Rams' run game, with or without Todd Gurley, searches for identity

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Throughout the offseason, coach Sean McVay remained adamant that running back Todd Gurley would remain the focal point of the Los Angeles Rams offense.

But through five games, the Rams' former NFL Offensive Player of the Year is just another player in an offense that has appeared in flux throughout a 3-2 start.

"What we are trying to figure out is what's the best identity for this 2019 Rams football team and ultimately the offense," said McVay, when asked if his offense has appeared how he envisioned before the season. "It's really about us finding ways to just be efficient."

The Rams' challenge in establishing the run could grow Sunday, when they face an undefeated San Francisco 49ers team with a top-five rushing defense that is holding opponents to an average of 82 rushing yards per game.

Uncertainty remains about the status of Gurley, who suffered a thigh contusion in last Thursday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

"What's today -- Thursday?" Gurley asked, on Thursday. "I got Friday, Saturday. But just worrying about trying to just get back right and make that decision when the time comes."

This season, the Rams have been slow to commit to the run and quick to rely on the arm of quarterback Jared Goff, who has passed for 1,649 yards and seven touchdowns, with seven interceptions. The Rams' passing offense ranks second in the league with 317.4 yards per game, while ranking 22nd in rushing yards with 96.2 per game. Last season they ranked fifth in passing (281.7) and third in rushing (139.4).

"As a quarterback you love throwing the ball," Goff said. "But you do know, especially in the NFL, it's not the best recipe for success to be throwing it so many times."

The offense has accounted for 222 pass plays to 115 runs plays.

"A lot of instances, what I'm most interested in for our offense is efficiency, scoring points and moving the football," said McVay, when asked about the play discrepancy. "You'd like to be able to have a balance, but our job is to move the ball and score points."

Before the season, the Rams stockpiled running backs. Along with Gurley, who last season signed a four-year, $60-million extension with $45 million guaranteed, the Rams matched an offer sheet from the Detroit Lions to bring back restricted free agent Malcolm Brown for two years and $3.3 million. They also selected Darrell Henderson in the third round from Memphis.

Even if Gurley assumed a decreased role in an attempt to keep him fresh, it appeared that the Rams' running game would remain robust.

That hasn't necessarily been the case, in part, because of circumstance -- the Rams trailed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-0 in the second quarter of a Week 4 loss and abandoned the run -- but also by design.

This season, the Rams have gone with a designed run on 31 percent of their plays, which ranks 28th in the NFL and is down from McVay's first two seasons as the Rams coach when he went with a designed run 42 percent of the time.

In the first half of games, they are going with a designed run 28 percent of the time, a higher rate than only the Kansas City Chiefs, who are at 24 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information Research.

Gurley is coming off arguably his best game of the season in the loss to the Seahawks, when he rushed for 51 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. McVay wasted no time getting Gurley into a rhythm, calling for runs on the first two plays.

"We wanted to get him going," McVay said, adding later, "That opened up some things in the pass game."

Despite playing an average of four fewer snaps per game than last season, Gurley has maintained a lion's share of the workload. In five games, he has rushed for 270 yards and five touchdowns on 64 carries.

But he has been spelled at a more frequent rate than in past seasons. Brown is averaging five more snaps per game than in 2018 and has rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.

"I think," Brown said, with a chuckle, when asked to assess the running game, "it's been cool. We just go out there and run the plays that are being called, for real. That's it."

Henderson, who in April McVay called the "change-of-pace back" he's been searching for, has played two offensive snaps, both in the season opener.

"That's one of those things that we're going to look at and are evaluating," McVay said about Henderson's role. "It's our job and it's my job to make sure we find a way to continue to develop him and give him an opportunity, because I think he is a guy who can help us, whether it's immediately or whether it's later on in the season."

Said Henderson: "It's all about being patient. I'm just being patient, waiting my time and making sure I'm ready whenever my number is called."

Whoever is playing, however many run plays are called, Gurley said there's only one bottom line.

"As long as you're winning games, that's all that really matters."