Rams’ Gurley in curious position
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.
Todd Gurley has 19 rushing TDs (2 in playoffs).