A Ravens rushing defense that has seen it's longstanding tradition of not allowing 100-yard rushers toppled twice this season under wonky circumstances, on Sunday faces a man who has been a legitimate challenge to that since entering the NFL this year.
St. Louis Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley, since shifting from a limited to full role in the Rams' third game of the season, has gone over 100 yards rushing in four of six games and is fourth in the NFL with 709 rushing yards this year.
"He's one of the best backs in the league," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "There are a lot of good ones, but he's right up there among them."
Gurley was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Georgia last season before tearing his ACL midway through the campaign. He was still considered a first-round talent, and the Rams selected him 10th overall in this spring's draft. He and wide receiver Tavon Austin (Dunbar) give the Rams two fearsome weapons with Baltimore roots. Gurley lived in the city through middle school, and has plenty of family still here.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said any production they get this season from Gurley so quickly after the injury is a bonus.
"We didn't draft Todd to win the opener," Fisher said. "We drafted Todd to be the back of our future. He worked extremely hard throughout the offseason, throughout the rehab process, and he's just a complete back. He understands all phases of our offense.
"He's just special. He's special, and as I've said week after week, he's not 100 percent yet. But wherever he is, wherever someone decides – whether 90 or 95 percent – he's been pretty productive for us."
Gurley was slowed in his past two games, gaining 45 yards last week against the Chicago Bears and 89 a week earlier against the Minnesota Vikings. But he still has touchdowns in each of his past four games, with five on the season, and is going to give the Ravens defense problems in a strength-on-strength matchup.
The Ravens had gone 29 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher before Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell required overtime to hit that number in Week 4 this season. A few weeks later, Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson used a play on which he was tackled by nose tackle Brandon Williams but didn't touch the ground to rip off a 62-yard run that helped him to 122 on the game.
Were it not for that play, the Ravens would have another top-five rushing defense this season. But with it included in the ledger, the Ravens' 98.7 rushing yards allowed per game is 10th in the NFL.
Gurley, who inside linebacker C.J. Mosley referred to as the closest thing there is to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in that both are one cut away from a touchdown, will be a big challenge for the Ravens.
"He's a balanced back," Mosley said. "He can run the ball 3 or 4 yards and get [most of] his yards up the middle. But if you give him a chance on the outside, he'll get to the edge and break a big play. Anytime he touches the ball, he's looking for a touchdown. He started that in college, and he's doing the same thing this year in the NFL. Our main goal for him – when he has the ball – is everybody run to the ball and get a hand on him. That will be the main thing."