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Rams

Rams return to New Orleans with a weapon Saints didn’t see in first matchup

FILE - At left, in a Dec. 16, 2018, file photo, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley sprints in
Rams running backs Todd Gurley (30) and C.J. Anderson give the New Orleans Saints something new to prepare for.
(Associated Press)

The rotation began seven plays into the Rams’ divisional-round playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Star running back Todd Gurley, on the field for the first time in nearly a month, had carried the ball four times when backup C.J. Anderson came off the sideline and carried three times before an eventual field goal. The rotation continued throughout the game.

“There was times he wanted to come in, and I tell him I was in a rhythm, and there was times he felt like he was in a rhythm and I’m going to let him go,” Anderson said.

By the end of the 30-22 victory, Anderson had rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns in 23 carries. Gurley rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown in 16 carries . It had been two decades since two backs from the same team each ran for more than 100 yards in a playoff game.

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And all of a sudden, the Rams’ high-powered offense had another dynamic.

“Kind of that perfect balance,” coach Sean McVay said Friday.

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The 1-2 punch gives the Rams a different look going into Sunday’s NFC championship game at New Orleans. The winner advances to play Kansas City or New England in the Feb. 3 Super Bowl at Atlanta.

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The 6-foot-1, 224-pound Gurley appears recovered from a knee injury and back to the form that enabled him to score a league-leading 21 touchdowns this season. On a 35-yard touchdown run against the Cowboys, he got through the line of scrimmage, cut to his left and blazed to the end zone.

The 5-8, 225-pound Anderson, released by Carolina and Oakland in a one-month span, appears back to the form that helped Denver reach the 2016 Super Bowl. Since joining the Rams in mid-December, the sixth-year pro has rushed for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games.

“It’s good to have him,” Gurley said. “I got hurt for a reason and it seems like that was one of the missing pieces.”

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Gurley traveled a familiar path to stardom: He was a top-50 player nationally in high school in North Carolina, played in the Southeastern Conference at Georgia and was selected 10th in the 2015 draft. He was the offensive rookie of the year, the 2017 offensive player of the year, and signed a $60-million extension before this season.

Anderson’s road was far different.

He grew up in Northern California in Vallejo and played quarterback in a veer-option offense his sophomore and junior seasons at Jesse Bethel High. Early in his first varsity season, with his team at its own one-yard line, the play call was for a quarterback sneak.

“He takes a jab step to the left, comes back to the right, goes 99 yards for a touchdown,” Bethel coach Jeff Turner said. “At that point we knew we had a guy who could make plays.”

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Anderson also could think — “his football IQ is 10 of 10,” Turner said — and play and practice with a physical style, pushing linemen 70 pounds heavier out of the “pit” during one-on-one drills. As a sophomore, Anderson told Bethel assistant James Brooks that he didn’t want a job. He wanted to play in the NFL.

“I said, ‘Well, you know what you need to do if you want to get to the league,’ ” Brooks said. “He would call me and say, ‘Let’s work out. Let’s do seven on seven. Can we get in the weight room?’

“He was already owning his craft.”

Anderson starred on offense and defense and was scouted by major college programs mainly as a defensive back. But academic issues prevented him from signing, so he enrolled at Laney College in Oakland.

Laney coach John Beam asked Anderson what position he wanted to play. Beam said Anderson wasn’t sure if he should play offense or defense.

“Where’s your heart at?” Beam asked.

Anderson was a running back.

For two years, he commuted by bus and train to Oakland, waking before dawn to be on time for early-morning weightlifting sessions.

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The New Orleans Saints feature a future Hall of Fame quarterback, the NFL’s best wide receiver and an unrelenting running game. Stopping the explosive Saints is objective No. 1 for the Rams in Sunday’s NFC championship game.

Beam benched him for fumbling during a bowl game, but Anderson did not sulk or transfer. He came back as a sophomore and produced several 200-yard performances. He also continued to demonstrate “phenomenal” football smarts, Beam said, calling snap counts from the backfield if the quarterback struggled.

