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Why the Rams benched Todd Gurley for C.J. Anderson

Five touches. That’s all Todd Gurley, the highest-paid running back in NFL history, got during the Rams’ 26-23 win over the Saints in the NFC Championship Game.

Gurley averaged 22.5 touches per game in the regular season. He got 18 in Los Angeles’ Divisional Round win over Dallas. In New Orleans, he barely saw the field after the Rams’ first two drives ended with a three-and-out and an interception that ricocheted off Gurley’s hands. And when the Rams got the ball in overtime, it was C.J. Anderson, and not Gurley, on the field with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Sean McVay keeping his best player on the sideline in the most important game of the season was … bizarre.

Here’s how McVay explained Gurley’s lack of action following the Rams win…

“It was a flow for the game. I thought Todd’s run from the 5 on the two-minute drive was outstanding. What personifies Todd … is this is an MVP-caliber player, and he just kept fighting. He kept supporting his teammates. He’s gonna have an instrumental role in the game against whoever we play — whether it be the Patriots or the Chiefs. Today, that was kind of just the feel for the flow of the game that we had. Not anything against Todd. CJ did a nice job, but I thought they did a good job as a whole slowing down our run game, and we kind of just had to grind some things out today. ”

That’s really a non-answer. McVay didn’t reveal what about the flow of the game convinced him that a free agent the Rams picked up off the street last month was a better option than “an MVP-caliver player.”

Many believe it was Gurley’s two drops that convinced McVay to turn to Anderson, but the Rams coach made the change before that second drop, which came at the end of Los Angeles’ third drive. Before that drop, Anderson was on the field for most of the drive. Others believed that Gurley was hurt, but that does not appear to be the case based on McVay’s comments.

So what gives?

Here’s my best theory: The Saints defensive line is strongest on the edges, and with DT Sheldon Rankins out injured, the interior of their line was short-handed. So instead of leaning on perimeter runs, where Gurley is at his best, the Rams when with a more downhill attack, which suits Anderson’s bruising running style. As McVay said, the Rams “just had to grind some things out today,” and Anderson is the better grinder.

Anderson is also better in pass protection. With the Rams falling behind early, and struggling to provide a rattled Jared Goff with time in the pocket, it made more sense to have the better blocker in the backfield.

Gurley remains the focal point of the Rams offense. One game doesn’t change that. But this game did prove that Los Angeles is capable of winning when Gurley is not playing his best.

With a trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance, the Rams’ best player wasn’t on the field. Here’s why.

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