3 things to watch vs. Rams

Weston Hodkiewicz
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St. Louis Rams quarterback Nick Foles (5) throws under pressure from Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers (56) and defensive end Datone Jones (95) at Lambeau Field.

Growing on Gurley

After five months of careful monitoring, the St. Louis Rams finally unleashed Todd Gurley in Sunday’s 24-22 road win over Arizona and the Cardinals had no answer for the rookie running back. He did his most damage in the fourth quarter when he rushed for 106 of his 146 yards in his first NFL start. At 6-foot-2, 227 pounds, his running style drew comparisons to Steven Jackson coming out of Georgia, though many in the Packers’ locker room see a lot of Marshawn Lynch’s toughness and his fearless nature running downhill. He’s still not quite 100 percent after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in November, but felt comfortable enough with his recovery to ditch his protective knee brace this week. The Rams use Benny Cunningham, a better pass protector, in most third-down situations, but the Packers’ defensive front is prepared to see a lot of Gurley. “Obviously, his size and speed and what he did last week, he certainly made a difference,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “It catches your eye when you put him in there and he comes away with that kind of yardage on the number of times he carried the ball. The guy’s a talented guy. You’ve got to try not to let him get going.” Coach Jeff Fisher, now in his fourth season, has rebuilt the Rams in the image of his former teams in Tennessee: a strong defensive front, a workhorse running back and a quarterback who protects the football. The decision to trade oft-injured Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick Foles has paid dividends early on. Foles is consistent if not spectacular and played his best with a prolific running game complementing him (see the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles). Gurley looks like that guy. The Packers have held the last three featured backs they’ve faced under 50 yards, including Lynch and Jamaal Charles.

Secondary plans

The domino effect of Morgan Burnett’s lingering calf injury is it has afforded extra snaps to rookie Damarious Randall in the secondary. The first-round pick has played roughly 65 percent of the defensive snaps rotating outside in the nickel and dime sub-packages. He has allowed six receptions on 22 targets (27.3 percent) by the count of cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, who considers anything under 42 percent exemplary. Randall gave up the biggest completion of his young career on a 47-yard pass to Torrey Smith in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 17-3 win over San Francisco. Whitt shouldered some of the blame for the play. Facing a third-and-10, he called Randall up to the line of scrimmage to press Smith instead of playing back. What impressed Whitt was not only how Randall stayed true to his technique and bounded back in deflecting a one-on-one pass to Smith in the end zone from Colin Kaepernick three plays later, his fifth breakup in four games. Overall, Kaepernick targeted him four times in the series. “The thing I like is it didn’t shake him,” Whitt said. “He got it back in the red zone and didn’t get off his technique. Young guys when they get beat deep, they typically get shaken and get off their technique. He maintained his technique, had a great press, widened him and played the ball in the air. Later on in the year he’ll intercept that same type ball he broke up against Torrey in the end zone, but he’s coming.” The Packers will have some decisions to make whenever Burnett returns to safety and Micah Hyde moves back to the slot. Casey Hayward has been filling in for Hyde inside. The Rams don’t have a dominant receiving corps, but a respectable one with the Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, who can be used in a multitude of non-traditional ways.

Dealing with Donald

Aaron Donald doesn’t have the ideal size (6-foot-1, 285), but he might be the best defensive tackle in the NFL. He’s quick, explosive and plays to the whistle. He’s off to an incredible start with 20 tackles (12 solo) and 3 1/2 sacks in only four games. Paired with 6-foot-5, 326-pound Michael Brockers, they give Gregg Williams’ 4-3 defense one of the few tackle tandems that can collapse the pocket from inside. That’s been the blueprint for teams that have had success against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. Both Buffalo and Detroit parlayed pressure from a four-man rush into victories over Green Bay last season. Rodgers completed only 45.7 percent of his passes when under pressure in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus.  St. Louis poses an even greater threat with a pair of first-round picks, Robert Quinn and Chris Long, rushing from the end positions. Quinn (6-foot-4, 264) has 43 sacks in his last 53 regular-season games. He mainly will be left tackle David Bakhtiari’s problem with either Bryan Bulaga or Don Barclay drawing Long. The disruption starts with Donald and should make for a worthy clash with the heart of the Packers’ line: guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and center Corey Linsley. “He’s a good football player,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “The thing about their whole front is they’re very, very athletic. Talented group. The big thing is you have to stay in tune with your fundamentals to make sure you’re in the right position, your body angles are perfect, or they can make life miserable for you. They’re all very talented players.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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