Super Bowl Debate – Running Backs Impact and Prop Betting

FairwayJay looks at Super Bowl LIII with insight on running backs, player props and historical significance of running backs production in the Super Bowl.

As Super Bowl LIII approaches and the quarterbacks sit as the two heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl MVP award, the impact of the running backs is being debated on both the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams. The Patriots are expected to lean heavily on Sony Michel in the running game, and RB James White in the short passing game. The Rams star RB Todd Gurley, a three-time Pro Bowler and 2017 Offensive Player of the Year, has not been fully healthy for more than a month while being hobbled by a knee inflammation and soreness. Running back CJ Anderson has performed very well to fill the void with at least 120 rushing yards in three of the Rams last four games. 

Super Bowl 53 running backsRunning backs certainly make headlines in the NFL, as the game recaps and highlights are often filled with running backs scoring touchdowns. But outside of the true elite running backs, the position is one that is often replaceable with another running back capable of performing well enough to offset any significant drop off in production. We’re seeing that will CJ Anderson covering for Gurley, and during the season the Steelers RB James Connor rushed for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games replacing one of the NFL’s elite running backs Le’Veon Bell. Pro Football Focus rated the Steelers offensive line No. 1 in the NFL following the 2018 regular season. That speaks to the real truth about rushing the football as a cohesive and strong offensive line is essential for running success and pass protection. 

Super Bowl LIII Betting Odds at leading online sportsbooks

New England Patriots (-2.5) 
Los Angeles Rams     (+2.5)
Total: 56.5

The Patriots offensive line ranked No. 4 and the Rams offensive line No. 6 in Pro Football Focus’ final year-end rankings. Pro Football Focus graded all five Patriots offensive line starters in the top-75 linemen in the league with a PFF All-Pro guard in Shaq Mason. The Rams are one of the few offensive lines in the NFL to have five starters play over 1,000 snaps. 

How will the Patriots and Rams running games translate in the Super Bowl?

In my weekly inside the numbers recap during the season, I evaluate rushing stats and guidelines including rushing attempts. The Patriots have averaged 31.1 rushing attempts per game, including the playoffs this season, and the Rams are next at 29.6 attempts. Those numbers rank No. 3 and No. 4 in the NFL this season. Patriots running backs carried the ball 47 times against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship including overtime, and Sony Michel led with 29 rushes for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns. Michel carried the ball 24 times for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Chargers in the AFC divisional round. Those were two of his three highest rushing attempts of the entire season, so coach Belichick is designing a game plan to control the ball more on the ground and still using the short and intermediate passing game. New England running backs carried the ball a total of 30 times against the Chargers. 

How the game plays out in terms of early scoring can affect the game plan and play-calling, especially if a team has to play from behind by double-digits. That's what happened in last year's Super Bowl when we played the Eagles over the Patriots, and New England QB Tom Brady passed more going 28-of-48 for 505 yards. The Patriots leading rusher was James White with 45 yards, and Dion Lewis had a team-high nine rushing attempts against a stronger Eagles defensive front. But in determining a strategy for the Patriots, coach Bill Belichick is a master at identifying an opponent’s weakness and exploiting it. It appears the Patriots will still attempt to run the ball more often knowing the Rams allowed 5.1 yards per rush this season to rank last in the league. While the Rams run defense has been much better in their two playoff wins, allowing just 48 rushing yards to the Saints and 50 rushing yards to the Cowboys in the Rams, it’s still the safest bet to consider for the Patriots initial plan of attack.

Another note on the match-ups is that the Rams defense ranked No. 3 in the league this season in covering and limiting running backs pass production out of the backfield. Running back James White is expected to be a big weapon catching passes for the Patriots, but the match-up against the Rams is a tougher one. So too is the match-up for Patriots WR Julian Edelman, who as the slot receiver goes against an opportunistic Rams secondary. Cornerback Robey-Coleman led the league in yards per cover snap in the slot. Keep those match-ups in mind as you evaluate the player props and yardage.   

New England Patriots Running Back propsWhile there is variance in yards per rush allowed by the Rams, it makes more sense to look at the rushing attempts. 

Super Bowl Prop: Patriots RB Sony Michel OVER 17.5 rushing attempts.

Whenever there is an injury or question about a players health and ability to contribute like Rams RB Todd Gurley, it’s often best to pass and not play the guessing game, or be sure you have a better idea on the players situation and how they will be used in the game plan if able to be identified. Gurley says he is fine and will be ready to go for the Super Bowl. But under 14.5 rushing attempts is still more likely and the Rams have shown they are willing to use CJ Anderson often and in most any situation in the running game.

Here are the prop bets available for the Patriots and Rams running backs in the Super Bowl.

Team Player Rushing Yards Rushing Attempts Receiving Yards Receptions
Rams: Todd Gurley 68.5 14.5 32.5 3.5
CJ Anderson 42.5 10.5 4.5
Patriots: Sony Michel 76.5 17.5 0.5
James White 17.5 3.5 44.5  4.5
Rex Burkhead 22.5 4.5 18.5

So how much do running backs matter in the overall scheme and Super Bowl?

Nine of the top-10 individual rushing performances in Super Bowl history saw those running backs teams win the Super Bowl. Only Thurman Thomas of the Buffalo Bills dynasty years failed to win the Super Bowl with his 135 rushing yards in Super Bowl XXV (1991) loss to the NY Giants, 20-19.  

Top 5 rushing yards in Super Bowl history

Timmy Smith (WASH) – 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII – Redskins won 42-10
Marcus Allen (LA Raiders) – 191 yards in Super Bowl XVIII – Raiders won 38-9
John Riggens (WASH) 166 in Super Bowl XVII – Redskins won 27-17
Franco Harris (PIT) – 158 yards in Super Bowl IX – Steelers won 16-6
Terrell Davis (DEN) 157 yards in Super Bowl XXXII – Broncos won 31-24

Others Larry Csonka (MIA) 145, Clarence Davis (OAK) 137, Thurman Thomas (BUF) 135, Emmitt Smith (DAL) 132

Also, from the rushing attempts list below, nine of the top-10 running backs in rushing attempts saw their team win the Super Bowl. Only Eddie George of Tennessee saw his team come up short (by 1 yard) against the St. Louis Rams in a 23-16 loss in Super Bowl XXXIV (2000).

Top 5 rushing attempts in Super Bowl history

John Riggins (WASH) – 38 in Super Bowl XVII
Franco Harris (PIT) – 34 in Super Bowl IX
Larry Csonka (MIA) – 33 in Super Bowl VIII
Terrell Davis (DEN) – 30 in Super Bowl XXXII
Emmit Smith (DAL) – 30 in Super Bowl XXVIII
Matt Snell (NYJ) – 30 in Super Bowl III

Others…Michael Pittman (TB) – 29, Eddie George (TEN) – 28, Jamal Lewis (BAL) - 27

Will a Patriots or Rams running back join the record books with a Super Bowl performance to remember? The value in betting on a Super Bowl MVP lies with Patriots RB Sony Michel and perhaps CJ Anderson, or even Gurley as a risk, although a Rams wide receiver may be a better target for a value longshot. On a fast indoor track with two top-scoring offenses against two below average defenses statistically, it looks like plenty of plays and scoring is in the Fairway forecast, knowing too that the Patriots and Rams offense rank top-3 in the league in number of plays per game. 

FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Read more great insights from Jay here and follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay

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