The NFL is slowly returning to the days of old where running backs are selected with premium first round picks. The NFL is often dubbed a passing league, sure, but the best teams of late have also had strong rushing attacks. Todd Gurley marked the return of high level running backs entering the league, followed by Ezekiel Elliot in 2016 and a plethora of running backs for the 2017 class, such as Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey.
Gurley is more than just a flashy athlete, though. There is nuance to his game. He does not have to be as precise as other backs in the league because of his athleticism, but the ability is certainly there. His top five runs highlight both his athleticism and his great feel for the game.
*plays are listed in order of occurrence*
Week 4 vs Arizona Cardinals
There are three key components on this play. The most notable of those components is how well center Tim Barnes executes here. This is an off-tackle zone concept with a backside blocker (Jared Cook). Barnes's first job is to fire off to his left with the rest of the line and force a defender out to the left. With a little help from rookie guard Jamon Brown, Barnes clears a defensive lineman out of the B-gap he was lined up over. Barnes then makes his way up the field to get a hand on safety Tony Jefferson. The second block wasn't so pretty, but good blocking is not always pretty. Barnes got in the way of Jefferson and allowed Gurley to beat the safety inside.
Secondly, right guard Rodger Saffold makes an impressive play from an athletic standpoint. The lineman he ends up blocking is lined up to his left and the run is set up to go to the left side, meaning Saffold has to quickly cover a lot of ground and get his feet under him to seal that defensive lineman off. He gets a great first step off the line to get himself even with the defender, lands a solid punch and continues to fight the defender while moving his own body to put his back to the rush lane and keep the defender out of the way. He finishes it all off with a demoralizing throw to the ground, too.
The last main component is the play fake that keeps linebacker Deone Bucannon from filling the rushing lane. Faking the end around to Tavon Austin forced Buchanon to jump in the opposite direction of the true play, leaving him out to dry for Rob Havenstein to take care of.
Gurley makes a great play in his own right, too. He very subtly helps Barnes' second block by not declaring a path and forcing Jefferson to pause. Once Barnes gets in position, Gurley plants his foot, heads down field and zooms past two defensive backs before Tyrann Mathieu hunts him down.
Week 5 vs Green Bay Packers
More than anything, this highlights Gurley's patience and lateral agility. Havenstein (right tackle) and Garrett Reynolds (right guard) do a good job of opening up a lane for Gurley, but Gurley is the one who holds the linebackers. Gurley takes the hand off and presses the heart of the line of scrimmage, keeping Nate Palmer (51) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21) stuck in traffic. Just before he gets to the pile up, Gurley sticks his left foot in the ground and slips outside of the right guard. He then has a lot of room before he meets a third level defender. Once he meets that defender, Micah Hyde (33), in space, Gurley gives a little shimmy that gets Hyde to hesitate and allow Gurley to bounce outside of him and turn up field until he is finally knocked out of bounds.
Week 7 vs Cleveland Browns
This play is almost disastrous. Multiple offensive linemen fail on their assignments on this play, but Gurley salvages it and turns it into a massive gain. The goal on this play is for the left guard, Reynolds, to pin the lineman to his inside shoulder, while Barnes pulls around him and clears out the rushing lane. In order for that to work, Brown, the right guard, needs to extend to the second level and get a piece of Karlos Dansby (56). None of these blocks are executed well.
Reynolds loses some ground when trying to pin his man out of the rush lane. That alone tightens the rush lane a lot. Barnes, too, fails to get push on the linebacker he took on in the gap. Brown does not even get a hand on his man. He hesitates in getting to his spot and taking on Davis, enabling Davis to fill any space left in what was supposed to be Gurley's path.
Gurley takes the play into his own hands. He bounces back to his right through a very small cutback lane. He fights through traffic to get through that lane, then immediately has to break a tackle once he escapes. After the broken tackle, Gurley realizes everything ahead of him is a mess, so he bolts to the opposite sideline and turns back up the field once he gets past Austin, who makes a great block to give Gurley space outside the numbers.
Week 8 vs San Francisco 49ers
Unlike the last run, the offensive line did their job here. This is an off-tackle run with a pulling guard (Reynolds). Brown and Barnes do a good job of down blocking and sealing off the left aside of the rush lane, while Havenstein and a pulling Reynolds work well to the second level and get a bit of push on their defenders. Gurley once again displays his patience and burst here to complete the play.
Gurley is given the option of going outside of Reynolds and having a definite 1-on-1 situation or going inside of Havenstein and possibly putting himself in traffic. As he has done before, Gurley presses one way and goes the other. He works as far down the field as he can without declaring where he is going, even veering off to his right some initially, then takes a few quick steps to work inside of Havenstein and fly down the field. Gurley's decision gets 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt to lose his balance, while his freak athleticism allows him to burn the other safety Eric Reid in space and work his way to the end zone.
Week 14 vs Detroit Lions
A few things go wrong here, but Gurley saves the play again. The most obvious blunder is Reynolds, the left guard, being blown off the ball into the backfield. That takes away one of Gurley's possible rush lanes on this outside zone play, theoretically making the play much easier for Detroit's linebackers. On top of that, left tackle Greg Robinson appears confused on his assignment. The rest of the line steps to their left and (if they can) up the field in unison, whereas Robinson takes a step to his left and then sits in the gap, waiting for a defender. Robinson should have attacked Stephen Tulloch (55), if the context clues the rest of the line is giving off is any indication of the play call.
Very quickly, two of Gurley's rush lanes are eliminated. His only remaining option is to bounce outside of the tackle and hope Cook makes a good block. Luckily, Cook does land a solid block to clear the linebacker wide of the play. Gurley's flexibility shows when he turns up the field once he is around the more inward set tight end, Lance Kendricks (who pinned his man inside very well). Gurley lost no speed making that turn, enabling him to burn past the second level with ease. When he is presented with a 1-on-1 with the safety, Gurley whips him with sudden a change of direction and a little hop step.
Todd Gurley is already one of the best running backs in the league. He takes advantage of well blocked plays, in addition to his ability to create explosive plays in his own right more than most backs in the NFL. Gurley has plenty more of these runs in store for 2016, especially with some of the pressure to carry the offense now being taken off of him because of rookie quarterback Jared Goff.