ST. LOUIS – Todd Gurley became the first running back selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft since 2012. The fact that he was rehabbing from ACL surgery did not really seem to make a difference.
And the St. Louis Rams have already gotten a better return on their investment than the Cleveland Browns, who selected Trent Richardson with the No. 3 overall pick more than three years ago.
Gurley has even sparked the normally apathetic crowds at St. Louis as a rookie. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the chants of “Gur-ley! Gur-ley!” made it difficult for the team’s offense to communicate in last week’s victory over the Browns.
In Gurley’s three starts – after sitting out the first two games to allow his knee more time to strengthen – he has rushed for 146, 159 and 128 yards. In Richardson’s three-year NFL career, he rushed for 100 yards just three times with a career high of 122 yards.
“I don’t think he’s 100 percent,” Fisher said this week in a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “But he’s pretty close to it. And if he’s less than 100 percent, whatever percent he’s at right now is pretty impressive.”
The 49ers (2-5) are in desperate need of a victory on Sunday against the Rams, who already have beaten NFC West opponents Seattle and Arizona. And the 49ers’ best chance will be to keep Gurley in check and force quarterback Nick Foles to test the 49ers’ pass defense.
“I feel like that’s every defense’s goal,” 49ers rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt said. “It just makes the game so much easier if you can make them one-dimensional.
“When they run, we got to try to stop him, try to limit him to short yardage.”
Tartt will make his first NFL start on Sunday, as he takes over for veteran Antoine Bethea, who is out for the season after sustaining a partially torn pectoral tendon in the 49ers’ 20-3 loss last Thursday to the Seattle Seahawks. Bethea was placed on injured reserve last week, and his league-high streak of 119 consecutive starts for safeties comes to an end.
Tartt will team up with third-year safety Eric Reid in the 49ers’ secondary. But Tartt will likely see a lot of action in the box, as the 49ers aim to slow down Gurley, who is averaging 6.0 yards a carry.
The hard-hitting Tartt appears to be a good counter for Gurley’s tough style of running.
Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said he has been impressed with Tartt, who played collegiately at small-college Samford, since watching him on film during the lead-up to the draft. Mangini said Tartt “popped off the screen” due to his range and what happened when he delivered hits.
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And what, exactly, happened when he zeroed in on offensive players with the ball?
“They got hit and they got hit hard and very rarely was he going backwards,” Mangini said. “You’ve seen some of it already, when he gets there, it’s going to get noisy.”
Tartt’s ability to come up in run support and stop Gurley near the line of scrimmage figures to be one of the key matchups in Sunday’s game.
“What I like about Todd is patient, he’s patient and he runs with a good pad level and he’s thick through the hole, he’s got a good stiff arm, all those things,” Mangini said. “You see some backs that they want to hit that first open area and then they’re taking the brunt of contact. Todd does a nice job of being patient through the hole and then striking and then as he comes up on contact, being able to lower his shoulders and deliver a blow.”
Already, the comparisons to great running backs have started for Gurley.
“I’d say (he’s) like an Eric Dickerson type,” 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite said. “He’s going to give you that one cut, he’s going to use his speed and he’s going to stiff-arm you to get away from you.”
Said Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis, “We all saw the highlights when he was in college. We thought we had a heck of a player. You just didn’t really know what kind of impact he’d have his rookie year coming off the injury. But you knew the way the coaches, and the staff and the scouts all talked about Todd. They said he was the best running-back prospect coming out since Adrian (Peterson).”
Laurinaitis also likened Gurley’s impact on the game to a dominant relief pitcher who can shorten the game with his ability to shut the door.
“What a weapon to have, especially when you have a lead going into the second half, especially the fourth quarter,” Laurinaitis said. “You have a closer, a guy who can get it done.”