Gurley’s best running plays materialized on a long drive that began in the third quarter and ended almost seven minutes later in the fourth. Gurley punctuated the drive with a rushing score, which gave the Falcons an eight-point cushion and eventual margin of victory. It also was Gurley’s eighth rushing touchdown of the season, which for the time being, leads the NFL.
“It was one of those drives we needed,” Gurley said. “Run some clock out, get some tough yards and be able to punch it in. We were getting a lot of field goals, and we were happy to get a touchdown.”
With 2:59 to go in the third quarter, Gurley totaled only 10 carries for 20 yards. While running back Brian Hill had some success finding some lanes, the holes didn’t open as easily for Gurley. But on this particular drive, which went 11 plays and took 6:58 off the game clock, Gurley finally was able to spring runs of six and eight yards before punching in a 3-yard score. Gurley added a 5-yard run on a later possession.
Gurley’s fourth-quarter production - seven carries for 23 yards - matched what he accrued in the first three quarters on four fewer running plays.
“He got himself going late, got a couple of really good runs there and the end and he finished the game for us,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said. “That’s what he’s been brought here to do – finish the game in the end zone and he did that tonight.”
Morris didn’t say whether the plan was to backload Gurley’s carries. Entering this season, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the goal was for Gurley to get anywhere from 15-25 touches in a game. Through eight games, Gurley is averaging 19 touches per outing, just one more than he received Thursday night.
Gurley couldn’t say whether the increased volume of touches later in the game was a part of the plan or not.
“I don’t control that, man,” he said. “When I’m in, I’m in. When I’m not, I’m not. I don’t control that part.”
In the first half, the Falcons turned to Hill more than Gurley, giving him seven carries that were turned into 35 rushing yards. Hill finished the game with 11 carries for 55 yards and added two receptions for nine yards. Hill’s first carry went for 12 yards, with his first three totaling 24. With the defense slowing Gurley, Hill added a change of pace that sparked the Falcons' ground game to a total of 131 rushing yards.
“When he gets his chances he’s going to try to break it,” Gurley said. “He’s an explosive guy. He can do great in the run game, just like every other running back we have. B-Hill’s going to do his thing when he’s called upon.”
Said quarterback Matt Ryan: “I thought he ran the ball hard, no question about it. He’s a guy who has great speed and explosiveness when he gets through the line. Our offensive line did a nice job opening up some holes for him, and I thought Brian ran the ball very effectively for us.”
Although he didn’t replicate the 121-yard performance he had against Carolina, he did play a sizable role in closing out the game. With the two teams playing each other only three games ago, Gurley was asked if he felt the Panthers made more of an effort to stop him this time around.
Gurley didn’t think that necessarily was the case, even if the results through three quarters seemed to indicate that.
“That’s one thing about a defense. Defenses don’t want to get run over,” Gurley said. “No one wants to get run on. They did a great job. Shaq (Thompson) was Shaq. He’s a great player. Credit to those guys, they did a hell of a job.”
Adding to the rushing total were six carries from Ryan, who totaled 27 yards. Ryan’s 13-yard scramble in the second quarter cut Carolina’s lead to 14-13. At first, defensive end Brian Burns appeared to be in position to record a sack after he gave right tackle Kaleb McGary a spin move to get past him inside. But this left the right side of the field wide open, with McGary adjusting and pushing Burns to the turf.
With a ton of space to run, Ryan turned on the jets and scored his first rushing touchdown of the season.
“Just fast enough,” Ryan said. “I feel like I’ve always been that way throughout my career, just fast enough to make them pay sometimes on third downs. It was a big score for us there. We needed it.”