Throughout the 2019 season, all eyes will be on running back Todd Gurley and how the Los Angeles Rams use him. After injuring his knee last season and the mystery surrounding it, nobody knows exactly what the plan is.
Gurley’s numbers in Week 1 weren’t bad as he carried the ball 14 times for 97 yards and added 1 reception. However, what was concerning is that he was limited to just 15 touches. According to head coach Sean McVay, Gurley wasn’t on a pitch count and was limited to 15 touches due to the “flow of the game”.
That was the same reasoning for Gurley getting limited touches in the team’s Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. In that game, while it was Gurley who finished with more carries (10), it was Anderson who seemed to dominate playing time despite averaging a lowly 3.1 yards per carry.
The discussion about Gurley’s usage is going to continue all season. Most of the reason is because the Rams have been so hush about the entire situation. Outside of speculation and rumors, nobody truly knows what is going on with Gurley’s knee or if the former NFL Offensive Player of Year will ever carry the load like he once did.
Gurley played in 70 percent of the Rams’ snaps, which is 16% less than his 86% last season. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, Gurley was under 70% five times total in 2017 and 2018, all in blowout victories.
According to Pro Football Focus, Gurley played 49 snaps in the Rams backfield against the Panthers which he had only been at or below 12 times in 2017 and 2018. And again, five of those games were blowouts, and four came in Rams losses.
Meanwhile, according to Pro Football Focus, Brown played 20 snaps in the Rams backfield which is a mark he hit four times in 2017 and 2018. All four occurrences either came in blowout wins or in games in which the Rams rested their starters.
It’s worth noting that the Rams led by double-digits and at least two scores for 21:56 between the second and third quarters.
However, in the fourth quarter, with the Rams leading by three, the offense leaned heavily on Gurley. The Rams running back recorded 64 of his 97 yards rushing in the game’s final quarter. Forty-one of those came on a 57-yard touchdown to essentially put the game away. Leading 30-27, Gurley totaled 12 yards on two carries, picking up a first down in the process, to eat the rest of the clock.
The best way to analyze Gurley’s workload in Week 1 is to take a look at each Rams possession, which is exactly what I’m about to do. We’ll start with the team’s opening drive in 2019.
1st Possession: 8 plays, 0 carries, 1 reception (4 yards). Score, 0-0.
Gurley started the drive lined up as a wide receiver, but played all eight snaps of the game’s first possession for the offense, including seven in the backfield. The Rams faked to Gurley on a play-action which led to a missed deep shot to Brandin Cooks.
Gurley talled one reception which led to a first down. Aside from that, the Rams came out firing with Goff. This approach made sense as the Panthers ranked right in the middle of the pack last season when it came to defending the pass.
2nd possession: 3 plays, 1 carry (0 yards), 0 receptions. Score, 0-0.
The Rams went three-and-out in their second possession of the day. Gurley got his first carry which went for no gain. The Rams played a league-high 21% of their snaps out of 10 personnel on Sunday and that was evident as Gurley again took a snap lined up out wide as a receiver.
3rd Possession: 7 plays, 2 carries (8 yards), 0 receptions, Score 0-0.
The team’s third possession runs into the second quarter. As of right now, it’s a 0-0 ball game and Brown has yet to take a single snap. Gurley again plays all seven snaps. After a two-yard carry inside that goes basically nowhere, McVay calls a sweep that Gurley takes six yards. The Rams have played 18 offensive snaps up to this point and Gurley has played in all 18.
Three carries and just four total touches in the first quarter is certainly odd, but Gurley was apart of the gameplan. The Rams lined Gurley up out wide and ran play-action a few times as well.
4th Possession: 0 plays. Score, 3-0.
The Rams started with the ball at the 10-yard line and in the red zone due to recovering a Cam Newton backwards pass. This will be something to keep an eye on for later, but Brown gets his first carries here. The Rams run two plays, both handoffs, and Brown scores the team’s first touchdown.
What’s headscratching here is that Gurley had 100% of the carries up to this point. The Rams enter the red zone where there is more of an emphasis on running the ball and Brown comes into the game for the first time. This won’t the only time that this happens during the game.
5th Possession: 6 plays, 1 carry (2 yards). Score, 10-0.
And on cue, Gurley re-enters the game.
The Rams start the drive with a handoff to Gurley that goes for two yards. The team also runs a fake to Gurley that resulted in a completion to Robert Woods. Of the team’s five possessions, Gurley has played every snap in all but one of them, but still only has three carries.
