There is a prevalent theme among the four NFC West teams. Each struggle with their own respective identities; each trying to change a pre-written narrative. The storylines that follow the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, and San Francisco 49ers remain largely the same and largely unchanged. We mostly know what we’re getting when each of these three teams takes the field, and for a while, we knew what to expect from the Los Angeles Rams as well.
The Rams failed to live up to expectations following their Super Bowl run in 2018. After the disappointing 2019 season and an offseason where they released star running back Todd Gurley, Los Angeles’ recent divisional dominance became a concern. Questions were raised about the offense’s, and specifically, quarterback Jared Goff’s, productivity without Gurley while the head coach-quarterback marriage of Sean McVay and Goff started to become a shell of the almost-instant success we saw early in McVay’s tenure. But what else can a young, innovative head coach do other than adjust? Adjust he did.
Los Angeles tweaked its system and won four of its first five games with a new run-by-committee approach; but the Rams still faced major identity problems, especially within the backfield. They were certainly committed to the committee approach. There have been just two games where a back had at least 20 touches; Los Angeles was happily sharing the rock amongst the trio of rushers but the unbalanced was incredibly successful. Second-year back Darrell Henderson Jr., Rams veteran Malcolm Brown, and rookie Cam Akers struggled for several reasons. Whether it was the unequal amount of carries or injuries, including Akers’ rib injury that caused him to miss Weeks 3-4, things weren’t working out how McVay thought—a common theme with many of the team’s woes.
“I think it'll just naturally work itself out. I think if you look at that success San [Francisco] had last year with that running back-by-committee approach,” McVay said in July, via The Rams Wire. “What I thought [49ers head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and their players did a great job of is, 'Hey, we're going to have an open-mind approach, we're going to be committed to trying to have some balance and then we'll go with the hot hand or whoever really expresses himself as deserving of the carries.’”
Henderson was the biggest unknown after a disappointing rookie season, even with first-year back Akers in the rotation. While Henderson currently leads the team in rushing yards (559) and touches (123), it’s again Akers making the case to be the Rams’ lead back; it would be another adjustment and one McVay and company should consider with their current hold on the NFC West.
After all, they drafted Akers to fill the void of Gurley, using their 52nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft—the Rams’ first selection after they traded their first-round pick as part of the Jalen Ramsey deal—and Akers was already seen as a feature back out of this class.
This, from The Draft Network’s Kyle Crabbs:
“Akers projects as a three-down, feature back at the NFL level. His explosiveness, versatility, and violence as a player are all huge assets and his vision will allow him to create explosive runs at the NFL level. Akers' skills as a receiver and in pass protection are critical factors that will provide him a bigger role than your average back. Ball security issues may impact Akers' ability to get on the field early in his pro career but if awareness improves here, could be a breakout rookie.”
He’s proving this when Los Angeles utilizes his talents. Since the Rams featured Akers more, he’s had a better success rate (54.6%) than Henderson (33.3%) with the same amount of rushes (33). In Week 13, Akers played in 65% of the team’s snaps; Henderson took 20% and Brown played in 15%. Akers was incredibly effective with 94 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries and one target. Henderson was also efficient, recording 74 yards and a score on three carries and three targets.
Akers has now had at least one touchdown—via run and/or pass—in each of the last three games; and in the last two contests, he was a great dual-threat with both a rushing and receiving touchdown.
McVay likes the productivity of all three backs, telling NFL media Monday that all three are doing a great job of contributing; it’s the expected coach-speak. Akers’ recent stretch should be enough to feature the rookie more than the Rams have across the first three-fourths of the season.
Los Angeles’ use of Akers was largely inconsistent. He earned the starting job out of training camp, was sidelined with that rib injury, and, upon his return, came off the bench in Week 5. In the two weeks that followed, Akers was available and healthy but didn’t have a touch. Now, with a more active role, Akers has accumulated 235 total yards (209 rushing) and three touchdowns on 47 touches over the last four games.
As the Rams face middling run defenses over the next four weeks—with the exception of the Seahawks, shockingly—they would be wise to feature Akers more, continuing to build on the momentum established in the last four weeks since their bye.