The Falcons’ run defense was stout during the regular season.
It will have to be again.
The Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi was the lone running back to rush for more than 100 yards against a unit that gave up 104.1 total yards rushing per game, ninth in the NFL.
The Falcons’ defense will be stressed by Rams running back Todd Gurley, who rushed for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. The Falcons (10-6) play the Rams (11-5) in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs at 8:15 p.m. Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“They are making a lot of big explosive plays,” Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “They are doing a good job of dividing defenses down the middle and that’s where Gurley is (taking) a lot of his runs to the second level. When you get a back that big going that fast, you just don’t want to let him get to the second level.”
Last season, the Falcons plastered the Rams 42-14 on Dec. 11, 2016. Gurley rushed for 61 yards on 16 carries. The victory came after a 29-28 loss to the Chiefs and started the Falcons’ march to Super Bowl LI.
Now with a new coaching staff and a revamped offensive line, the Falcons believe Gurley is playing with more vigor.
“He’s playing with a whole new motor about himself than he did the year before,” Jarrett said. “Guys up front are playing pretty hard.”
After Ajayi cut up the run defense Oct. 15, the Falcons gave up 162 yards to the Patriots the following week and 201 against the Panthers in their first meeting Nov. 5.
The other Falcons opponents have found it difficult to move the ball on the ground.
“Play your keys and execute what you practice during the week,” defensive end Brooks Reed said.
The Falcons’ defenders normally practice against Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. That helped them get ready for the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey last week in the regular-season finale with the playoffs on the line.
But at 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, Gurley is much better.
“Like last week, we had a quick guy,” Reed said. “We try to replicate what it’s going to look like to make sure that we can play it how we want to and execute that in the game.”
The Falcons’ leading tacklers are middle linebacker Deion Jones (138) and strong safety Keanu Neal (113). But they’ll need the defensive line to win battles up front to slow Gurley.
The Gurley plan is simple.
“Just playing sound defense,” defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. “Stay in our gaps. Don’t try to do too much and tackle.”
Clayborn became emotional on the sidelines after he suffered a calf injury against the Panthers.
“I’m healthy, and I’m ready to go,” said Clayborn, who has 21 tackles and leads the team with 9.5 sacks. “It’s going to be fun. I just banged up my leg a little bit, but it’s fine now.”
The Falcons believe, as they have all season, in the importance of winning the turnover battle. The Rams have 14 fumbles on the season. The Falcons have only 16 takeaways, but had three interceptions against the Panthers.
The Falcons believe the turnovers are starting to come.
“I feel like we are getting results now, but teams are going to try and protect the ball like they have all season,” Clayborn said. “They are kind of falling our way right now.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, believes there is much more to the Rams than just Gurley.
“They are the No. 1 scoring offense in the league, and that lets you know that it’s just not Gurley,” Manuel said. “He’s having a fantastic year.”
Gurley has also developed into a fine pass catcher. He leads the Rams in receptions with 64 for 788 yards and six touchdowns.
“I think that’s what makes them the most dangerous and then you bring in the X-factor that when Gurley touches the ball whether if it be in the air or on the ground, you just have to be ready to make sure that you account for him,” Manuel said.
Over his 30-game career at Georgia, Gurley caught 65 passes. He showed that he had some pass-catching ability.
“When you watched him his rookie year, you (saw) glimpses,” Manuel said. “Understand that (Rams coach Sean) McVay comes from that same Kyle Shanahan background like (Jay and Jon) Gruden and all of those guys, they utilize their running backs a lot. He had the skill set, and he’s getting a chance to utilize it. It’s amazing to see. We have to be prepared for that as well.”
Gurley’s offensive line was upgraded with the additions of Andre Whitworth and John Sullivan over the offseason in shrewd moves by Rams general manager Les Snead.
“It starts there,” Manuel said. “We played them last year, and this is totally a different team from that standpoint.”