NFC West: Janoris Jenkins
ESPN.com Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: Green Bay Packers
All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win
Week 2: at San Diego Chargers
The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win
Week 3: Denver Broncos
The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win
Week 5: at Washington Redskins
Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win
Week 6: Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win
Week 7: at St. Louis Rams
Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win
Week 8: at Carolina Panthers
The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Oakland Raiders
Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win
Week 10: New York Giants
The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win
Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs
This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win
Week 12: Arizona Cardinals
The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers
It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss
Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles
This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win
Week 15: San Francisco 49ers
This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: St. Louis Rams
For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 13-3
- First, Fisher said Thursday's practice was used largely to get his team familiar with Cleveland. It's the first time in the preseason the Rams have done anything resembling some game planning. Some of that even included having a couple of players put on the red jersey to emulate different Browns players.
- Linebacker James Laurinaitis (ankle) did a little more than on Wednesday, including a bit of work in team drills. Fisher said the decision on whether Laurinaitis will play against the Browns has not yet been made but it's clear Laurinaitis could probably play if he had to. Clearly, he doesn't have to but the option is realistic.
- Fisher did indicate that left tackle Jake Long (knee), defensive tackle Michael Brockers (ankle) and guard Rodger Saffold (stinger) would all be available and are expected to play. That would allow the Rams to have their projected offensive and defensive lines together for the first time in the preseason.
- Speaking of groups working together in a game for the first time this preseason, Fisher said he's looking forward to seeing the secondary get some work together. That means Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson at cornerback and Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald at safety. Fisher even went so far as to acknowledge that rookie Lamarcus Joyner would work with the top offense as the nickelback.
- As for playing time for the starters, Fisher indicated that group will play the bulk of the first half. He also again mentioned the gradual build he prefers means that group could play even more in Miami in the preseason finale. That's how they've done it in his first two seasons in St. Louis and it doesn't sound like it's going to change.
- Amongst projected starters, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar is the only one not to practice at all this week. So even if the Rams get Laurinaitis back, they likely won't be at full strength defensively.
- The Rams again hosted the Ferguson-area high school teams at their facility Thursday as McCluer, McCluer North and McCluer South-Berkeley held practice on the team's indoor field.
- Running back Isaiah Pead officially cleared waivers and now reverts to the team's injured reserve list. Pead does not count against the team's 90-man roster.
- The Rams will wrap up their preparation week with a walk-through Friday before traveling to Cleveland for Saturday night's game against the Browns.
1. Bradford's return
Quarterback Sam Bradford's return to the field for the first time in 300 days was mostly a success. Yes, he missed a throw to an open Kenny Britt down the right sideline, but he mostly stood tall in the pocket and delivered accurate throws for most of the day.
Bradford took only one big hit courtesy of Green Bay linebacker Julius Peppers but got up quickly and went back to work. In fact, the play Peppers hit him was Bradford's only incompletion on the team's lone scoring drive.
For the day, Bradford went 0 of 12 for 101 yards with a touchdown for a rating of 127.4 His touchdown pass to tight end Lance Kendricks was particularly impressive as Bradford threaded the needle into tight coverage.
2. Sorting the secondary
Starting cornerback Trumaine Johnson returned after sitting out the preseason opener, but the Rams were still thin at corner again without the services of starter Janoris Jenkins and key backups Brandon McGee and Darren Woodard. More surprising was the absence of rookie E.J. Gaines after a strong performance in the opener. Gaines left a practice earlier in the week with an apparent injury but returned to that workout and didn't seem to have any problems. He ended up sitting out Saturday apparently as a precaution.
For the second consecutive week, that left plenty of opportunities for young corners such as Marcus Roberson, who actually started opposite Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner and Greg Reid.
Joyner led the team with six tackles and added a pass defended and a forced fumble though he had some rough moments in coverage against Green Bay's top offense. Reid had some good moments with three tackles and a pair of passes defended. Roberson was harder to find, making just a single tackle but had some good moments in coverage.
3. Cleaning up mistakes
At first blush, the Rams appeared to have a better tackling performance this week than last week, though the defense struggled in that regard early on and there really wasn't anywhere to go but up after last week. Safety Cody Davis, in particular, was much better than he was against the Saints.
But coach Jeff Fisher was more concerned with the continued penalty issues. The Rams shaved two off their total of 12 from last week, which still left them at a whopping 10 for 76 yards. That's actually right in line with the league average in this preseason but still an area Fisher would like to see improve.
Rams preseason television broadcaster Andrew Siciliano even mentioned that Fisher dangled an early end to training camp as a reward should his team be penalized seven times or less against the Packers. Alas, the Rams will have another week of camp before breaking.
