Gurley is newest challenge for run defense

Weston Hodkiewicz
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St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) runs for a first down as Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (93) pursues during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The early gauntlet is over, but plenty of challenges still lie ahead for the Green Bay Packers’ run defense.

While the Packers were busy routing the hapless San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, St. Louis and rookie running back Todd Gurley were running roughshod over the previously undefeated Arizona Cardinals. Gurley, making his first NFL start, rushed for 146 yards to power the Rams’ 24-22 road victory.

Gurley is less than a year removed from tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during his junior year at Georgia. Despite performing only one drill at the NFL combine – he benched 225 pounds 17 times – his stock skyrocketed in the weeks leading up to the draft. St. Louis saw to it that he fell no further than No. 10.

The Rams took a patient approach with Gurley. He didn’t touch the ball until a 12-6 loss to Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Last week, the Rams ramped him up to 21 touches against the Cardinals and he responded with 161 total yards.

This week, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound running back started practicing for the first time without a brace.

“We drafted him for a reason. We drafted him to be the back of our future,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher on Wednesday morning. “We did not draft him to play and win the opener. We drafted him, as I said, to be that guy that we can count on through years to come. We were very patient with him.

“Anybody coming off of that injury, to come back and do the things that he did last week, has to work hard. And he did.”

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The Packers’ run defense has settled down since giving up 189 rushing yards to Chicago in the regular-season opener. Green Bay has held Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde each under 50 rushing yards in their last three games.

The performances have catapulted the Packers to 21st in NFL run defense (115.0 yards per game), their highest ranking since Week 12 of the 2013 season. The return of defensive lineman Letroy Guion from suspension in Sunday’s 17-3 win over San Francisco has only helped solidify the unit.

The Rams average the third-fewest rushing attempts in the league (20.8 per game), but Gurley’s presence could quickly change their approach. He rushed for 106 yards on just nine carries in the fourth quarter against the Cardinals, the most by a first-round rookie running back since Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson in 2007.

Fisher acknowledged Gurley still isn’t 100 percent and the team will remain cognizant of his workload all season. Meanwhile, the Packers are fully aware of the threat the 21-year-old running back presents.

“Coming off a 160-yard performance, it’s not going to be hard to get anybody’s attention as far as his ability,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “He just runs with an attitude. He reminds me a lot of Hyde and Adrian and Marshawn. It’s hard to explain, but they run with an attitude and they’re looking to finish. Some running backs are more agile than others and looking to make you miss, but these guys do both.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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