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  • Jeff Fisher didn't use Todd Gurley enough as a receiver, and now Sean McVay is not making the same mistake.
By Michael Beller
September 18, 2017

Todd Gurley spent most of the Rams’ Week 2 loss to the Redskins assuaging the fears that built up in his fantasy owners after an inefficient season debut. Gurley ran, leapt and bowled his way to 88 rushing yards and a score on 16 carries, good for 5.5 yards per carry. It was the first time since Nov. 6 of last season that he reached 4.0 YPC. You have to go all the way back to December 2015 to find his last game with at least 5.0 YPC. We haven’t seen the Gurley who showed up on Sunday in a long time, and it was a sight for the sore eyes of his fantasy owners.

Gurley was so good on the ground in Week 2 that it obscured another development equally important to his success this season. He got four targets, catching three of them for 48 yards and a touchdown. Add that to his Week 1 receiving line of five catches, five targets and 56 yards, and Gurley is up to eight grabs, 10 targets, 104 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown in two games. That 16-game pace of 64 catches, 80 targets, 832 receiving yards and eight scores through the air is positively Le’Veon-ian. It could also be the key to a resurgent third season for Gurley.

Jeff Fisher had more than his fair share of faults as a head coach. One that didn’t get enough attention was his lack of imagination with his running backs in the passing game. Gurley was a capable receiver during his college days, catching 65 passes for 615 yards and six touchdowns in 30 games at Georgia. Fisher’s Rams staff, however, used him sparingly as a receiver. He had just 26 targets during his banner rookie season. His presence in the passing game increased last year with his target load jumping to 58, but that number was still light for a team as light on playmakers as were the Rams. For sake of comparison, T.J. Yeldon had 68 targets, and Devonta Freeman had 65. You don’t need to re-watch every play from the Rams 2016 season to know there were spots in which they could have gotten Gurley more involved in the passing game.

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New head coach Sean McVay is finding those spots. He spent the previous three seasons as the offensive coordinator in Washington, during which time he helped make Chris Thompson one of the most dangerous pass-catching backs in the league. Over the last two years, Thompson hauled in 84 of his 109 targets for 589 yards and four scores. If McVay was able to do that with a player like Thompson who, while explosive, has a relatively limited skill set, he must have been salivating all offseason dreaming up ways he could get Gurley involved in the Rams offense. Through two games, they’re proving an ideal match.

Let’s look at two of Gurley’s receptions from Sunday. One shows how McVay is successfully designing plays to get Gurley the ball through the air, and the other shows how the scheme allows the back to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him. First, the play drawn up for Gurley.

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It’s third and four, and the Rams have the ball just shy of midfield. The line baits the Washington front into a rush, allowing Gurley to leak out on a screen play with a linebacker in single coverage. He easily wins this favorable matchup, and moves the chains with a 28-yard reception.

When you have a player like Gurley at your disposal, you should be figuring out ways to get him the ball that don’t involve handing it right to him. McVay is succeeding where Fisher failed, at least in that regard.

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Gurley’s receiving touchdown was not on a play designed for him. He’s merely a checkdown option for Jared Goff on this one. While no back can count on checkdowns to regularly turn into touchdowns, the fact that Gurley is in route on this play is a far cry from his reality last season. All too often he’d be kept in to chip a defender on a play like this, or get replaced by Benny Cunningham. Such is not the case this season, and Gurley rewards his coach for keeping him on the field with a run after the catch few backs could duplicate.

Gurley’s efficiency on the ground was one of the major storylines for the Rams in Week 2, but his presence as a receiver is just as important. If he remains as involved in the team’s passing attack as he has been the first two weeks, he’ll prove to be one of this season’s fantasy football bargains.

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