6th Possession: 4 plays, 0 carries. Score, 10-0
Brown started this drive with three straight carries before the Rams threw a pass with Brown hanging back in pass protection. Gurley then entered the game and the Rams called four straight passing plays. This was a drive that was split by Gurley and Brown with Brown getting 100% of the handoffs.
7th Possession: 8 plays, 2 carries. Score, 13-3
The Rams ran eight plays with Gurley playing 100% of the snaps. Back-to-back play action passes to Cooks put the Rams across midfield and then a 25-yard run by Gurley put the team in the red zone. A third play-action pass went nowhere before Gurley first red zone carry got called back due to a hold.
8th Posession: 0 plays. Score, 16-10
This is the first drive that Malcolm Brown gets 100% of the workload outside of the short two-play drive in the second quarter. Brown plays all 14 snaps on this drive, receiving six carries, including a one-yard touchdown run.
After Gurley took 100% of the snaps in the first quarter, the two players have since traded drives. Gurley opened the second quarter before Brown started the second drive. It was then Gurley who opened the third quarter before Brown took 100% of the snaps on this drive.
9th Possession: 4 plays, 1 carry (fumble). Score, 23-13
As expected, Gurley is back in the game. Disaster almost strikes when Gurley fumbles a perfect toss by Goff. The Rams fake to Gurley that leads to a reception by Higbee that gets called back due to a holding penalty.
10th Possession: 3 plays, 1 carry (6 yards). Score, 23-20
It’s the fourth quarter and for the first time since the first quarter, Gurley opens a second consecutive drive. The Rams running back takes a handoff for six yards. A promising drive is halted by a Goff interception.
11th Possession: 5 plays, four carries (41 yards). Score, 23-20
For the first time all game Gurley receives multiple carries in a row – four to be exact. However, similar to earlier in the game, once the Rams entered the 10-yard line, Gurley came out. This time Darrell Henderson came in for his first snaps of the game.
12th Possession: 3 plays, one carry (5 yards). Score, 30-20.
Gurley plays all snaps on this possession as well, taking one carry for five yards. The Rams running back has played all but two snaps in the fourth quarter up to this point.
13th Possession: 4 plays, two carries (12 yards). Score 30-27
On the final drive of the game, Gurley ices the game. The Rams go back-to-back carries to Gurley who gets the first down to seal the game.
It wasn’t a vintage Gurley performance, but it was what the Rams needed. In Week 1 of 2019, the goal is about preserving Gurley for when he’s needed most. That very well could be this week in an NFC Championship Game re-match with the New Orleans Saints.
Gurley played 70% of the snaps in Week 1 which isn’t something you saw with other workhorse backs like Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, or Saquon Barkley. However, McCaffrey and Barkley are both just in their second years as full-time starters while Gurley has picked up his fair share of tread over the last five seasons.
With the backfield that the Rams have, Gurley has the luxury that other workhorse backs don’t have when it comes to carrying the load – he doesn’t need to.
Brown was a restricted free agent at the end of last season and received an offer sheet from the Detroit Lions. The Rams matched and the former Texas running back stayed in Los Angeles. It was obvious that the Rams missed Brown when he went down in 2018. It was one of the big reasons that they went out and signed Anderson rather than just rolling with John Kelly and Justin Davis who were both cut after this year’s preseason.
In Week 1 of the 2019 season, the Rams’ plan isn’t to hide Gurley in bubble wrap, but rather preserve him for when they assumably need him most later in the season. Is it more important critical for Gurley to receive 25 carries in Week 1 or Week 14 when the division or number one seed is on the line?
He may no longer be a 25-30 touch back anymore and be closer to 15-20, but when it matters most he’ll be on the field. With the Rams’ depth at running back, that is something that they can get away with.
Despite playing 70% of the Rams’ offensive snaps, the Rams played Gurley when they needed him most. The Rams running back played 100% of the snaps in the first quarter and then dominated the fourth quarter after alternating drives in the second and third.
The Rams have an exceptional talent in Gurley, and the goal shouldn’t be to run him into the ground until there is no Gurley left.
Week 1 may not be the exact blueprint that the Rams use moving forward, but it’s all we have up to this point. This is something that will be analyzed and broken down every week. The one thing that is known for sure, however, whatever the plan is for Gurley, it will be with the future in mind.