It seems, just as the running back position was slipping into "by committee" systems, a game changing athlete comes around with a do it all skill set. Adrian Peterson showed us in 2007 that backs like this still existed, and now Todd Gurley II has arrived.
Gurley, the tenth overall selection in the 2015 NFL draft, exploded onto the scene with four straight 120+ yard games in his first four starts. Gurley continued to impress finishing his season with 1,106 yards and 10 TDs to earn himself a trip to Hawaii and Rookie of the Year honors. With sights set on an even better sophomore season, lets take a look into Gurley's 2015 and see where he was good, where he struggled, and what we can expect heading into 2016.
To understand Gurley's success in the Zone Block Scheme (ZBS), I would like to direct you to (after you finish this article) to Brett Kollmann's Film Room Video that goes extremely in depth on the Rams style of the ZBS. The link will be at the bottom of the article. To paraphrase, the Zone Block scheme is a run game philosophy where the offensive line flows laterally down the line of scrimmage with the intent of stretching the defense and opening up a hole for the running back to run through. The responsibility of the running back is to flow with the play and read outside to inside. This means he is looking to get to the edge first (over the outside shoulder of his most outside blocker) and if it is not open, then he will look one gap to the inside. He will continue to read one gap at a time until he finds an opening. If no opening is there, usually a cut back lane is available so the running back can take it to the other side of the field. This system thrives with running backs who have great vision. Elite speed is not necessary as very successful backs such as Terrell Davis and Arian Foster, who both ran 4.6 in the 40 yard dash, were able to utilize the ZBS successfully. The difference with Gurley, is that he does have elite speed, great vision, and is perfect for this type of scheme.
The ZBS works different against different defenses and particularly struggles against the 3-4. This is due to the down lineman in a 3-4 focusing in on controlling 2 gaps instead of penetrating like you would see in a 4-3 defense. Since the 3-4 uses 2 gap control, the big Nose Tackle will clog up the middle, preventing cut back plays. Alignment in the 3-4 also leaves the Guard uncovered, which can confuse assignments for the line. A response for 3-4 defenses is to switch to a man block scheme and pull those uncovered guards to where the 3-4 defense is at a disadvantage as they try to flow with the play and end up flowing right into a down block. The reason I am pointing this out, is because the Rams and Todd Gurley had MORE success against 3-4 defenses, averaging almost 40 more yards a game and two more yards per carry. The answer is in Brett Kollman's video, but in short they use Tavon Austin in motion, Man Blocking mix-ins, and other factors that will keep defenders guessing and ultimately leaving holes open for Gurley. Peak it, its a great watch. Gurley's elite speed allows him to get to the edge where he can do so much damage averaging 5.7 YPC off the left edge and 4.6 YPC off the right. This is an offensive line, mind you, that had 2 rookies in Jamon Brown and Rob Havenstein.
What I enjoy about Gurley's game is that he gets better as the game progresses. In the chart above we see that as the game continues on Gurley is able to capitalize on tired defenders, and has an increased YPC through each quarter. Defenses come out, stop Gurley on his first 5 attempts and think they have him dialed down, then in carries 6-10 he takes advantage and exploded for 7.1 YPC. Gurley is an athlete who is a problem all game long. A constant threat to explode. In the first Arizona game he cracked 100 yards in the 4th quarter alone. To have a running back that you can rely on in the later stages of the game is important for closing out games and getting the hard yards when they are needed the most. The biggest problem is that when down, the Rams tend to abandon the run game effectively taking Gurley out of position to do anything. Its important the Gurley is getting 15-20 touches a game, regardless of score. Getting down early and panicking really hurt Gurley's ability in the games versus Cincinnati and the second game against Arizona.
The average run defense rank that the Rams faced last season was 14th in the league, and the projected average for 2016 will also be 14th, with ten of those teams being 4-3 defenses. The Rams will have tough games against great run defense teams in the Seahawks, Panthers, and Jets next season. The focus for the Rams is to get Gurley going, and believing in his ability even if they are down a few scores.. With a season down in the ZBS, I expect Gurley to be more effective this next season, and break 1,300 yards. The key is to stay healthy, and continue to get better as the games progress. Gurley's success will create opportunity for the young rookie quarterback for years to come, and it all gets to go down in one of the biggest stages there are, Los Angeles.
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