Super Bowl LIII: Should the Rams Prioritize C.J. Anderson Over Todd Gurley?
One thing the Los Angeles Rams have going for them entering Super Bowl LIII is the element of surprise.
Star running back Todd Gurley hasn’t been acting like Todd Gurley, and veteran plodder C.J. Anderson hasn’t been acting like C.J. Anderson. And it’s perfect for them, as they prep for the New England Patriots.
Gurley, who was a workhorse for the Rams and on a historic pace early on this season (1,831 yards and 21 touchdowns on 315 touches), got banged up heading into the playoffs and Los Angeles signed Anderson fresh off the street.
Fresh off the street but not quite fleet of foot, Anderson was used as a bowling ball through opposing offenses down the stretch and has taken advantage of an offensive line blowing open holes.
After outsnapping Gurley in the NFC Championship game, it's fair to question whether the Rams should feature Anderson to the perennial Pro Bowler.
The Curious Case for C.J. Anderson
In Anderson's four games with the Rams, he has not only been a contributor but also has been featured prominently.
In Week 16 with Gurley out, Anderson had 20 carries for 167 yards and a touchdown. In terms of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, Anderson added 9.89 points over expectation on his carries, good for 0.49 per rush (the league average in 2018 was 0.00). Further, 16 of his 20 carries yielded positive expected points, an 80.0% Rushing Success Rate (league average was 41.2% this season).
It was a redemption game of sorts for Anderson, who said he studied the Rams' play calling tendencies after getting the gig. And it caught the attention of head coach Sean McVay.
“He did a great job in a short week of being able to digest that game plan,” McVay said per Yahoo Sports. “You can see once you get around him that he’s a smart, cerebral player and has a great understanding of the specifics of the running back spot.”
Despite the standout premier for Anderson it was fair to be skeptical, considering his 20 carries were almost as much as his entire season total of 24 before signing with the Rams. Plus, Anderson's debut was against an Arizona Cardinals team that had long ago mailed in their season. Still, it was 167 yards. Off. The. Street.
In Week 17, also sans Gurley, Anderson followed up with 23 carries for 132 yards and a score, along with 3 receptions for 22 yards. That generated 0.21 Rushing NEP per carry and a 69.6% Success Rate. Back-to-back workhorse games. Against the San Francisco 49ers -- but still an achievement.
Then, in the divisional round versus the Dallas Cowboys, with a healthy Gurley, Anderson netted 23 carries for 123 and 2 touchdowns. Gurley was part of the 1-2 punch with Anderson adding 16 carries for 115 yards and 1 touchdown, with 2 receptions for 3 yards.
Anderson nearly doubled Gurley's rushing contributions (10.35 Rushing NEP to 5.87) and was successful more frequently, as well (69.6% to 50.0%). Both played well in that game -- make no mistake.
But Should Sean McVay Prioritize C.J. Anderson Over Todd Gurley?
Short answer, no. Firstly, it's pretty easy to consider Todd Gurley one of the league's most versatile running backs, and that showed throughout the season based on his usage.
According to Pro Football Reference, Gurley led the NFL in red zone rushing attempts with 64 and handled 64.6 percent of the Rams’ red zone carries, to go with 19 red zone targets and 18.8 percent of the Rams’ red zone receiving work.
But what McVay has to figure out is whether his star running back is up to the challenge after a mediocre NFC Championship game where Gurley played fewer snaps than Anderson. He finished the day with 4 carries for 10 yards and 1 reception for 3 yards. He also dropped a couple passes, one leading to an interception and another that killed a scoring drive.
Meanwhile, Anderson rushed 16 times for 44 yards and ran nearly as many pass routes as Gurley did. His NFC Championship game didn’t feature the numbers of the previous three, but the important part was his usage. Anderson out-touched Gurley 17-5, and Anderson was on the field for the most pivotal situations, while Gurley stood on the sidelines seemingly healthy, although he was seen riding the stationary bike as well.
Gurley’s Insane Usage
But for a quick refresher: Gurley averaged 25 touches per game in the Rams’ first eight games of the season. He was a monster. And in his final six games (he sat out Weeks 12,16, and 17) Gurley’s load was lightened ever-so-slightly to the tune of 19.1 touches per game.
It appears the touches did catch up with Gurley by the end of the season. But luckily for Los Angeles, the Rams had already secured their place in the playoffs and handing the ball to Anderson was a nice break for Gurley.
The caveat? Gurley just left a bad last impression in viewers’ eyes in the NFC Championship win over the Saints. He just looked off. So, was he injured? Was he in the doghouse? Or were things going so good with Anderson that McVay didn’t have to force Gurley?
Don't Forget About Todd Gurley
A final reminder of the wonder that is Todd Gurley: in the six games when Gurley received at least 20 carries, he rushed for more than 100 yards five times. And in the one game he didn't, Week 5 at Seattle, he rushed 22 times for 77 yards and 3 touchdowns -- not to mention another 36 yards on 4 receptions.
In addition, Gurley caught 59 receptions for 580 yards and 4 touchdowns during the regular season.
His campaign of 1831 total yards and 21 total touchdowns on 315 touches is flat out astounding considering in 2017 he amassed 2,093 yards and 19 touchdowns on 343 touches.
Gurley averaged 5.8 yards per touch in 2018, which was just slightly down from his 6.1 yards per touch in 2017.
His contributions added 75.64 Total Net Expected Points for the Rams' offense, ranking him third among all backs and making him one of just three backs to surpass 55.0 Total NEP. With Gurley's versatility and plus matchup against the Patriots out of the backfield, he should not be considered an afterthought on Sunday.
However, the Rams should and will feature Anderson, too, if they want to win the Super Bowl. Because if Anderson is playing well as a supplement to the greatness of Gurley, that 1-2 punch might be enough to rough up the Patriots and keep them guessing.
At the end of the day, using both successful backs -- while still featuring Gurley -- can generate a vital element of surprise even after kick off. That could help mitigate the stellar game-planning and mid-game adjustments of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. And that could make all the difference.