As a rookie in 2015, Rams running back Todd Gurley made his NFL debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was the third game of the season, and Gurley -- the 10th pick in the draft -- was in the final stage of working his way back from 2014 knee surgery.
Gurley rushed for nine yards in six carries and caught a pass before moving into the starting lineup the next week.
Four years later, the three-time Pro Bowl selection can’t wait to play the Steelers at Heinz Field for the first time.
“I grew up a [Baltimore] Ravens fan, so I never liked the Steelers,” Gurley said. “I’m looking forward to it-- it’s like one of those places like Green Bay, Dallas, Chicago, Pittsburgh…. That’s always been their philosophy to be all about the ball and all about defense.
“Should be a fun game.”
It also will be an opportunity to see what coach Sean McVay has planned for his star running back in the second half of the season.
During the Rams’ first eight games, Gurley’s carries, rushing yards and pass receptions were down by nearly half compared to last season. But McVay insists that Gurley was not on a “pitch count” or a “workload” management plan.
Gurley has rushed for 355 yards and six touchdowns in 92 carries, and has also caught 15 passes and scored a touchdown for a Rams team that is 5-3 after winning its last two games.
Will McVay turn Gurley loose in the second half of the season? Is Gurley capable of handling a larger load? Will Malcolm Brown and rookie Darrell Henderson be mixed into a three-back rotation?
Those questions will start to be answered against a 4-4 Steelers team that has won three games in a row and relies heavily on its defense.
“Honestly, we’ll just have to see during the game,” Gurley said when asked about the state of the Rams’ rushing attack going into the second half. “We’ll have to go out there and just run the ball effectively and let the rest take care of itself.”
Gurley sat out a game this season because of what the Rams described as a thigh bruise, which affects his statistics. But McVay said the situation in each game has affected Gurley’s usage, not a prescribed plan.
Gurley’s statistical performance is significantly different – but perhaps not entirely unexpected – compared to the previous two seasons, when he was one of the NFL’s most productive players before a left knee issue sidelined and then slowed him.
In the first eight games of the 2017 season – the year he won the NFL offensive player of the year award -- Gurley rushed for 686 yards and seven touchdowns in 161 carries, and had 29 receptions, three for touchdowns.
Last season, after signing an extension with $45 million in guarantees, Gurley rushed for 800 yards and 11 touchdowns in 169 carries, and had 31 catches, including four for touchdowns, in the first half of the season.
McVay is quick to point out that Gurley is not solely responsible for his performance, and that the fifth-year pro has contributed in pass protection and other unheralded ways. The Rams also have lost starting offensive linemen for a game and, in left guard Joe Noteboom’s case, the season.
The Rams are averaging 97.2 yards rushing per game, which ranks 20th in the NFL.
Gurley’s thigh issue, an ankle injury that forced Brown to sit out two games, and the process of getting Henderson more involved factor into the situation, McVay said.
“There’s a combination of things,” he said.
For the first time in weeks, the Rams on Sunday will have Gurley, Brown and a more experienced Henderson available against the Steelers.
Brown has rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown, Henderson 119 yards.
“There are a lot of things that we can do better,” McVay said. “I think that it’s going to be a week-to-week thing…. We’ve got three guys that we feel really good about.”
The week off that followed an Oct. 29 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals was “perfect timing” as the Rams prepared for their final eight games,” Gurley said.
The extra time enabled Brown to recover.
“Just trying to work my way back and try to get back into that true football shape,” Brown said.
The challenge Sunday, McVay said, will be finding a rhythm that allows Gurley, Brown and Henderson to get into the flow of the game.
“I’m confident that, hopefully, we’ll see some good, positive results,” he said.