Rams’ Gur­ley in cu­ri­ous po­si­tion

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Jones

AT­LANTA – A ner­vous laugh bursts from the lips of Pa­tri­ots de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brian Flo­res at the men­tion of Rams run­ning back Todd Gur­ley.

Flo­res had just con­fessed that pre­par­ing for the Rams’ of­fense, equipped with the count­less for­ma­tions, a plethora of mo­tions and a healthy cache of weapons, has made for sleep­less nights.

That’s when he was asked, “What scares you about Todd Gur­ley?” Judg­ing by Flo­res’ re­ac­tion and the praise he heaped on him, per­haps the cor­rect ques­tion would have been, “What DOESN’T scare you about Gur­ley?”

“Ha! Well, I mean, this guy is as tal­ented a player as I’ve seen at the run­ning back po­si­tion,” Flo­res said amid a scrum of re­porters at Su­per Bowl

Open­ing Night. “In­side run­ning, out­side run­ning, catches out of the back­field. This guy is one of the most pro­lific run­ners in this league, one of the best tal­ents in this league, hard guy to tackle, re­ally good stiff arm, good in space, good vi­sion, I could go on and on. I like when he’s out of the game.”

Pa­tri­ots coach Bill Belichick called Gur­ley “one of the best tal­ents in the whole league. … No one player is go­ing to stop him. It’ll take team de­fense.”

De­spite the praise, Gur­ley finds him­self in a cu­ri­ous po­si­tion as he pre­pares for his first Su­per Bowl. He did rank first in the NFL this sea­son with 17 rush­ing touch­downs and third with 1,251 rush­ing yards, and he did earn first-team all-pro hon­ors.

But as of late, the Rams’ back has lacked the same dom­i­nant form.

Only once in the last four games has he gained 100 yards. A knee in­jury forced him out of the last two weeks of the reg­u­lar sea­son. Sta­tis­ti­cally, he was a non-fac­tor in the NFC Cham­pi­onship Game, with 10 yards on four car­ries.

It’s true that the late-sea­son ad­di­tion of C.J. An­der­son has given coach Sean McVay and the of­fense an­other back­field op­tion. Coaches benched an in­ef­fec­tive Gur­ley for An­der­son against the Saints. But that move was tem­po­rary.

Ev­ery­one within the or­ga­ni­za­tion, and across the league, agrees that few backs boast a ver­sa­tile, game-chang­ing im­pact like Gur­ley. So get­ting him back on track ranks among the Rams’ big­gest pri­or­i­ties this week.

An­der­son might have pro­vided a spark in a pinch against New Or­leans while also serv­ing as a good com­ple­men­tary back in the di­vi­sional round against Dal­las, but an ef­fec­tive Gur­ley gives the Rams the best chance to up­set the Pa­tri­ots.

“He will get go­ing,” Rams run­ning backs coach Skip Peete said. “Last week, he didn’t have a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to get go­ing as far as a lot of car­ries. But I feel like this week, we have a good plan and an idea that we think will work. Ob­vi­ously, we have to.”

With­out a steady dose of Gur­ley, the Rams lose a spe­cial di­men­sion be­cause he is ef­fec­tive as a ball­car­rier and as a pass-catcher. He also im­pacts the game in ways that don’t show up in the box score, Peete said. Just by be­ing on the field, he forces the de­fense to com­mit at least one de­fender to ac­count for him. He also is ex­cel­lent in pass pro­tec­tion. So that’s why the in-game bench­ing came as a sur­prise.

But there were mul­ti­ple rea­sons be­hind the de­ci­sion to limit Gur­ley to 32 plays while giv­ing An­der­son 35.

The Rams’ coaches try their best not to force things.

“We’re an of­fense that tries to take what­ever the de­fense gives us,” Peete ex­plained. “If the box is over­loaded, then you have to check out of that and into a pass. We’re not go­ing to run the ball into a dead play. Un­for­tu­nately for Todd, there were a lot of plays where that hap­pened.”

The Rams also wanted to en­sure they kept Gur­ley fresh for the Su­per Bowl. He said Mon­day night that health is no longer an is­sue. He has prac­ticed with­out any set­backs to his knee and says he feels good. How­ever, An­der­son af­forded the Rams the lux­ury of pre­serv­ing Gur­ley ad­di­tion­ally.

Look for the coaches to make a more con­certed ef­fort of help­ing the back set­tle into a rhythm on Sun­day though. There’s noth­ing to save him for now. It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see what kind of a game plan the Pa­tri­ots throw at LA. If they also load the box, McVay will have to find other ways to fea­ture Gur­ley.

“He’s a very, very tal­ented player and we’re go­ing to need him to win,” Peete said.

Mean­while, Gur­ley has a good bal­ance of ea­ger­ness (to play a ma­jor role) and trust (in his coaches’ strate­gies) as he ap­proaches the Su­per Bowl.

“I try not to over­think things, try not to make any­thing a big deal,” he said. “Take things day by day and em­brace it. … Just stay­ing locked in, stay tuned in with the coaches. … I’m def­i­nitely look­ing for­ward to this game.”

The Pa­tri­ots are thor­oughly ex­pect­ing a locked-in Gur­ley, and although he didn’t di­vulge de­tails of the game plan, it sounds as if Gur­ley has great ex­pec­ta­tions for him­self, too.

BRETT DAVIS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Todd Gur­ley has 19 rush­ing TDs (2 in play­offs).

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