THOUSAND OAKS — When the Rams made the trade to acquire Sony Michel in the shadow of the regular season, they knew the running back would be in the spotlight sooner or later.
To nobody’s great surprise, it’s sooner.
Often-injured Darrell Henderson’s sore ribs kept him out of practice for the third day in a row Friday. He’s listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at SoFi Stadium. Rams coach Sean McVay said his availability could be a game-time decision.
“You’ve got to plan for the worst-case scenario, that he’s not going (to play),” McVay said. “It ends up being a bonus if he is able to go.”
Michel would start if Henderson can’t, and as worst-case scenarios go, that doesn’t sound too bad.
The 26-year-old former first-round draft pick from Georgia is more accomplished than the starter he would replace, with a pair of 900-yard seasons with the New England Patriots and the only touchdown in the Pats’ Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams.
Better yet for the Rams, he isn’t letting any of that get in the way of accepting a backup role after GM Les Snead traded draft picks to the Patriors on Aug. 25 to add backfield depth following Cam Akers’ pre-training-camp Achilles’ tendon injury.
Starter? Backup? Labels don’t seem to matter to Michel.
“Just throughout my career, I’ve always prepared like a starter (even if he wasn’t starting),” Michel said after practice Thursday. “These past two games, I’ve prepared as if I was going to be a starter.
“Things happen in a game where I might get thrown in. If you get thrown in on the third play of the game, and you’ve got the rest of the game, if you’re not prepared, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Michel looked prepared when Henderson came out of the game after the first play of the fourth quarter against the Colts.
After carrying the ball only once in the season-opening victory over the Chicago Bears, Michel got it 10 times and gained 46 yards in the final 14 minutes in Indianapolis, including 32 yards and three first downs on four consecutive carries as quarterback Matthew Stafford drove the Rams to Matt Gay’s game-winning field goal.
McVay said Michel is well-suited to the uncertainties of his role.
“I don’t think he anticipated Darrell getting his ribs injured in the game last week, but he came in, stepped up and did a great job,” McVay said. “That’s what makes Sony a pro.”
If Henderson is out or limited Sunday, Michel would be backed up by Jake Funk, and the Rams could call up fourth-year pro Buddy Howell from the practice squad.
Funk, a rookie but senior to Michel with the Rams, said he has admired how the new man dedicated himself to working with running backs coach Thomas Brown to quickly learn the playbook.
“You have to have somebody who’s committed to their craft, a guy who consistently shows up day in and day out,” Funk said of what makes a good backup. “I see it all the time with him. He’s doing extra on the side with Coach Brown. He’s asked so many questions of Darrell, myself, guys who’ve had a little more time in the system, and he’s picked it up really well.
“I’m excited. He’s excited. We’re ready to go.”
It might be easy to overlook the running backs before Sunday’s game between 2-0 teams. It’s billed as a quarterback duel between the Rams’ Stafford and the Buccaneers’ Tom Brady. IN November, when the Rams won 27-24 in Tampa, they did it with only 37 yards rushing to go with Jared Goff’s 376 passing.
But the ballcarriers have helped to ice the Rams’ two wins this season – Henderson against the Bears with 49 yards on eight carries on their 12-play drive to the fourth-quarter touchdown that made it 34-14, and Michel against the Colts.
“It just shows the capabilities of our offense,” Funk said. “We’re able to have a quarterback like Matthew out there, and then be able to run the ball when it’s needed.”
Michel hasn’t faced the Bucs, but has seen the challenge their defense presents on film.
“I’m sure everybody knows they’ve got a physical front seven. They’ve got guys in the back that cover well,” Michel said. “To be able to run the football, you’ve got to be physical against them. It’s going to be one of those old-fashioned, physical games.”
Physically, the Rams appear better off than the Bucs.
Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd returned to practice Friday after missing two days with what McVay called a “nagging” ankle injury, and was declared good to go Sunday. Cornerback Darious Williams was ill and missed practice Friday, but McVay expected him to play.
In Tampa, Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown is on the COVID-19 list, and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder, hand) and punt and kick returner Jaydon Mickens (abdomen) were declared out. Brown had eight receptions and Pierre-Paul had an interception against the Rams in 2020.