The first draft of this article was shorter. It was supposed to be a thorough breakdown of how to stop Todd Gurley, but the whole text just read: pray, cheat and get lucky.
There's a reason that was my initial thought. When healthy, Gurley is the scariest running back and perhaps the scariest offensive player in college football. Even when he's not healthy, as he was for the second part of last season, he ranks somewhere near the top 10.
At 6'1", 226 pounds, with good speed, great vision and rare downhill power, Gurley is the closest thing college football fans have seen to Adrian Peterson since Peterson himself left Oklahoma. Coming out of school, AP was a little bit taller (6'1.5") but actually slighter (217 lbs) than Gurley, per his NFL draft profile at ESPN.com.
Alas, there is no such thing as an unstoppable player, no matter how close Gurley might at first appear. It's incredibly difficult to implement, but there is a game plan for at least slowing him down.
It just takes a special defense to execute it.
Winning the Line of Scrimmage
The best thing Gurley does is keep Georgia's offense on schedule, converting successful plays on first and second down that lead to either a new set of downs or an auspicious third-down try.
What makes him so good at this is the ability to fall forward. He is the quintessential downhill runner who picks up steam as he gets to the second level. Often when he reaches even the linebackers, he is moving too fast to be driven backward. The safety or linebacker might make the tackle, but Gurley will initiate the contact.
Here is an example where he shakes Ryan Smith and drags Jermaine Whitehead for 14 yards against Auburn in 2013:
And here is perhaps the best possession of Gurley's career, which came against Alabama in the 2012 SEC Championship Game:
Obviously, having linebackers that can drive Gurley backward would be a huge boost in stopping him and theoretically could have been included in this breakdown. But linebackers capable of doing so are either exceedingly rare or non-existent, which would have made it feel wrong. We can't just tell a team to produce the next Ray Lewis.
More realistically, though, a team can win the battle at the line of scrimmage and force Gurley off his intended path.
Every movement he makes going east-to-west instead of downhill gives him less force to break tackles and fall forward. If a defensive line—which is the key unit to stopping Gurley—can get a good push off the snap, force the offensive linemen backward and perhaps even get a hand on Gurley, the team has a shot at bringing him down.
Here is a good example from last year's Clemson game:
Georgia might be vulnerable against the best defensive lines it faces this season after losing three quality starters (Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette) from last year's offensive line.
In this regard, the Week 1 game against Clemson will be a fantastic litmus test. Gurley ripped the Tigers up (despite in-game injuries) for 154 yards on 12 carries last season, but this year they return one of the best, most experienced defensive lines in the country. It's a unit that ranked No. 10 on my list of best national position groups.
Players such as Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Corey Crawford will be jacked up to prove they can bring down the nation's best running back—although, of course, that is nothing new for Gurley to have to deal with. He is the Kentucky basketball of defensive line opponents, eliciting the A-game of whomever he goes up against.
"I would love to hit Todd Gurley," said Missouri defensive end Markus Golden at SEC media days, per Matt Maddux of AL.com. "I can't wait to play him…I love playing against players like him."
"Todd Gurley is definitely a running back that I'm ready to go up against," added South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt, who is no stranger to defending the Georgia star. The Gamecocks actually did an admirable job corralling him (albeit in a loss) last season, holding him to 132 yards on 30 carries.
Surratt had a half-tackle for loss on a play where his defensive line dominated the point of attack:
Here is another example from that game where Kelcy Quarles beats his blocker one-on-one to disrupt the play and bring Gurley down:
Later in that game, South Carolina failed to execute another key tenant of stopping Gurley.
Which brings us to…
Coverage Out of the Backfield
Although it is tempting, a team cannot forget about the nation's best runner once it realizes he will not be "running" on that play. Gurley defies the archetype of a typical downhill power back by making himself a versatile receiving threat out of the backfield.
Here he is looking like an actual wide receiver against the Gamecocks:
And here he is flashing out of the backfield for a 72-yard touchdown on a coverage breakdown against Florida later in the year:
Strangely, this means opposing linebackers might be more important in coverage against Gurley than in run support. At least with regard to "stopping" instead of "mitigating" his impact, this seems true.
As discussed earlier, it is the defensive line that stands the best chance of actually shutting down Gurley on rushing plays, whereas the linebackers' biggest duty is to attenuate his solid gains from becoming game-breaking gains. Pass coverage is where teams stand the best chance of eliminating Gurley entirely.
Screens and flares are basically extensions of the run and are best combated with swarming speed and gap discipline, but as seen in the videos above, Georgia trusts Gurley to run less basic route concepts.
Because Georgia has so many other talented weapons in the passing game, a defense cannot spare a defensive back on Gurley in coverage, which means the linebackers must be able to keep him in check.
Here's a great job by Georgia Tech's Quayshawn Nealy, who runs with Gurley on an out route and forces a bad throw (at 1:51:45):
Hutson Mason got his feet wet last season—he is actually the quarterback in that above clip—and has a ton of experience running Mike Bobo's offense in practice since arriving at Georgia in 2010.
Still, one can't forget that he's a first-year full-time starter, and he'll be looking for checkdown passes.
Gurley is as capable as any short, checkdown target in the country. As he proved against Florida in 2013, he can take a reception the distance when the defense forgets to account for him.
Defenses should never forget to account for him.
Taking Away Cutback Lanes
Outside of pass coverage and solid downhill tackling, there is one more thing linebackers must do against Gurley.
Rather than over-pursuing him and flooding in one direction, linebackers must remain mindful of the cutback lanes and stay at home.
Bleacher Report contributor Cian Fahey, here writing for Rotoworld, did a great job breaking this down in July. He highlighted a few instances where Gurley's combination of vision and explosiveness led to cutback opportunities on plays that should have been stuffed.
This jump cut against Clemson was one that stood out in particular:
"Considering his size, this is a phenomenal physical achievement," Fahey wrote in assessing the play. "Only one back in the NFL can boast to be as big as Gurley, as powerful as Gurley, as explosive as Gurley and be able to execute a jump cut as impressive as this.
"That player rushed for 2,000 yards in 2012."
Of course, Fahey is referring to Peterson, and that is not the last time you will hear those two compared this season. Personally, I see Gurley as more of a Marshawn Lynch, but that is splitting hairs. Either way, he is one of the toughest backs to stop of the past decade.
Still, there's a way to stop him if a defense executes properly. Every part of that execution is easier said than done—winning the battle in the trenches, mitigating Gurley's yards after contact, covering him out of the backfield, filling up the cutback lanes—but it's not impossible for a defense with both talent and discipline.
Other than that, the best a team can hope for are outside factors such as injury (which spared LSU, Tennessee, Missouri and Vanderbilt last season) or weather (which aided Nebraska in the 2014 Gator Bowl) to prevent being shredded by Gurley.
And I suppose that skews pretty close to my original thought: You might need a steady diet of prayer and dumb luck.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
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