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A closer look at Todd Gurley’s fit in Dirk Koetter’s Falcons offense

Gurley’s ready and willing for those 1st and 10 runs.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

It’s fair to say that Dirk Koetter has been this website’s preferred punching bag when it comes to the team’s sometimes infuriating offense in 2019. My great fear coming into this year has been that Atlanta will manage to add a ton of talent to that side of the ball and will still fall short thanks to Koetter’s handling of the offense.

It’s not yet clear what Koetter plans to do to improve his coaching, but it’s very obvious that he identified talent on hand as part of the problem a year ago. The addition of Hayden Hurst, Todd Gurley, and Laquon Treadwell, among others, is designed to give the Falcons more of a vertical threat at tight end, a more physical runner and blocker for the ground game, and what everyone hopes will be a reliable possession receiver. At the end of the day, Koetter is likely hoping these additions will fit his offense better than who he had in 2019, instead of him having to make sweeping changes to the way he does business.

Let’s focus in on Gurley today. As the likely feature back in this offense, how does he fit what Koetter likes to do?

Dirk Koetter in 2019

As we already know, Koetter is not necessarily unique in his desire to run the ball on 1st and 10. He’s just not particularly creative or effective when doing so, which is why the Falcons ran 186 times on 1st and 10 for 637 yards and 1 touchdown, or 3.4 yards per carry. Koetter also likely looked at his stable of backs and determined they weren’t a great fit for what he was trying to do—Freeman’s bread and butter has never been plowing through questionable blocking up the middle to get a bunch of yards—and that helps explain the addition of Gurley.

You probably don’t recall Steven Jackson’s tenure in Atlanta with much fondness, but it’s worth noting that on Koetter’s preferred run play scenarios—again, chiefly 1st and 10 or at least 10+ yards to go—S-Jax was extremely effective in 2014 with a better offensive line in front of him. He had 119 of his 190 carries that year when there were 10+ yards to go and averaged a sterling 4.5 yards per carry on those totes, many of them exactly the kind of between-the-tackles running Gurley will be called upon to do. As weird as it sounds, Jackson’s 2014 is probably the floor of what Koetter’s hoping for in 2020 from Gurley.

How about through the air? Notably, Koetter’s Falcons were just as likely to target backs in the passing game on 2nd down as 1st down, with Devonta Freeman snagging 27 passes for 182 yards on 1st down and 22 for 151 yards on 2nd down. Those tended to be 2nd and long situations, naturally, because Koetter found himself in a lot of those and barely used backs in the passing game in short yardage situations.

Overall, though, you know how Koetter fared in 2019 without diving this deep into the numbers. He didn’t get a ton of out of Freeman, he didn’t get a ton of out of his run blocking until later in the year, and his stable of backs was clearly not the force he had in mind. It’s charitable to say he exacerbated those problems, but it helps explain why he wanted Gurley.

So how did Gurley do last year?

Todd Gurley 2019

The Rams also mixed Gurley in a ton on 1st and 10, but shockingly they were more effective with Sean McVay calling those plays than Koetter. Gurley picked up 109 carries for 435 yards and 1 touchdown, going for 4.0 yards per carry. It’s fair to argue that Gurley is a better back than 2019 Devonta Freeman and company, but effective blocking and play calling still helps a lot. In the clip below, you can see the Rams used a delayed handoff and motion to help disguise their intentions, giving Gurley a little daylight. When he’s on, a little daylight is still all Gurley needs.

In the passing game, Gurley really had one usage: 1st down passing plays. He scooped up 20 of his 31 receptions on 1st down, averaging a robust 7 yards per reception en route to 140 yards. Sean McVay barely utilized him on 2nd or 3rd down through the air, something Koetter is likely to change given how fond he was of using Freeman on 2nd and long situations. There are a lot of mouths to feed in Atlanta, however, and there are just no guarantees Koetter will prioritize Gurley targets this season.

Gurley was not the same back enjoying the same usage a year ago. That much is readily apparent from watching him play in 2019 and looking at the surface level stats, which tell the story of a major decline. The fact that he was still a pretty successful player in the specific scenarios in which Dirk Koetter intends to use him is at least a positive.

How does the usage fit?

Happily, Dirk Koetter’s preferred “mash the back up the middle on 1st and 10” usage meshes well with Gurley, who is perfectly capable of taking a small hole, powering through contact, and picking up major yardage. If the blocking on the interior is better this year—and with a healthy Chris Lindstrom, I certainly hope it will be—all those carries Koetter threw away in 2019 should go better in 2020. While the numbers last year don’t show great efficiency, Gurley is also a better option on short yardage than anyone on the roster not named Qadree Ollison, immortal touchdown scorer.

In the passing game, Gurley figures to get more run than he did with the Rams, but probably not as much as Devonta Freeman did in 2019. Freeman got a lot more run with Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper ailing, and if Ridley and Hayden Hurst are healthy in 2020, Gurley’s going to struggle to approximate the passing game value. He’s still a capable back in that regard, though, and will be able to step up if called upon.

Where doesn’t Gurley fit as well? I still strongly suspect the Falcons will add another back either through free agency or the draft, because Koetter’s only really balanced out his run/pass tendencies when he’s had physical backs capable of soaking up a ton of carries (in his mind, at least) and less-than-stellar passing games. Gurley can be that guy, but he’s not going to carry the rock 300 times, and I’m not convinced Koetter loves anyone else in his rotation as of today to pick up the slack.

The most obvious question mark about Gurley is still health. If the Falcons are getting 2018 or earlier Gurley, they’re on easy street regardless of how clumsy Koetter’s gameplanning might be. If they’re getting last year’s Gurley, a player without the consistent explosiveness and physicality, the ground game’s uptick this season will likely be minimal. If they get Gurley at as close to the height of his powers as he can get, they’re going to crush the NFL.

In summary, Gurley is a great on-paper fit for Koetter’s tendencies and plans to balance out his offense. It’ll all come down to whether Koetter can overcome his worst habits and whether Gurley is truly healthy, but it’s not hard to see why the Falcons’ offensive coordinator wanted to add him.