Why Todd Gurley is unstoppable
It’s fair to say that no back has ever had it better than Gurley in 2018
Todd Gurley has everything that a modern running back could want. He has tempo, balance and vision that allows him to create and take advantage of creases and angles on the field. He’s a nightmare for linebackers in the passing game. And he’s a stonewall in picking up blitzes.
So it should come as no surprise that the Los Angeles Rams made him the focal point of their league-leading offensive strategy. Before the start of the season, the Rams gave Gurley the league’s richest contract for a running back at four years, $57.5 million.
But 57.5 is not the number for which Gurley should be most grateful. (OK, of course it is.) There is another number that should make Gurley feel almost as tingly. It’s not his league-leading 623 rushing yards, 870 total yards from scrimmage or 11 touchdowns.
From NFL Next Gen Stats, 0.16 represents the average number of blockers minus the average number of defenders in the box (diff) on Gurley’s carries so far this season. It means that on average, the best running back in the league is running against lighter fronts. If that doesn’t blow your mind, here is some context: Of the top 20 rushers in the league this season, Gurley’s 0.16 is not only the highest average, but the only number that isn’t negative. At this point in the past two seasons, no back had a positive differential. The same was true at the end of both seasons.
The second-best rusher this season, Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys, has a diff of -0.21, which means on average he is running the ball against more defenders than he has blockers. According to Next Gen, Elliott runs the ball against eight or more men in the box 23.9 percent of the time, compared with Gurley’s 10.1 percent.
It’s fair to say that no back has had it better than Gurley in 2018.
Why is this the case?
The Rams’ offense uses three things to create this advantage: motion, checks and bombs. They use receiver motion to get a read on the defense, but they’ll also use the receiver to block in the running game. This could give them a numerical blocking advantage against two-high safety zone defenses. But if it’s man or another single-high safety defense, they are not afraid to check from run to pass. And not just any pass, but a bomb.
The Rams have given defenses a choice this season. Back off and have Gurley gut your team slowly, 5 yards at a time, occasionally breaking a long run, like he did last week against the Denver Broncos for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Or you could die fast, stack the box and hold him to a season-low 42 yards like the Arizona Cardinals did — and watch quarterback Jared Goff connect with receivers Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods for 20-plus-yard gains.
To beat the undefeated Rams, a team is going to need a dominant front that can stop the run without committing a safety to the box. And linebackers who can cover Gurley in the space cleared out by receivers going deep. Or effective blitzes that don’t leave them susceptible to screen passes. Not to mention an offense that can score and allow the defense to rest.
That’s not likely to be the case this weekend against the 1-5 San Francisco 49ers. But, at some point this season, we will see someone take away the Rams’ schematic advantages. At that point, the Rams will turn to Gurley and hope his talent can carry them to victory. That’s when Gurley will earn his hefty salary.