The Rams' first-team offense took only eight snaps in Saturday's preseason opener against the Cowboys. And in that time, running back Todd Gurley recorded four carries — matching the number of rushing attempts he had in the entire 2016 preseason.
Part of that is by design. It's a new scheme and Gurley is a significant part of head coach Sean McVay's plans for the offense. So it stands to reason that the third-year running back would take his share of snaps in order to get as acclimated as possible.
"The plan is right now for our starters to get progressive work through the third preseason game," head coach Sean McVay said in a press conference on Sunday. "I also think this preseason offers us a unique opportunity to get him some touches being mindful of that we do want to allow him to be at his best by the time we play the Colts. But especially being in a new system and just for the overall continuity of our offense, I think it's important for him to be out there with those guys. And that's the goal, and that's the plan right now."
But at the same time, McVay said Gurley is the type of competitor that wants to be on the field — the kind of player coaches sometimes have to hold back in order to protect him early in the season.
"I think Todd going into his third year, he's a [such a] great competitor that he's always going to want to play if you allow him to. It's not like he's ever saying, 'Hey, don't let me play this preseason.' He wants to compete," McVay said. "You watch the way he works day in and day out at practice, he's one of those guys where you have to be mindful of protecting himself from himself because he works so hard. So that's a good problem to have with one of your key players."
That's why Los Angeles will do its best to strike a balance to give Gurley just the right amount of preseason carries.
"I think it's important for him to get some work in the preseason so we're careful about that workload," McVay said. "And it's a delicate balance we want to have with that. But also [we want to be] mindful of getting him ready to roll for that Indy game where he can be the best version of himself."
While the Rams will continue to monitor Gurley's workload, they'll also look to improve the blocking around him. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth pointed out the negative run on the first drive as an example of how the offensive line has room for improvement. On Sunday, McVay had a similar assessment of the play after seeing the film.
"I think yesterday, especially when you just talk about the runs that we got off with our first unit, it's a great example when you go back and watch the tape of why the run game takes all 11," McVay said. "It's about one single block — if you miss at the point of attack and a defensive lineman spikes inside, so now there's penetration and the back doesn't have a chance to press his landmark where everything else is in coordination, now you're talking about a minus-three-yard gain. Where if one person does their responsibility we could be talking about a plus-13 or a big explosive-type run."
To that end, McVay said the plan is to keep Rob Havenstein at right tackle and Jamon Brown at right guard. The two had been working at the opposite spots for much of the offseason program and training camp until they flipped back to the positions where the came in as rookies early last week.
"Rob's playing good at right tackle, I think Jamon's doing a nice job at the guard position," McVay said. "And I think when you look at those guys' skill sets, it's probably conducive for them being at their best, and really for our line long term, when you're projecting some of those younger guys as starters this year and what they're going to be able to do for years to come."
Elsewhere in the run game, McVay said he was impressed with the way undrafted rookie Justin Davis bounced back from his two early fumbles.
"I thought Justin Davis showed his explosion," McVay said. "What impressed me the most was his ability to respond. A lot of guys, you can let that affect you. But I didn't sense those two plays affected him. He came back out and created some explosive runs after that. Did a good job competing in protection."
As McVay said, anticipate ball security being a focus of practice as the Rams begin their preparations to play Oakland in Week 2 of the preseason.
HOW'S LANCE DUNBAR?
Running back Lance Dunbar began training camp on the physically unable to perform list and as of Sunday it's unclear when he may be able to come off.
"He's on the PUP right now, it doesn't look like there's any resolution to that in the near future," McVay said. "So our anticipation is, you'd love to have Lance Dunbar. When that time is, we don't really know. But that's why it's important for us to evaluate these other backs."
Dunbar missed the majority of the 2015 slate with the Cowboys after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. While Dunbar was healthy for much of last season, he was used in a limited capacity with the emergence of then-rookie Ezekiel Elliott.
McVay said Dunbar has been doing what he can to rehab, but there's no clear timeline as to when he may return to the field.
"He's doing what he can control in terms of the rehab and staying up, staying sharp with the mental aspects of it," McVay said. "But I think it offers a unique opportunity for some of those guys behind Todd to step up and get some opportunities that maybe they wouldn't have otherwise."
AUSTIN NOT EXPECTED TO PRACTICE THIS WEEK
Wide receiver Tavon Austin has been hampered by a hamstring injury suffered during the early goings of training camp and is expected to be out for at least another week, McVay said Sunday.
"We're really trying to figure out exactly when that is that he'll be back. I think ideally you'd like to say he'll get some preseason work," McVay said. "The hamstrings are always very difficult injuries for those skill players to evaluate because the grade 1, the grade 2 — the difference ends up being a couple weeks. So ideally, I'd like to say Tavon will get a chance to play in the preseason. But the goal and the main thing we have in mind is making sure he's ready for that Colts game."
— McVay said outside linebacker Robert Quinn, linebacker Mark Barron, and cornerback Kayvon Webster were all held out from last night's game for precautionary reasons.
"We've been extra cautious with some of our veteran guys that we have big expectations for," McVay said. "And whether it's a tweak here or something like that, part of that maintenance program that we discuss, that's where all three of those guys fit."
— The Rams were able to get out of last night's game healthy. McVay said there were a few tweaks, but nothing that was of major concern.
— Wide receiver Sammy Watkins will be able to fully participate in practice this week with his new team. Watkins had said Saturday that he hadn't been practicing with any restrictions in Buffalo during training camp.
"He got all that stuff cleared, so he is full go," McVay said. "We want to be mindful of just the fact that he did a lot of traveling — coming from the east coast to the west coast. He was getting everything checked out last night where we kind of got the thumbs up. So just getting him back to where his body feels recuperated and things like that — we'll monitor his workload. But in terms of just his pace and things like that, he's full speed, fully released, and he's healthy."
— Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman took snaps on the outside during Saturday's game, and McVay said there's a potential role for him there. Robey-Coleman has been more of a slot corner for most of his career to this point.
"I think the way that he's played throughout the course of camp, [cornerbacks coach Aubrey] Pleasant has done a good job of giving him some opportunities that maybe he hasn't had in his career," McVay said. "But what I think you see is a good football player. He's tough. He consistently finds ways to get his hands on the ball. And from an offensive perspective, you certainly feel him as a defensive player."
— Finally, McVay said Davis and outside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy were a pair of under-the-radar players who impressed him with their play in Saturday's game.
"Cassanova McKinzy on defense continues to show why he's a physical player," McVay said. "He's got the ability to run and hit. And he's done a nice job throughout the course of camp."
Check out photos from the Week 1 preseason matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys.