The last thing anybody wants to hear on this awful Monday morning is “Bill Belichick takes away your best player,” but, uh, that’s exactly what he did to the Rams’ dismal offense in the Patriots’ 13-3 Super Bowl win. Nothing at all went right anywhere for Los Angeles when they had the ball, but their struggles began with the invisibility of their All-Pro running back Todd Gurley, who only managed 35 yards on 10 carries, and -1 yards on one catch. For the second game in a row, Gurley was a total non-factor, but this time, the Rams had no way to overcome his lack of big plays.
The first thing to look at to explain Gurley’s no-show is a potential injury. Gurley missed Weeks 16 and 17 of the regular season with a knee injury, but he ran all over the Cowboys in the Divisional Round, and despite getting little usage against the Saints, both player and coach have insisted that Gurley isn’t injured. Sean McVay said that Gurley is healthy, and blamed his own poor play-calling for the running back’s lack of effectiveness in the Super Bowl. Gurley, too, said he wasn’t going to have surgery in the offseason and that there wasn’t any problem.
“I know there’s been a lot of concern about my knee but I really am fine,” he said.
There’s no clear reason to lie about a player’s health following a season-ending poor performance—frankly, it’d reflect better on everyone if Gurley was hurt—so it feels fair to take the Rams at their word and credit the Patriots for creating a brick wall to stop Gurley. Particularly useless were the stretch plays that the Rams love to run, where Gurley has an opportunity to start towards the outside and then cut back through a hole in the middle of the field. As Romo noted on the broadcast, the Patriots did a great job of prioritizing vertical penetration through the entire backfield, instead of just chasing after Gurley only for him to make one cut and jet.
On this play—a third-quarter no-gainer on second-and-five after Gurley had picked up 21 yards on the prior two plays—No. 90 Malcom Brown beats left guard Rodger Saffold with ease, eliminating the possibility of a change in direction and forcing Gurley to run right into Kyle Van Noy. This run was followed by an incompletion and a punt.
Another key run—the only run on what could have been a game-tying fourth-quarter drive that instead ended in a Goff interception—saw Gurley plow straight into a host of New England tacklers, with no holes to speak of along the line of scrimmage. And while maybe Gurley could have managed more yardage moving to the outside, his more traditional cut to the middle was totally taken away, and he looked useless without it.
“They played six on the line all day, which kind of limited the space to get the runs in there,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said after the game. “They played an open-field 6-2 almost, but with one guy in the middle — almost a little bit of goal line.”
The stifling of Gurley—and the Rams’ running game as a whole, since late season pick-up C.J. Anderson also did nothing—had a ripple effect through the whole offense. With sheer numbers up front overwhelming the Rams’ star, play-action basically became pointless, because the threat of the run was nonexistent. And when dared to drop back and unlock the Patriots’ zone coverage, QB Jared Goff looked helpless, completing only half his passes while getting quickly swallowed up by pressure several times.
It never truly felt like they had a chance, but the Rams were very much in this game until the final minutes. Maybe a ground game could have been the difference.