PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — When Todd Gurley was a rookie, he made his mark with four straight games of at least 125 yards rushing. And each of those games featured a run that was at least 48 yards long.
Gurley finished that year No. 3 in rushing with 1,106 yards on 229 carries — good for a 4.8-yard average. But the 2015 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year recorded nearly a third of his rushing yards — 32.9 percent — on carries of at least 25 yards. He had eight such plays for 364 yards that season.
Through six games in 2017, Gurley is No. 4 in yards rushing with 521. He's rushed for at least 113 yards in three of Los Angeles' past four games, and is currently on pace to finish the year with about 1,400 — after amassing just 885 yards last year.
While Gurley's rushing numbers evoke some memories of his rookie year, he's getting his yards in a different way. In Sunday's game, the running back took 23 carries for 116 yards — but his longest run went for 14 yards. In fact, Gurley has taken only two carries for at least 20 yards this season — both coming against San Francisco. Still, 43 percent (53 of 123) of Gurley's runs in 2017 have gone at least five yards.
So what does all that mean? Well, Gurley has been an efficient runner and that's helped the Rams stay in favorable down-and-distance situations. In Sunday's game, for instance, Gurley had six first-down runs of at least six yards — four were six, one seven, and one eight.
"For Todd to have over 100 on 23 carries and the long be 14 shows you how efficient we were running it — guys were getting good knockoff," head coach Sean McVay said on Monday.
Usually that helps translate to strong third down numbers as well. Even after Sunday's game, L.A. is No. 5 in third-down efficiency at 44.3 percent.
But third downs were a struggle for the Rams' offense against the Jaguars, as the club finished just 4-of-13 in the category.
"That's what I was so surprised about [from Sunday] because we were efficient early on — we were just poor on third downs," McVay said. "And credit to them, they made the plays. But I think one of the things that we've done a good job of offensively throughout the year — we're one of the top teams in third down because we get to those [3rd-and-2] to [3rd-and-5] and it's been a really high percentage that we're converting."
There were a number of issues with third downs — from getting stuffed on a 3rd-and-1 play early, to a drop on 3rd-and-2, to a protection issue that led to a sack.
"We get stopped on the 3rd-and-1 for two weeks in a row now on one of our first third downs of the game. You look at the 3rd-and-1, Seattle stops us and that really hasn't been typical of what we've done. And then we end of having a drop on one of our better receivers who's got great aggressive hands on a 3rd-and-2," McVay said.
"We had four conversions on third down which isn't nearly good enough when you've got 13 cracks at it, but all four of those where huge and came at critical times that all lead to points for us," the head coach added.
Jacksonville also successfully took away some of what Los Angeles wanted to accomplish offensively through their coverages. McVay noted how the Jaguars played the Rams with a deep-to-short mentality, which closed off some of the downfield routes.
"They're a good team that plays a lot of three-deep, four underneath just like Seattle does," McVay said. "They played their underneath droppers with a little bit more depth to alleviate your ability to hit some of those intermediate crossing routes and things that we've seen and they were going to rally deep to short on some of our check downs."
What that did, however, was keep fewer defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. And that, in turn, was likely a factor in why Gurley was able to be so efficient as a runner.
"I thought that's why the run game was affected as well, because they weren't quite stepping up quite as much and their 'backers were doing an excellent job keying things," McVay said. "And that's why you try to have that marriage of the run and the pass game."
With more receiving weapons and quarterback Jared Goff earning respect as a passer in McVay's offensive system, Gurley should continue to be efficient on the ground as the 2017 season continues.