- The Rams continued to turn up the dial on the physical approach to practice Thursday as coach Jeff Fisher indicated they would earlier this week. Fisher said his team needs work on the run game and they certainly got that work in this practice. That's been a familiar sight in the past two weeks as the Rams try to turn it up before the regular season arrives.
- Some quick injury news. ... Fisher said left tackle Jake Long will not play this week against Green Bay but they are targeting next week against Cleveland to get him some game action. That falls in line with the plan for him from the beginning. ... Cornerback Janoris Jenkins got back to work Thursday and though he might not play this week, he went through team drills and is close to ready. ... Rookie center Demetrius Rhaney had the scariest moment of the day when he stayed down after his knee buckled on a field goal drill. Rhaney had to be taken off on a golf cart. Fisher said the initial indication was that Rhaney's injury wasn't as serious as first feared but he would still need an MRI. ... Fisher also said right guard Rodger Saffold is "close" to returning from a stinger injury.
- On the field, there were some big plays and plenty of heavy collisions. Tight end Justice Cunningham continues to find himself in some of the bigger collisions in running drills. Lining up at fullback, Cunningham and end Eugene Sims had a train wreck during one drill in which the pads could be heard from about 100 yards away. Cunningham is certainly making his presence felt as a blocker. Quarterback Sam Bradford had a couple of nice hookups on deep balls, one down the sideline to receiver Brian Quick and another, better throw to tight end Lance Kendricks down the seam. Tight end Brad Smelley, who just joined the team earlier this week went up for a tough over the shoulder catch for a touchdown in the corner of the end zone.
- Former NFL quarterback Jeff Blake, father of Rams receiver Emory Blake, attended Thursday's practice. He had to be a proud papa when he saw the younger Blake rise up for the catch of the day, snatching a touchdown out of a Cody Davis and Marcus Roberson double team. Linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong was quick to voice his displeasure with the defense's inability to stop Blake.
- Funny moment of the day: Quick tipped a ball to himself on a pass to the corner but came down out of bounds as the defense closed in around him. Tight end Jared Cook was nearby and quickly chastised Quick for not tipping the ball back to him. He was joking, of course but the delivery was perfect deadpan. Maybe you had to be there.
- The Rams have no practice Friday as they finished preparations for Saturday's preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
- The Rams got back to work Monday afternoon in what was a mostly uneventful practice. As promised by coach Jeff Fisher, the team did get some players back to practice in some capacity. But key veterans such as linebacker James Laurinaitis (ankle), defensive tackle Michael Brockers (ankle) and guard Rodger Saffold (stinger) did not return to work. Among those getting back in the mix were defensive tackle Kendall Langford and cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Brandon McGee. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins did a little work on the side before practice and individual but not much else. Cornerback Darren Woodard was a new addition to the not practicing list. And tight end Justice Cunningham, who appears to be in a heated contest for a potential fourth tight end spot, limped off and rode to the locker room on the back of a golf cart.
- Unhappy with his team's 14 penalties against the Saints, Fisher made his team run a sprint for every player who committed a penalty. That essentially meant the whole team had to run, though some more than others.
- As for the practice, it was one of the team's more sluggish workouts of this camp, which is probably to be expected after a two-day layoff and a preseason game. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill got his share of work and had some good moments, including some nice throws down the seam in early team and 7-on-7s to tight ends Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks. The first offense appeared out of sync a bit as it had multiple near misses on deep connections and an occasional drop.
- Cornerback Marcus Roberson hasn't had many shining moments in camp but showed some deep cover skills against Chris Givens on a deep ball during team. Roberson hasn't distinguished himself like other corners battling for roster spots and needs to pick it up to insert himself into the race. ... Rookie quarterback Garrett Gilbert had some ups and quite a few downs in his preseason debut against the Saints but had some good throws in Monday's practice. On one, he dropped a perfect pass into the corner of the end zone for a touchdown to receiver Jordan Harris.
- The Rams don't quite have their projected starting offensive line in place yet with Saffold out but they're getting closer. Offensive tackle Jake Long and center Scott Wells were back with the first team and in far more than just a cameo Monday. Both appear to be trending toward playing preseason games as they come off knee surgery (Long) and illness (Wells). They took the bulk of the work with the first team and appear to be moving well.
- Quick roster note: the Rams signed tight end Brad Smelley to take the spot vacated by injured tight end Mason Brodine. Brodine suffered a fractured ankle against New Orleans and is out for the season.
- The Rams are back at it Tuesday with a 5:30 p.m. CT practice. That workout is free and open to the public at Rams Park.
With a practice scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, the Rams are set to put on the pads for the first time in this camp. Here's a look at some things I'll be watching as the physical contact and, presumably, the intensity takes a step up.
