Hardnosed RB Sony Michel carries Rams to playoff berth

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sony Michel’s hardnosed running style played a major role in the Los Angeles Rams’ surge into a playoff spot over the past month.

The former Super Bowl champion’s skills have also inspired his teammates to bursts of unusual creativity when they attempt to describe what makes Michel so hard to tackle.

“Sony has that mind where (he thinks), ‘I can’t stop chugging along,'” Rams defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson said. “He’s like a choo-choo train. It’s just, ‘Choo choo!'”

Michel rushed for a season-high 131 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 27 carries last week in the Rams’ 30-23 win at Minnesota, their fourth consecutive victory in December. Los Angeles clinched a playoff berth with its winning streak, and Michel is carrying a heavy load for the Rams (11-4) as they head to Baltimore (8-7) on Sunday.

Michel could be the only running back on the Rams’ roster with significant game action this season when they face the Ravens. Darrell Henderson (ankle) went on injured reserve this week, and Cam Akers is highly unlikely to make his season debut despite his rapid recovery from a torn Achilles tendon.

While Michel clearly loves to play football, he also doesn’t crave any spotlight, preferring to turn the attention to anybody else when he receives compliments for his success.

“To be honest, I feed off the offensive line’s energy,” Michel said. “These guys are ready to roll.”

During the Rams’ four-game surge, Michel has 423 yards on the ground with 4.75 yards per attempt and the Rams’ only two 100-yard rushing games this season. The surge catapulted him past Henderson to become Los Angeles’ leading rusher this season with 728 yards. Michel is also the NFL’s leading ball-carrier during that four-week stretch, topping Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor (421).

He is the first Rams ball-carrier to top 700 yards since 2019, when another physical running back from Georgia named Todd Gurley did it.

Robinson, an Alabama product who played against Michel in the SEC, describes Michel’s ball-carrying style as “running through people’s faces.”

“One of the best things he did when he came in (to the NFL) was add on a little bit more weight to give him a little more power, a little more muscle mass to run into people’s faces even more,” Robinson added.

Michel’s physical running style allows him to pick up important yards after contact, a quality often lacking in the Rams’ running game over the past two seasons. Whenever Michel is asked to describe what’s important to his running style, he repeatedly cites pad level and persistence, following techniques he has honed since “the moment I started playing running back.”

His teammates notice.

“Nobody really wants to tackle that guy on the second level,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He does a great job of playing low, giving not much to hit.”

The Rams knew all about Michel’s style after his performance against them in the Super Bowl three seasons ago. The New England rookie rushed for 94 yards and scored the only touchdown in the Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams.

When Akers tore his Achilles tendon five months ago, the Rams acquired Michel to fill the gap on their roster. Henderson got most of the carries in the first half of the season, but Michel has turned it on down the stretch while Henderson is sidelined by injuries again.

With Henderson slowed in December, the Rams adjusted their blocking schemes and play-calling decisions to complement Michel’s more physical running style. The results have been undeniable: With Michel carrying the load on the ground even while the offensive line had several moving parts due to COVID-19 and injuries, the Rams have scored 145 points in their five games since their bye week.

Akers and Henderson are both under contract for next season, so Michel seems unlikely to stay with the Rams beyond this season unless his play forces the team to make an extraordinary move — and the Rams are no strangers to extraordinary personnel moves.

Both coach Sean McVay and Michel say they aren’t looking into the future beyond this winter, when McVay hopes to see Michel in another Super Bowl — but wearing a horned helmet this time.

“There’s certain players that just bring a toughness to your unit,” McVay said. “Sony has done that. Sony is just a tough, physical, downhill runner, the way he finishes and levels off.”

NOTES: LT Andrew Whitworth came off the Rams’ reserve/COVID list Thursday, exactly five days after he went on the list on Christmas morning. David Edwards and undrafted rookie Alaric Jackson filled in for the 40-year-old Whitworth at Minnesota. Whitworth was the Rams’ final starter on the list, which has been visited by at least 35 players over the past month. … The Rams practiced under the translucent roof at SoFi Stadium on Thursday because of the second straight day of heavy rain across Southern California. Ohio State and Utah also were scheduled for afternoon practices at SoFi ahead of their meeting in the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

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