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How will Sean McVay split Rams backfield in Week 2 vs Eagles?

McVay needs to find out what he has to work with, and he has to do it with the game on the line

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The header photograph for this article has the caption “A general view of Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers” and I couldn’t think of a better description of previewing his season than that. All I can produce is a general view of Akers, same as Darrell Henderson, because if the Rams are missing anything at the position, it’s starting experience.

That may be meaningless and several teams started out Week 1 with the determination to prove that running backs don’t matter.

The Jacksonville Jaguars fired Leonard Fournette right before the season and then undrafted free agent rookie James Robinson had 16 carries for 62 yards with a 28-yard reception. The Washington Football Team fired Adrian Peterson and went with a dual “threat” of Peyton Barber and third round rookie Antonio Gibson. These players didn’t have as much success as hyped, but some new players did.

Rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire led all rushers with 138 yards on 25 carries for the Kansas City Chiefs. And the Pittsburgh Steelers started Benny Snell, a fourth round pick in 2019, and he finished third with 113 yards on only 19 carries.

Five or six years ago I felt firmly entrenched in the early stages of the “running backs don’t matter” movement, but as I’ve seen that side of the argument lose sight of the larger picture and become fixated on confirming that one bias, I’ve become more and more sure that running backs do matter. Players like Edwards-Helaire and Snell may add fuel to the “don’t matter” fire, but what if they’re just good players?

That argument in a vacuum would be like saying that in 2019, A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf proved that receivers don’t matter. Or that because Patrick Mahomes stepped into an Andy Reid offense with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce, that quarterbacks don’t matter. Instead, Mahomes is given credit and the Chiefs offense is given credit. Twofold. “Kansas City does have a talented team around Mahomes, but Mahomes’ particular advanced skills make the results that much better.”

Running back production is not solely based on everything on the field except the running back.

Running backs who are drafted higher continue to have more success than those drafted behind them, on average, just like every other position. Did Josh Jacobs inherit an amazing opportunity when he went to a Raiders team that hadn’t produced a franchise running back since Marcus Allen? And if it’s only because of the Las Vegas offensive line, then where were they for Doug Martin in 2018? And what was the point of Jacobs leading the league in broken/missed tackles forced in Week 1?

Why are arguably the three best running backs in the NFL two former top-10 picks and a second rounder who won the Heisman?

Most importantly, as it pertains to the Rams, if “Todd Gurley” (the myth+legend more so than the man) was a product of McVay and the offensive line, then why did the former 10th overall pick play so un-”Todd Gurley” like in 2019 and have to be replaced with Les Snead’s first pick in the draft?

Clearly this is not a position that McVay takes as lightly as some in the masses (not necessarily a majority either) and that also means that yes, Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson can indeed “bust.”

Finding out which of LA’s top three running backs has the highest likelihood of becoming a star and/or the lowest chance of being a disaster is an ongoing work in progress for McVay and his coaching staff. Without a preseason, and with Henderson missing multiple weeks in training camp, this means that he’s having to do it in regular season games. With points on the line and any decision potentially being your biggest mistake.

In Week 1, we found out that Henderson probably wasn’t ready, but could be used in a pinch. This isn’t necessarily bad news for undrafted free agent Xavier Jones, who was also living sans preseason, but may indicate that McVay only sees three real options at this point. The fact that LA kept Jones on the 53-man roster could be a good sign, or it could have been further insurance, as we saw when they added Raymond Calais right after final cuts.

What feels more likely than Jones or Calais becoming a part of the rotation at any point this season is that Henderson could get more than the five snaps he got in Week 1 against the Cowboys. With another week of healthy practice, Henderson could take snaps from either Brown or Akers or both.

Malcolm Brown led the way with 44 snaps and he is perhaps McVay’s most adept blocker at the position. Given the lack of experience with the other options, Brown may actually be McVay’s only adept blocker at running back.

That’s something that, if true, would make him a viable part of the backfield all season long.

As Cam Mellor noted with NextGen Stats, Cam Akers ranked low in efficiency in Week 1, but was also facing the second-highest rate of “stacked boxes” of any running back. Akers received 24 snaps, and both Brown and Akers were in on roughly the same split of rushing plays and passing plays.

This week’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles is likely to produce an even greater rushing challenge than against the Cowboys.

On one hand, the Eagles were facing that “threat” I spoke of earlier with Barber and Gibson. Washington doesn’t present a frightening case with their 2020 rushing attack and won’t be expected to contribute much to any conversation about running backs. However, Philadelphia didn’t just take advantage of an opportunity with a decent showing.

Fletcher Cox and the front-seven absolutely dominated that one area of the game.

Barber had 17 carries for 29 yards, an average of 1.7 yards per carry with a long of eight yards. Dwayne Haskins and J.D. McKissic combined to carry the ball 10 times for 15 yards, meaning that they held those three players to about 1.6 yards per carry on 27 attempts. That’s a brutal night for them, and Haskins even had a 19-yard run. Gibson was the closest thing to a savior but also not fantastic, carrying the ball nine times for 36 yards.

Added up, that’s 36 carries for 80 yards.

Last season, the Eagles run defense let a few games get away from them but were mostly dominant in that area of football. They lost defensive end Vinny Curry for “a while” but didn’t have former first rounder Derek Barnett in Week 1 and could get him back soon. So I have little reason to suspect that the Eagles lost their run defense since the last person checked.

I expect the Rams to make every effort to successfully run the football because that’s what Sean McVay would like to see. I could also understand why Brown, Akers and Henderson might struggle to produce against the Philadelphia front-seven. And I can see why it would be reasonable to expect Henderson’s role to increase, perhaps with Brown’s role in certain situations (like that third-and-one) decreasing.

Though I’m not saying Brown was always short of the line to gain.

Two years ago, the Rams played the Eagles and they didn’t even have a strong run defense at the time. Philadelphia had given up over 100 rushing yards in five straight games but then held LA to only 82 on the ground, winning 30-23. That day, Gurley carried the ball 12 times and gained 48 yards, but did score two touchdowns and catch 10 passes for 76 yards. McVay knows that he doesn’t have that player available this week, but he’s hoping that these three can come together to combine their skills and be something like that for now.

To some people that still matters.