Rams shouldn’t stray too far from Sony Michel’s hot hand – even with Cam Akers back

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  • Los Angeles Rams
    Los Angeles Rams
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Cam Akers
    Cam Akers
    American football player
  • Sony Michel
    Sony Michel
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  • Sean McVay
    American football coach

Sean McVay has used the words “hot hand” numerous times during his tenure with the Los Angeles Rams. Riding the hot hand has been his go-to answer when asked how the Rams plan to sort out the workload at running back when they have two viable options.

It was the case with C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley in 2018. It remained true last season with Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson Jr. And once again this year, he used that phrase when it came to Sony Michel and Henderson.

With Anderson and Akers, riding the hot hand worked undeniably well. Anderson helped get the Rams to the Super Bowl when Gurley was banged up, rushing for 299 yards in two regular-season games and another 189 yards in the playoffs three years ago. Akers also helped lead the Rams to a playoff win over the Seahawks last season when he was running it well late in the year.

McVay will have a similar decision to make this season.

Michel dominated the month of December for the Rams, leading the league with 423 yards rushing and two touchdowns in four games – an average of about 106 yards per game. Since Week 13, he’s forced a league-high 15 missed tackles and leads the NFL with 10 rushes of 10-plus yards. His 16 rushes for first downs also rank first in the NFL since Week 13.

By just about every measure, he was the best running back in football this month – and is a huge reason the Rams went 4-0 and got back on track offensively after losing three straight in December.

But here’s where things get complicated.

Henderson is on IR and out 3-5 weeks. Akers is on the verge of returning and could play as soon as this Sunday, according to McVay. With Michel running the ball so well right now, will McVay go away from the “hot hand” and make Akers the starter?

He hasn’t said exactly what the plan is yet, but that would probably be a bad move. Akers is five months removed from tearing his Achilles and while the team wouldn’t be so careless to force him back early, it’s hard to imagine he’ll immediately be the same player he was at the end of last season.

Achilles tears typically sideline players for 10-12 months and have long-term effects on their overall explosiveness and agility. This isn’t to say Akers can’t return to the form he previously showed, but expecting that to happen in the midst of a playoff race and potentially a Super Bowl run might not be the wisest move for the Rams.

Michel has given McVay no reason to go away from him. If anything, he’s gotten better as the season has gone on, rushing for a season-high 131 yards on Sunday against the Vikings. He’s averaging a healthy 4.75 yards per carry in his last four games and is breaking tackles left and right.

McVay knows how well Michel is playing, too. He’s just seen Akers’ talent and knows what he’s capable of, which makes his addition to the offense exciting.

“You look at Sony over the last four weeks – if you take weeks 13 through 16, he’s leading the league in rushing,” McVay said this week. “He’s averaging over 100 a game, he’s getting a little over 22 carries a game and he’s done a great job. I think he gets stronger as the game goes on. Really been pleased with him and you can add Cam Akers to the mix and he’s anywhere close to what we know he’s capable of being. That’s really exciting.”

Michel might not be the all-around running back that Akers is when it comes to pass protection and receiving out of the backfield. He’s much more of a downhill, between-the-tackles runner than he is a versatile player in the mold of Akers.

But that’s been working just fine for the Rams in the last month. His physicality has brought a spark to the offense and a new mindset for his teammates, too, with A’Shawn Robinson saying he’s “like a choo-choo train.”

McVay loves the way Michel fights through contact and still maintains security of the ball, fumbling it only one time in 185 touches this season.

“I think he’s got great contact balance. He’s really sturdy. I mean he’s just a physical, strong – he’s got great contact balance,” McVay added. “He’s got all those things that are built to – he’s built like a running back should be when you look at it. And he is just really tough. He’s got great ball security too throughout those. That’s the thing you want to make sure that, ‘Do I continue to maintain great ball security as I’m in the midst of breaking tackles?’ And he had a couple runs like that against Seattle as well, really over the last month, he’s done a great job of having to come to life, but I think it’s the contact balance, the strength and then he does have some subtleties and nuances to his game where he is able to set guys in traffic that when you really watch it closely, you can appreciate the natural run instincts and ability to work edges and level off even in traffic type situations.”

There’s no denying Akers’ ability. We saw it on full display last season when the Rams were running all over their opponents to the tune of 645 yards rushing by Akers in his last seven games played – including the postseason.

He was exactly what the offense needed when Jared Goff was struggling and injured. This season, Michel might be the key to the Rams’ success, and going away from him could wind up being a mistake.

This isn’t to say Akers shouldn’t be utilized at all. He can still contribute and help the offense, whether it’s on third downs as a receiver or as a change-of-pace back the way Henderson was for Michel.

But benching Michel for Akers this late in the year may not be the best thing for an offense that has found its groove recently.

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