Rams running back Todd Gurley had 133 yards and a season-high 71-yard run against the 49ers last Nov. 1, a point at which he wasn’t even a year removed from an ACL injury.
Which is why the 49ers are anticipating an even faster, more powerful version of Gurley on Monday.
“I expect him to feel a lot better than the year he came in, and I think that’s the reason he’s looked at like he is,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said Friday. “He did what he did coming off an injury. Imagine if he has a year under his belt.”
Bowman has good perspective on the matter.
He began the 2015 season about a year and a half removed from reconstructive knee surgery and admitted early on that he hadn’t recaptured his pre-injury former self. By season’s end he was closer to the linebacker he had been, and he finished with 154 tackles, more than any other defender.
And now? Bowman said he’s happy to “finally start feeling normal again.”
“Now that the knee is behind me for the most part, I’m able to focus on just … preparing for the game,” he said.
Gurley and the Rams will provide a glimpse of what’s to come for Bowman and the 49ers’ defense.
The team’s first seven opponents finished last season in the top 10 in rushing yards. That includes a five-week stretch in which the 49ers will face the top three rushing offenses from 2015: Buffalo, Carolina and Seattle.
Opposing offenses are likely to test a 49ers defensive line that is talented but won’t feature any starters over the age of 26. They also might wonder if the 49ers’ defense, which may not get a lot of recovery time between series because of San Francisco’s up-tempo offense, will wilt more quickly when exposed to an unrelenting rushing attack.
No one in the 49ers’ locker room this week seemed puzzled by what the Rams would do on offense.
The Rams finished last in passing in 2015 and, despite drafting Cal quarterback Jared Goff with the first pick in April, will start Case Keenum on Monday at Levi’s Stadium. Goff won’t be in uniform for the game. The Rams’ rushing offense, meanwhile, ranked seventh.
“Obviously, they have a great running attack, and they’re very, very exotic when it comes to their running scheme, and they have a ton of plays,” safety Eric Reid said. “First and foremost, our game plan is going to be to stop the run and force them to throw the ball.”
Gurley is the nucleus of Los Angeles’ attack.
He started 12 games during his rookie season last year, finishing with 1,106 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. He ran for at least 128 yards in his first four full-time games, the best start any rookie runner has had in league history.
San Francisco coach Chip Kelly said the Eagles studied Gurley before the 2015 draft. The Rams selected him with the 10th pick; Kelly and the Eagles took USC receiver Nelson Agholor with the 20th.
“Not a lot of running backs have been picked in the top 15 in recent years, and there was a reason for it,” Kelly said. “I think because of his ability and his size, his speed, you know, he’s a unique combination. Sometimes you get a smaller, powerful guy, and then other times you get a taller, longer guy. I think he’s got a great combination of not only is he powerful, but he’s also extremely fast. So he can kind of hit home runs from wherever he is on the field.”
Gurley had a foot injury before the second encounter with the 49ers on Jan. 3 and missed the game. At that point, Bowman was feeling more like himself, and he finished with 10 or more tackles in three of the 49ers’ final five contests.
He said inside linebackers always pay attention to the opposition’s running back and that he tends to get even more excited when the opponent is someone with Gurley’s rising reputation.
“I do,” Bowman said. “Basically, running backs pay attention to linebackers just (like) wide receivers pay attention to cornerbacks. That’s our common matchup throughout the game. They know that they’re going to see us, and we know we’re going to see them.”