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Akers’ Mark: The return of a running back proves integral to Rams’ offensive success

Cam Akers returned to regular action on Monday and the Rams were much better off because of it

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

In the ongoing debate about what is good draft value for a running back, “Day Two” continues to reign supreme. Take last year for example:

There was one running back selected in the first round (Clyde Edwards-Helaire, final pick of the day), nine taken on day two, and eight on day three. After two seasons of play, the top eight players from the class in career rushing yards are CEH and seven running backs who were picked on day two.

Even J.K. Dobbins, the 55th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, ranks seventh among them despite missing the entire 2021 season. Then Cam Akers, the 52nd overall pick, is eighth in spite of not making his 2021 debut until the final game of the year.

Akers, who still has nearly 200 more career rushing yards than anybody drafted on day three last year, then made his first postseason appearance of 2022 when the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Arizona Cardinals 34-11 on Monday Night Playoffs. Though the final stat line could make it seem as though Akers was “limited” by the Cardinals — 17 carries, 55 yards, 3.2 YPC, one catch on two targets — from watching the game we know these two things are true:

  • Akers could have averaged 5.0 yards per carry if not for probably unnecessary holding penalties
  • Akers managed more than 20 touches (including plays that were called back) and had 32 snaps even though he tore his Achilles less than six months ago

I can’t believe any football fan could’ve watched Monday night’s game with the thought that Cam Akers’ presence “doesn’t matter” to the Rams.

Cam Akers is a mattering Ram.

Though we know the Rams could have gotten by with Sony Michel, not only because he averaged 21.5 carries and 3.3 targets per game over the final six weeks but also due to the fact that LA was running away with the score by the third quarter, Sean McVay was insistent on getting the rejuvenated Akers involved with the speed and collisions of professional football again.

Akers, who notably played behind America’s worst offensive line at Florida State and was drafted with “is used to contact” in mind, responded on the field by making it a point that he wasn’t going to play with fear. Late in the third quarter, this resulted in Akers laying a huge hit on Budda Baker—who as an All-Pro safety was attempting to level a huge hit of his own on Akers first—but never did it feel like the second-year running back was in danger of aggravating the serious injury he suffered in July.

(Baker has since notified the world on Twitter that he is OK, and Akers has sent prayers and respect to Budda as well.)

Though the stats won’t make it obvious and in spite of the fact that he did rush for 171 yards against the Patriots as a rookie, Cam Akers may have played his best professional football game on Monday. He reminded football fans that towards the end of last season, he was playing as well as any rookie running back other than Jonathan Taylor, another 2020 day two pick who was starting to pick up steam at the tail end of the year.

What happens for Cam Akers next season, when hopefully he will have an entire offseason and training camp to take into Week 1, will remain unknown for quite a while. And that can be set aside for now as the Rams start game planning for ways to upend the defending champion Buccaneers in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs had the best run defense in the NFL in 2020, en route to their second Super Bowl win, but teams were much more successful on the ground in 2021. It’s just that they haven’t really tried to run on Tampa Bay at all in the last two years: the Buccaneers have faced the fewest rushing attempts in each of the past two seasons (358 in 2020, 366 in 2021) and Tampa saw the most passing attempts of any defense this year.

The results were that the Bucs ranked 12th against the run and 10th against the pass, by DVOA.

Last season, they were first against the run and fifth against the pass in those categories.

Coming off of a wild card game that saw Matthew Stafford attempt only 17 passes—his fewest in a game since 2010—and the first time in his entire career that Stafford had fewer than 20 passes when he wasn’t hurt during the contest, the Rams have to consider how much they put the ball in the quarterback’s hands and how often they lean into Akers, Michel, and trying to gain an early advantage on the ground.

As I wrote this week, you all made a clear message to McVay: “Run the damn football!” He did, the Rams out the Cardinals, and LA is advancing in the postseason for the third time in four years. To get through the next boss, the Rams must make work of the Bucs’ defense any way they see possible and it is thanks to LA’s willingness to draft another running back on day two, as well as his eagerness to return to the field in record time, that could make that wish come true on Sunday.