Defending the run: Cardinals’ big focus is stopping Rams RB Gurley

Sep 29, 2016, 5:51 PM | Updated: Sep 30, 2016, 11:21 am
St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) eludes the reach of Arizona Cardinals outside lineback...
St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) eludes the reach of Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (56) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Stopping the run.

It’s what every defensive coordinator, at every level of football, preaches each and every week. James Bettcher, who holds that title with the Arizona Cardinals, is no exception.

Of course, saying it is quite different from actually doing it.

Saying the Cardinals need to stop, or at least limit, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley is easy. It’s the execution that’s difficult, yet that’s the task this Sunday when the two NFC West rivals clash at University of Phoenix Stadium.

It was a year ago in Glendale when Gurley, the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, burst onto the scene, rushing for 146 yards on 19 carries in a Week 4 win.

A year and four additional 125-yard rushing performances later, Gurley returns, again in Week 4.

“Gurley is probably one of the best running backs in the league, for sure,” defensive tackle Corey Peters said. “Got to get a lot of hats on him. It’s going to be a physical game. We got to do a good job of being aggressive and making sure everybody is gap-sound.”

Again, easier said than done.

The Cardinals were not gap-sound last week in Buffalo. They missed assignments, failed to set the edge and didn’t tackle well, all of which added up to the Bills rushing for 208 yards, 110 of which belonged to running back LeSean McCoy.

In recent memory, the Cardinals have been good, even great, against the run. They’ve ranked in the top-15 in each of the past three seasons, including owning the best rush defense in 2013.

Last season, the Cardinals allowed just more than 91 yards on the ground, good for sixth-best in the league.

This season, though still early, that number has ballooned to 133, putting them 28th among 32 teams.

“It’s not just one thing,” Peters said. “Everybody has to step their game up and play everything better. I think everybody is just taking it personally and making sure they’re improving and where they’re supposed to be.”

Safety Tyrann Mathieu mentioned “getting back to your fundamentals.”

Bettcher pointed to players’ eyes.

“On any given play, any player on the field, he has keys that he reads, right? We got to be good with our keys. It’s not any one individual. It’s not any one thing,” he said Thursday. “That’s one of those basic things about ball is you get in the stance and you get your eyes where they’re supposed to be, and that’s how you start a play. If you don’t start a play that way, you play the entire snap from behind.”

The good news about last week’s showing, according to Bettcher, is that after the corrections were made, the Bills had considerably less success running the ball.

He’s right.

Following halftime, the Bills gained only 44 rushing yards. However, the damage had already been done and as Bettcher noted, “second time don’t mean nothing, but the ability to be in the right place shows that we’re capable.”

The Cardinals know they’ll be tested by the Rams rushing attack.

“We got to bring our big-boy pads,” Mathieu said. “Especially with what the Bills did last week, Gurley may get 50 touches this week.”

Probably not, but the sentiment is understood.

Gurley got off to a slow start this season. He had just 47 rushing yards in the opener at San Francisco. A 51-yard effort against Seattle followed, and then last week in Tampa Bay, Gurley carried the ball a season-high 27 times for a season-high 85 yards. That’s an average of 2.9 yards per carry.

“Gurley is running the ball really well. He’s powerful,” Bettcher said. “Each and every week you see him, just in their run game, he’s getting better and better and better.”

Yes, the Rams have other offensive weapons. Receivers Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin have each caught 14 passes from quarterback Case Keenum.

But it’s Gurley that makes that offense go. The Cardinals know it and have prepared for it. Now the only question remaining is: Can they stop it?

“We haven’t really proven that we can stop the run, so until we stand up and do that, teams are going to come in here and try to run the ball,” Peters said. “I think the challenge is definitely set, and it’s up to us to kind of fix it.”

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