Running back Malcolm Brown studied, prepared and waited for his turn since the day he joined the Rams.
Now, with a playoff berth at stake, Brown’s moment has come.
Coach Sean McVay said Brown will start Sunday in the Rams’ win-and-you’re-in finale against the Arizona Cardinals. Second-year pro Darrell Henderson suffered a high ankle sprain in last week’s 20-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He will be placed on injured reserve, and rookie Cam Akers, who suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks ago, might play, McVay said.
“I’m always ready to roll whenever my name is called,” Brown said. “Just got to move on, move forward and get the job done.”
Brown signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2015, the same season the Rams drafted Todd Gurley with the No. 10 overall pick. But since releasing Gurley in March, McVay has relied on a running-back-by-committee approach with Brown, Akers and Henderson.
Brown is the team’s third-leading rusher with 399 yards. In the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, he rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns. He also scored twice against the Seahawks on Nov. 15 and once against the Chicago Bears. But Akers and Henderson have carried the bulk of the load in the running game. Henderson leads the team with 624 rushing yards and Akers has 591 yards. McVay said Brown has been instrumental in the duo’s development from a mentoring standpoint.
“His consistent demeanor, his approach, being a pro’s pro … I think that’s really set the tone for that room,” McVay said. “I think that’s why you’ve seen such great maturity and advancements in their games, from Cam and from Darrell. I think he’s had a good influence.”
McVay said Brown has played well on all three downs and is a good pass protector. Those skills will be needed as backup quarterback John Wolford makes his first start in place of Jared Goff, who Monday underwent surgery on his right thumb. It’s another moving piece for Brown and the Rams’ offensive line, which has played “inconsistently” the previous two weeks, center Austin Blythe said.
In victories against the Cardinals and New England Patriots, the Rams rushed for 119 yards and 186 yards, respectively. But in a 23-30 loss to the New York Jets, the Rams rushed for only 26 yards in the first half. They also struggled to contain defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, who posted a sack, four tackles, a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss before exiting with a concussion.
In the third quarter at Seattle on Sunday, Henderson rushed for 34 yards in five carries on one drive, leading the Rams to the two-yard line. A tackle from safety Jamal Adams, who pursued the run from the other side of the formation, prevented a touchdown and injured Henderson’s ankle. In four attempts from point-blank range, the Rams failed to generate enough push to enter the end zone, and watched as the Seahawks defenders took off their helmets and marched off the field to preserve a 13-6 lead.
“I think anytime things like this happen, where you’re kind of losing some consistency in your blocks, missing blocks, not hitting it right, I think it really just comes down to falling back on your fundamentals and technique,” Blythe said. “I think if we focus on that, we’ll be just fine and we’ll get back to playing physical.”
Blythe said inserting Wolford, who is more mobile than Goff, won’t change how the offensive line plays from a schematic standpoint. The Rams may also use rookie running back Xavier Jones in some situations, McVay said.
The undrafted free agent rushed for 23 touchdowns at Southern Methodist in 2019, which led the NCAA. But the 5-foot-11, 208-pound back was not invited to the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine and has played only on special teams for the Rams. Brown said Jones is creative and shifty in space, which presents another element for the Cardinals to defend.
“He’s got the speed to be able to finish and naturally can work edges on guys,” McVay said. “He did a nice job with the opportunities we had to evaluate him throughout the course of camp …. and this week he’ll get a chance to make some plays for the offense.”
The Rams have never lost to the Cardinals in McVay’s four seasons as coach. They’ve also performed well in similar circumstances. In 2018, Gurley and Brown were unavailable in the teams’ second matchup because of injury. Veteran C.J. Anderson, whom the Rams signed a week earlier, rushed for 167 yards and one touchdown in 20 carries.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.