Before he lost the majority of his 2014 season to injury and the NCAA's ridiculous “code of conduct,” Georgia running back Todd Gurley had firmly established himself as perhaps the best collegiate running back since Adrian Peterson. He ran for 911 yards and nine touchdowns on just 123 carries, including a 198-yard season opener against Clemson's estimable defense. In that game, he also returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown, and he seemed to have the SEC on lock. But a four-game suspension for accepting money for autographs, and a torn ACL in November, put him on the shelf. Gurley's tape was still impressive enough for the Rams to take him with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, and they were willing to wait however long it took for Gurley to regain his form.
Coach Jeff Fisher didn't have to wait too long. In the Rams' fourth game of the season, and Gurley's second NFL game, he absolutely riddled Arizona's top-flight defense for 146 yards on 19 carries, including 48 rushing yards on St. Louis' final clock-killing drive against the Cardinals. Arizona had shaved the score to 24-22 on a Carson Palmer touchdown pass to running back David Johnson, but their defense couldn't stop Gurley, who slid to milk the clock on more than one play. That's the thing -- had he been more interested in stats, Gurley could have easily topped 150 yards. But Gurley played like a pro, and the score held.
Gurley's numbers were especially impressive given the Rams' new reliance on outside zone blocking concepts under first-year offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Those concepts weren't working before this game, as St. Louis ranked dead last in several rushing categories—attempts with 42, yards with 111, touchdowns with zero, and yards before contact with 54. An offensive line with several new and developing parts, combined with the struggle to adapt to new schemes (even Gurley said this week that he hadn't run much zone to this point), seemed to point to a long-term struggle, and when Fisher said that things were going to break out soon, many saw him as delusional.
“That comes,” Fisher said last week after St. Louis' 12-6 loss to the Steelers, in which Gurley ran six times for nine yards. “That's a rookie's first game. You get all of the anxiety out. He's not a real rookie because I'm with him every day—he's a mature kid. He doesn't run like a rookie. He runs like a guy who is sure of himself and knows who he is as a player. He's coming off of an injury as well and he's playing his first game in the NFL, so I know there's a lot of nerves, but each and every day he comes out to practice and works his butt off. He looks great in practice and I know he's going to show it on the field.”
In this game, Gurley showed just about everything that made him so impressive in college, and proved that he could do it all at the NFL level. His patience to acceleration, his second-level burst, his ability to combine power and agility in the open field—the Cardinals had few answers for him. This was a run defense that had ranked seventh overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, and had allowed a league-leading 3.08 yards per carry in their first three games. Here, Gurley averaged 7.1 yards per carry, and made it look easy. It helped that the Rams used fullbacks and tight ends to help the cause, and Gurley filled in the blanks with his unique ability to find and blast through openings.
It was Arizona's first loss of the season, and a credible argument that their 3-0 start was in part supported by a weak schedule. St. Louis' offense was inconsistent outside of Gurley's efforts, but this Rams team is never soft. The best defensive front in the NFL sacked Palmer four times and hit him nine times; Palmer had been sacked just once in the previous three games. The Rams amassed just 13 first downs to Arizona's 26, and gained 328 yards to Arizona's 447, but Bruce Arians's high-flying offense had trouble finding the end zone. Rams quarterback Nick Foles completed 16 of 24 passes for just 171 yards, but he threw three touchdown passes to Palmer's one, and it was Palmer who threw a pick when cornerback Janoris Jenkins made an amazing catch. Palmer, Johnson and receiver Larry Fitzgerald all fumbled, and Palmer's and Johnson's fumbles were lost to St. Louis.
In many ways, it was exactly the kind of win Fisher will take— with the defense and run game leading the way, and a quarterback who does just enough to not screw anything up. But the real story for the 2-2 Rams is the emergence of Todd Gurley, and what that could do for a team that has been looking hard to find answers on offense for a number of years.