When the then-St. Louis Rams selected Todd Gurley with the ninth overall pick in 2015 -- one selection before the Giants -- the decision was met with mixed feelings. Some believed it was too high to pick a running back, especially on a team with little offensive talent elsewhere. Others believed Gurley was a generational player, one who would make the best of any situation.
Last year it looked as if those in the latter group had won out. Gurley started just 12 games, but he finished third in rushing yards, first in yards per attempt, fourth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and ninth in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Not much went right with the Rams’ offense, but Gurley looked like a star.
Six weeks into 2016, the concerns of the former group are starting to show. Gurley has just 346 rushing yards on 119 -- a 2.9 yards per carry average. Yards per carry isn’t a predictive stat and isn’t always the best indicator of running back play, but a number that low is jarring regardless. Gurley is just the ninth back since 2000 to average less than three yards per carry with over 100 carries through a team’s first six games of the season. Gurley is now 30th among 31 qualified running backs in DYAR and DVOA this season.
So what’s going on with Gurley, then? The offensive talent around the offense isn’t great and it didn’t get better, but it also didn’t get much worse in the past year. Los Angeles’s offensive isn’t great, but at first glance, Gurley’s amount of runs getting stuffed isn’t much different than what it was last season when he didn’t have much trouble gaining yards after the fact.
In 2015, Gurley gained zero yards or less on 19.5 percent of his rushing attempts. This year that’s just slightly worse at 20.2 percent. What Gurley’s really missing this season are the big plays. Last year he ran for 10 or more yards on 11.3 percent of his rushing attempts, but in 2016 it’s less than half that at just five percent. Gurley’s long run this season is just 16 yards. This would suggest there might be something wrong with the back, which would be troubling. Gaining second-level yards is typically more about the player than the line.
But taking a closer look at Gurley’s runs this year and the act of gaining zero or fewer yards on just over 20 percent of his runs becomes impressive. No back has a higher degree of difficulty for what he’s trying to do. This year’s No 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott was placed in the perfect spot for a running back behind Dallas’ offensive line. Gurley, so far, has experienced the opposite. Despite the low yards per carry, Gurley has the second most broken tackles for any running back on the ground per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders.
The Rams have allowed the fewest yards gained before contact of any team in the league this year. The average run for Los Angeles goes just 0.73 yards before first contact with a defender. That’s the average, meaning around half of those are worse. Watching Gurley run, that’s pretty easy to see.
This is a run from Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks from the Los Angeles 10-yard line. Gurley got the ball and was immediately met by Michael Bennett in the backfield, who threw the right tackle to the side easily.
Now here’s a run from Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This time the Rams’ line gets beat up the middle when Gerald McCoy breaks through what was supposed to be a block to meet Gurley before the back has any chance to make a play.
Not all of these runs come from just individual players blowing blocks, though it’s hard to find an individual on the line who has played particularly well. The closest would be right tackle Rob Havenstein, who was shown above getting beaten by Michael Bennett. Some of these busts are a combination of schematic breakdowns and player failure along the line.
The Rams are very reliant on inside zone plays, but the problem is the inside of the line just isn’t very good. Also on these plays, without an extra tight end on the weak side, a backside defender is left open. When run correctly, the back is through the hole before that defender can make a play. Too often for the Rams, that backside defender is hitting Gurley along with another lineman who has also broken through the line.
Below is another play against the Seahawks in Week 2. At the snap, the Rams’ line moves to the left as Gurley is expected to hit a hole running up the middle. Unfortunately, Tony McDaniel blows up the middle and Michael Bennett is the unblocked defender on the backside. Both hit Gurley at nearly the instant he got the ball.
A near-exact replica of this play happened in Week 4 against the Arizona Cardinals. Again it was another interior player -- this time Calais Campbell -- blowing up the inside blocking, while the unblocked edge defender -- here, Chandler Jones -- is instantly in the backfield. There’s nothing for any running back to do in this situation.
Los Angeles almost needs to have an extra blocker on the field to seal off that backside in order for the run game to succeed. That means an extra tight end or fullback needs to be on the field, which potentially takes away from the passing game. Then without a credible pass threat, this allows a safety to creep closer to the line of scrimmage and block off a hole that otherwise could have been open. Watch Chris Conte of Tampa Bay slowly make his way to the line and shoot an open gap before Gurley can hit it.
But when it works, Gurley can still hit holes and gain chunks of yards.
For the Giants, the hope is, obviously, that the running game woes continue for the Rams. While a talent like Gurley could break through at any moment, the Giants have been one of the best run defenses in the league this season. Much of that comes up the middle with Johnathan Hankins and Damon Harrison. Per Football Outsiders, the Rams run 53 percent of their running plays up the middle, which would be right into the strength of the defensive line. However, Giants’ opponents are sending just 49 percent of their runs up the middle, which is the fifth-lowest rate in the league. Opponents know the strength of the Giants and have been trying to avoid it on the ground.
But both Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon have been solid run defenders on the edges, which has helped allow the Giants to rank ninth in defensive DVOA against the run. It could also be a major factor should the Rams leave one of them unblocked on the backside of their inside zone plays.
It’s been a rough start to the season for Gurley and many signs point to another long day on the ground for the back in London against the Giants.