It's pretty normal for the defense to be well ahead of the offense in the opening days of camp, but it's fair to say that if you play offense, especially on the line, in St. Louis, the pads aren't coming on a moment too soon. The hope is that adding pads will help neutralize things a bit and the offensive line will be able to go toe to toe with the dominant defensive line on a more consistent basis. So far, the defense has been so aggressive that it's been difficult for quarterback Sam Bradford and the top offense to get much of anything going. In most of the team drills, Bradford hasn't even had time to throw, and when he has, he's often done it in the face of a defender or two. Rams coach Jeff Fisher intimated that the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense won't square off as much as they did during the opening days of camp, either. That could be a positive development for the top offense, which needs to get into a rhythm and gain some confidence as preseason games draw closer. If the starters begin seeing more backups opposite them, the real loser is the poor second-string offensive line charged with stopping the first-team defensive line.
My personal favorite drill to watch in training camp is the one-on-one pass-rushing drills. I pay attention to the lines before the pads come on, but you can't really get a feel for them until the pads are on. So even though the pass-rush drills take place during seven-on-seven passing drills, I often find myself gravitating toward the big men on the other end of the field. That won't change this year. I'm most interested to see how the two first-round picks fare in these drills -- offensive lineman Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Robinson had the unfortunate task of getting tossed in against Robert Quinn in the opening days, and he's expected to take reps at tackle and guard in these drills so we should get to see him try his hand against Quinn again and against Donald as well. As for Donald, I'm curious to see if the addition of pads will slow him down any (my guess: a resounding no), and I want to see him against Rodger Saffold on the inside. A good look at new defensive tackle Alex Carrington and some of the young linemen jockeying for position will also be worth watching.
There's been plenty of hype surrounding receiver Kenny Britt since his arrival and his performance in organized team activities and even in the early days of camp. Some of that has trickled down to other wideouts such as Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. But it's been difficult to evaluate how they're really faring since the cornerbacks have been unable to do what many expect them to under the guidance of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Which is to say, they haven't really been able to be as physical in press coverage as perhaps Williams wants them to be. One-on-one, seven-on-seven and team drills should give us a better glimpse at not only what Williams wants to do coverage-wise, but also a better gauge of what's real and what's not when it comes to receiver potential for the season.
We continue the countdown with a look at this year's crop of cornerbacks.
In place: Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Brandon McGee, Greg Reid
What's needed: Jenkins and Johnson are entering their third years and are penciled in as the starting duo after some rough spots in 2013. But the Rams are clearly confident in the pair after choosing not to pursue a veteran in free agency and cutting the chord with Cortland Finnegan. McGee becomes the incumbent nickel corner almost by default unless the Rams envision making that role a full-time one for safety Rodney McLeod, who handled those duties after Finnegan suffered a season-ending eye injury. Reid is a complete unknown trying to break into football after injuries and off-field issues.
A veteran presence here would have been a wise move but the Rams opted to wait. They seem relatively content with who they have in place and hope that the addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be enough for the light to go on for Jenkins and Johnson. But there's still an obvious need for depth at least and a starting-caliber corner at most. I'd lean toward the latter with the idea cornerback should be a top priority, if not the top defensive priority, for the team entering the draft.
St. Louis allowed opponents an average of 15.1 yards per on passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield, the worst rate in the NFL last season.
If nothing else, finding a corner who can handle the nickel role right away would be a good investment.
Possible fits: The Rams appear to be aware of their needs at the position, at least based on reported pre-draft visits to Rams Park. That list includes top corners such as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, both of whom would require the Rams' No. 13 pick if they don't go off the board sooner. TCU's Jason Verrett would be a great fit for the nickel role but is likely to go in the no-man's land between the Rams' 13th selection and their second-round choice. A trade down from 13 could put him in play, however. The same could probably apply to Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, though some believe he's the best corner in the draft and worthy of the 13th choice.
The type of corner Williams is looking for remains up for debate. It's widely assumed he wants big, physical press corners so the Rams can be more aggressive in coverage schemes. If that's the case, a player like Dennard fits the bill more than Gilbert, for example. But Williams has proved able to get the most out of any "flavor" of corner as he did last year with Alterraun Verner, who had a great year and doesn't fit as a physical, press corner.
Verdict: The Rams are going to take a cornerback, maybe two, and probably grab one within the draft's first two days. It would not be a surprise to see the team use the No. 13 pick on a Dennard or Gilbert and, failing that, perhaps moving back and grabbing Fuller or Verrett. Barring that, it's a good cornerback class with possible starters available through round three. And with a dozen picks in the draft, don't be surprised if the Rams do what they did in 2012 and double down on the position by adding a potential starter early and depth later.