Anderson accepted a late offer from California after the junior college season, but could not immediately enroll because he needed to complete a class. That did not stop him from attending spring practices in Berkeley as an observer and making an impression on coach Jeff Tedford.

“He’s a bright guy,” said Tedford, now coach at Fresno State. “He wasn’t the guy that stands on the sideline BS-ing. He wanted to be out on the field and wanted to know every play call.”

Anderson played a rotational role in Tedford’s two-back system. In two seasons, he rushed for 1,135 yards and scored 14 touchdowns but was not selected in the 2013 draft. He signed with the Broncos, played in two Super Bowls — starting and scoring a touchdown in a Super Bowl 50 victory over the Panthers — and rushed for 1,007 yards in 2017.

The Panthers said they released him Nov. 12 because second-year pro Christian McCaffrey had emerged as an every-down back. Anderson signed with the Raiders, but was released without playing a game because the team needed roster space to replace injured offensive linemen.

The timing could not have been better for the Rams. With Gurley sidelined, Anderson rushed for 167 yards against Arizona and 132 yards against San Francisco.

“He understood our offense after four days,” offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said. “And not just any offense: McVay’s offense, that’s got more words and terms than anything I’ve ever been around.

“So that guy is playing out of his mind right now.”

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Broncos Hall of Famer Terrell Davis and Derek Loville were the last running backs from the same team to rush for more than 100 yards in a playoff game, in a 1997 wild-card victory over Jacksonville. Davis rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns in 31 carries. Loville ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns in 11 carries.

“You see him on the field and he’s gashing them, and then I go in and I’m gashing them,” said Davis, an analyst for NFL Network. “We just fed off each other. … It was a perfect scenario.”

That’s how Davis views the Rams’ combination.

“Todd is Todd, an unbelievable back when it comes to the combination of size … and that top-end speed, that ability to break away,” he said. “He’s very fluid and agile. He can jump over players, run around them, so he’s got everything.”

And because of his pass-catching ability, “Sean McVay can put Todd anywhere,” Davis said. “He’s an X-factor out wide or in the slot.”

Davis watched and admired Anderson during his first five seasons with the Broncos.

“I always called C.J. a mudder, like this horse that you can put him in with sloppy conditions,” Davis said. “Snow, mud. C.J., he likes that kind of rugged environment.”

The Saints also boast a potent running back combination with young and speedy Alvin Kamara and veteran power runner Mark Ingram. Kamara rushed for 883 yards and 14 touchdowns this season and caught 81 passes, four for touchdowns. Ingram rushed for 645 yards and six touchdowns.

“Kamara can take over a game. He’s got that elusiveness and scatback mentality and does it all,” Davis said. “Ingram’s your hammer. He’s going to come hammer you and wear you down.”

The combinations at running back give the Rams and the Saints incredible flexibility, Davis said.

“There is no one-dimensional with these teams,” he said. “They can morph into what they need to be.”

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This will be the Rams’ third trip to New Orleans. They played their final preseason game at the Superdome, and suffered their first loss there Nov. 4, 45-35. Gurley rushed for only 68 yards in 13 carries.

After watching the Rams’ offensive line clear the path for Gurley and Anderson against the Cowboys, Saints coach Sean Payton must prepare for two backs that “looked fantastic.”

“When you sign a player like that, you’re hoping a guy can come in and understand what you’re doing,” Payton said of Anderson. “I think the fit has been real good.”

So do Anderson and Gurley.

“We respect each other as players — what I’ve done in this league and what he’s done in this league,” Anderson said. “I ask questions, he asks questions, I think that will help us.”

Gurley does not mind sharing the load.

“Whoever’s in there balling,” he said, “they’re in there balling.”

Gurley also is not concerned about the formula for success Sunday.

“As long as we get this win,” he said, “that’s really all I care about.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein


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