a three-year deal worth $9.75 million over the offseason. Unfortunately, he only made it two weeks before landing on the Injured Reserve with a neck injury. The 28 year-old returned to action in week 13 and has served as an alternative option in the backfield.
After failing to find the end zone once during the regular season, Burkhead scored once against the Chargers and twice more against the Chiefs. Burkhead actually iced the game against the Chiefs with a two-yard burst on the opening drive of overtime. He doesn’t get the workload of Michel, nor does he get as many backfield targets as James White. He has put his stamp on these playoffs as a change of pace back who takes advantage of his opportunities, and Josh McDaniels should continue to build on this to keep the Rams’ shaky run defense guessing.
Excluding players named Tom Brady, you’ll be hard pressed to find a player more important to the Patriots than this man right here. James White has spent four full seasons with the Patriots, and has made an impact on his team’s playoff run in every one of them. We all remember Super Bowl LI, where he caught 14 balls for 110 yards and a touchdown and rushed for two more, including the game-winner in overtime. In the Divisional Round against the Chargers, White tied Darren Sproles’ record for receptions in a playoff game with 15. He shows up biggest when the lights are brightest, plain and simple.
One constant that’s emerged from this Patriots’ season riddled with uncertainty is James White. It appears that good things happen when he touches the ball, and his ability out of the backfield can really open up the rest of the field. Arguably one of the most under-appreciated running backs in the league, White will once again assume his role as third-down sparkplug and safety valve for Tom Brady against the Rams. I expect Brady to feed White early and often against a Rams’ defense better equipped in the secondary than at the line.
–Ethan Roy is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @_ethanroy