ATLANTA – Ask any Patriots defender to discuss the Rams offense and the conversation usually starts and ends with Todd Gurley. The 6-1, 224-pound running back is a great combination of size, speed and strength, and unlike some backs he's as dangerous as a receiver as he is a runner.
"It's not just [the linebackers], it's everybody," Kyle Van Noy said. "That's how good he is. Everybody needs to be on point and play hard and play what the coaches tell us to play."
"A great offense that loves to run the ball in between and outside the tackles," Dont'a Hightower added. "A team that offensively is driven by the running game. The quarterback does a great job with the play action and the boots of getting the ball down the field. But it starts with Gurley."
And with good reason. Gurley led the NFL in touchdowns with 21, 17 of which came on the ground. He's added rushing touchdowns in each of the Rams postseason wins. But his work as a receiver could represent an X-factor in this game.
Van Noy has been arguably the Patriots best defensive player in the playoffs. He has been particularly effective when moving toward the line of scrimmage, especially when rushing the passer off stunts coming up the middle.
But if Gurley is used frequently as a receiver it could force Brian Flores and the rest of the coaches to adjust in their usage of Van Noy.
"They do a good job obviously with play action and boot so they're able to leak out into the flats and over routes," Hightower said of Gurley as a receiver. To illustrate this, the NFL's Next Gen Stats show the Rams have used play action passes on 35.2 percent of Goff's dropbacks, the highest total in the league.
Here's a look at a breakdown of how the Rams use those throws based on the running back on the field at the time:
|Yards per Att.||10.3||6.7|
Gurley caught 59 passes for 580 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season, but his usage has been sporadic lately.
After sitting out the final two games of the regular season with knee injury, Gurley played second fiddle to veteran C.J. Anderson, who was signed to fill in down the stretch. But the 5-8, 225-pound Anderson has been a revelation, topping 100 yards in three of the last four games. In the NFC title game he took the lead role after Gurley struggled as a receiver early on and spent most of the afternoon on the sideline.
That has led to plenty of speculation about his health, which he seems to be getting tired of.
"Y'all can call me hurt. Y'all can call me whatever, but we're going to the Super Bowl," Gurley said, when asked how difficult it was to watch much of the Rams overtime win over the Saints from the sideline. "What do y'all not understand? It's not about me. This sport has never been about me. It's never been about one player."
If Gurley is not a big part of the Rams attack on Sunday it would be a huge development for the Patriots. With both Gurley and Anderson involved, the defense will have different looks to deal with.
"They're all different players and they have different skills," Bill Belichick said. "We need to know which play is in the game at a particular time. That's important for us to know. I'm sure a lot of their plays are the same plays for both guys. Do they run the same? There are some similarities and I think there are some differences. We need to know those differences at least to prepare for them and then as the game unfolds we'll see how it goes."
An example of what Belichick discussed is evident in some more information provided by Next Gen Stats. The play-action calls with Anderson have been more inside based while Gurley's are more toward the edges. Goff tends to hold the ball longer when faking to Gurley than Anderson, and throws further downfield as well.
|Time to throw||3.28||3.17|
"They're two different backs but they excel at the same things," Hightower added. "What they're good at is getting downhill and both have great vision and like to cut back. A lot of times they're forcing arm tackles and two strong guys like that will run through arm tackles every time so we have to do a good job of getting downhill and building a wall and trying to avoid those arm tackles."
Most everything Sean McVay's offense wants to do relies on the ability to move the ball on the ground. Los Angeles finished third in the league, averaging 139.4 yards per game behind a physical and talented offensive line. Gurley average just a shade under 5 yards per carry, and when he and Anderson get going it opens up Jared Goff's ability to run boots and get the ball downfield.
So, it all starts with the Patriots ability to stop the run, and Van Noy knows it won't be easy.
"They run hard and they're big. You gotta bring it."