Super Bowl LIII running backs: Georgia on the mind of Patriots, Rams top rushers

With Atlanta hosting Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, it’s only fitting that both the New England Patriots’ and Los Angeles Rams’ leading rushers first made their names in the Peach State.

The Rams’ Todd Gurley, who led all players in combined rushing and receiving touchdowns for the second year in a row, starred at Georgia from 2012-14 before becoming a first-round pick in 2015. Sony Michel, whose 242 rushing yards in two games for New England are tops for these playoffs, followed in Gurley’s footsteps as a national standout for the Bulldogs from 2015-17. The Pats selected him in Round 1 of the most recent NFL Draft. 

Gurley’s status as a fantasy football dynamo has helped make him a household name. He’s reached the end zone 40 times over the past two regular seasons and gained a combined 3,926 yards from scrimmage over that span. In addition to being an explosive runner who averaged 4.9 yards per carry this season, he caught 59 passes for 580 yards in 2018.

However, a knee injury caused him to miss the final two games of the regular season. During his absence, Los Angeles relied heavily on late-season addition C.J. Anderson, who picked up right where Gurley left off. He rushed 43 times for 299 yards (7.0 yards per carry) to close December, then followed it up with another 123 yards on 23 attempts and two touchdowns in the Rams’ 30-22 postseason victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Gurley, for his part, punched in a touchdown while gaining 115 yards on 16 carries against Dallas. But both Rams’ running backs struggled in the NFC Championship Game win over the New Orleans Saints. Gurley has maintained that he is no longer dealing with his knee injury and simply had a bad game against New Orleans. Regardless, expect both backs to factor into the Rams’ game plan.

Look for the Patriots to utilize at least three running backs on Sunday, as they have throughout the 2018 campaign. Rookie Michel was limited to 13 regular-season games but still managed 931 yards on 209 attempts, adding six rushing scores. That doesn’t include his prolific playoff numbers, such as his 53 carries and five touchdowns in two January games.

Unlike his fellow Georgia alumnus, Michel isn’t often used in the passing game. Instead, James White gets as much attention from quarterback Tom Brady as any wide receiver. Best known for his Super Bowl LI heroics in which he scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime, he tallied 87 catches on 123 targets, gaining 751 yards and seven touchdowns. Although not the top option on running plays, White gained 425 yards on 94 attempts, adding another five scores.

The Patriots’ other notable running back, Rex Burkhead, does a little of both. Despite just 317 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in eight regular-season games, he proved his worth in the postseason with three rushing touchdowns — two against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

The presence of all these talented running backs are the reason the Rams and Patriots rank in the top five in terms of rushing yards per game. Whichever backfield is more productive on Sunday could be the determining factor in who wins this Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LIII running backs by the numbers

Includes 2018 regular-season and postseason stats 

Sony Michel (Patriots)
NFL seasons: 1
Games: 15
Carries: 262
Rushing yards per game: 78.2
Yards per carry: 4.5
Receptions: 12
Receiving yards per game: 3.9
Total touchdowns: 11
Fumbles: 1

Todd Gurley (Rams)

NFL seasons: 4
Games: 16
Carries: 276
Rushing yards per game: 86
Yards per carry: 5
Receptions: 62
Receiving yards per game: 36.6
Total touchdowns: 23
Fumbles: 1