Rushing attacks could take over in Super Bowl LVI

LOS ANGELES – While gunslinger quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow have commanded much of the pre-Super Bowl spotlight, the rushing attacks of the Rams and Bengals will play an important role in the outcome Sunday.

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The Rams and the Bengals are set to play for the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy at 6:30 p.m. at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.

The Rams’ ground game features former Georgia standout Sony Michel and Cam Akers, who returned late in the season from an offseason Achilles injury.

The Bengals mostly lean on Joe Mixon, who had a breakout season, and have used Samaje Perine more in the playoffs.

Michel helped the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl 53 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He rushed 18 times for 94 yards and a touchdown in the 13-3 defensive masterpiece. He was traded to the Rams for fifth- and sixth-round picks Aug. 25 after Akers was injured.

“I get a lot of, I’m glad you’re on this side, this time,” Michel said. “It’s awesome to be on a great team.”

Akers, who was the Rams’ leading rusher as a rookie in 2020, tore his Achilles tendon in a private workout before the start of training camp in July. He was expected to miss the entire season, but made a late-season return.

“He’s done well with his transition, getting back into the rhythm of being up to speed with everything,” Michel said.

Michel played in all 17 regular-season games and made seven starts. He rushed 208 times for 845 yards and four touchdowns. He caught 21 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown.

Akers made it back for one game, but the Rams have used him more in the playoffs. He’s started two of the three games and has rushed 54 times for 151 yards and has caught five passes for 62 yards.

Akers said that at around the three-month mark of his rehabilitation he started to think about trying to make it back for this season.

“I leaned on our staff, the training staff, our team and my coaches,” said Akers, who was taken in the second round (52nd overall) of the 2020 NFL draft out of Florida State. “They were just giving me a lot of mental support and physical support.”

Akers doesn’t believe that he’s a medical miracle.

“I wasn’t like a trick or a special remedy,” Akers said. “It was just prayer and hard work, seven days a week. It paid off.”

He was motivated by the fear of not returning to form.

“I feel like it just happened the way it was supposed to happen,” Akers said. “God doesn’t make mistakes. That was a lesson for me. ... I learned a lot. I grew a lot.”

Akers has been fine with his playoff workload.

“We didn’t talk about my role or anything like that,” Akers said. “It was just when you’re ready, we’ll be ready for you.”

The Bengals have played the run well this season. The Bengals allowed 127.3 yards rushing per game, which ranked 12th in the NFL.

“They are a great competitive defense,” Michel said. “They are stout and take pride in trying to stop the run.”

Mixon rushed 292 times for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career. He also caught 42 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns.

He delivered when the Bengals asked him to be a third-down back this season.

“When I came to Cincinnati, they always had a one-, two-down back and then they had a third-down back, which was (Giovani Bernard),” Mixon said. “Pretty much everything that Gio went through and things like that, I basically just learned from him. Took it and ran with it.”

For a bigger back, Mixon has flashed some good hands catching the ball out of the backfield.

“At the end of the day, when my number is called, I’ve got to do whatever I can to make plays and make sure that no matter what, the team can always count on me under any situation,” Mixon said. “We like to thrive in these special moments like this.”

Mixon is just trying to do his part in the Bengals’ high-powered attack.

“We’ve got new guys around the starting offense,” Mixon said. “Big-time playmakers. Everybody feeds off of each other. Usually, every game I try to come out there and set the tone.

“When I go out there hot and everybody else eats on the perimeter. We’ve got a great quarterback in Joe Burrow. We’ve got a great rookie receiver in Ja’Marr Chase, and we’ve got Tee (Higgins) to complement him and also Tyler (Boyd) to complement them.”

Mixon and Perine played together at Oklahoma.

“We were a great one-two combo,” Mixon said. “He used to pound on the defense, and I used to just slice and dice through them.”

The Bengals signed Perine, who’d been with Washington and Miami, to a two-year, $3.3 million deal March 24.

He’s caught four passes for 47 yards in the playoffs and picked up a big first down in the AFC Championship game.

“He’s been very close with me since we probably walked in the building,” Mixon said. “There have been countless memories and many more to come.”

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