In the interest of keeping Rams fans from re-living the nightmares of drafts gone by, we'll limit our look back to drafts where at least one player remains on the roster.
With that, we turn our attention to the 2012 class.
What's left: The first draft class of the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead era, this is the group that, for better or worse, is the foundation of what this regime is hoping to build. So far, the results have been mixed but the Rams have found some pieces that they believe will be long term starters and contributors. From the original group, only Watkins and Brown are no longer on the roster.
Brockers, Jenkins and Johnson remain as projected starters and the Rams seem to have plenty of confidence in their ability to get the job done. Zuerlein looks poised to hold down kicking duties for the long haul.
After a promising rookie season, Givens took a step back in 2013 but still offers potential as a deep threat. Richardson looked ready to become Steven Jackson's replacement as the starting back but injuries prevented that from happening and he tumbled down the depth chart. The jury remains out on Quick and Pead entering their third year but so far they've been disappointments.
Best pick: The Rams rolled the dice a bit when they traded back twice before taking Brockers at No. 14 but so far the pick looks like a good one. An ankle injury slowed Brockers in his first season but he played all 16 games and was instrumental in the team's improved run defense in the final half of the 2013 season. Although he still has work to do as a pass rusher, he posted five and a half sacks despite regular double teams. When the Rams drafted Brockers, they knew they were getting an unfinished product but he looks headed toward reaching that potential.
Worst pick: While Quick hasn't made the strides many hoped he would in his first two seasons, it was at least clear early on that he would take some time. Which makes Pead the choice here. When the team drafted him in the second round, the expectation was that he would be the change of pace for Jackson and potentially his long-term replacement. He fell behind right away, missing the offseason program because of college rules and hasn't been able to get out of his own way since. Richardson claimed the change of pace role for Jackson and then the starting job when Jackson departed. Pead has meanwhile struggled with fumbling issues when he has played and hasn't earned many opportunities. Now, he's been relegated to a special teams role and will likely find himself battling for a roster spot come training camp.
What could have been: Many will point to the Rams passing on Alshon Jeffery in favor of Quick and based on results so far, that's a fair argument. But Jeffery was never really under consideration by the Rams so let's go to a scenario that was in play. Before the draft, the Rams showed interest in linebackers Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks. Both were on the board for the Rams at No. 45 overall. But St. Louis wanted to recoup the fifth-round pick it traded for receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2011 season. So the Rams made a deal with the Bears, moving down to No. 50 and getting their fifth-round choice in the process. Chicago took Jeffery with that No. 45 pick, Philadelphia selected Kendricks at No. 46 and Wagner went No. 47 to Seattle. Three picks later, the Rams took Pead and used the fifth-round choice on Watkins. Making matters worse, Tampa Bay's star linebacker LaVonte David was still on the board when the Rams picked Pead.
None of those three moves will do much to hurt the fortunes of the Rams' secondary in 2014, but they have left the team short on experience in the defensive backfield. At cornerback, Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins, each entering his third season, are the longest-tenured NFL players. Likewise at safety, where Matt Daniels and Rodney McLeod enter their third years.
Under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, the Rams have not been afraid to roll with young players and, after staying out of the fray for free-agent defensive backs, it appears that's one area they will do so again in 2014.
According to Fisher, the team's lack of veteran help on the back end of the defense wasn't necessarily by choice but also doesn't have him concerned, either.
“It would have been nice [to add a veteran], but honestly that market got priced out of what we were looking for," Fisher said. "And again, we’ve got two young safeties coming into their second year as starters. Not disappointed in the improvement we saw out of Cody [Davis], got Daniels coming back, the potential to draft and there’s still going to be experienced safeties out there. Not disappointed.’’
There may still be some experienced safeties and even corners on the market, though those shelves have mostly been picked over at this point. It's going to be hard to find starting-caliber players anywhere but the draft at this point in the offseason. Which means the Rams' secondary could well bear a striking resemblance to its 2013 receiving corps, relying on players with no more than two years of experience to handle the bulk of the snaps.
The Rams haven't completely ignored the defensive backfield this offseason, rolling the dice on cornerback Greg Reid, an under-the-radar signing they hope can pay off big as a potential solution for the nickel role next to Jenkins and Johnson. Brandon McGee, a fifth-round pick in 2013, also has drawn positive reviews from Fisher and Snead and could be part of the mix.
It's probably safe to assume the Rams will add some help at cornerback at some point in the draft, though it remains to be seen how early. Reports over the weekend indicated Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert is scheduled to arrive in St. Louis this week for a visit. He's considered one of the top corners available in May's draft.
Either way, the Rams do appear quite confident in the ability of Jenkins and Johnson to take another step forward.
“I think the corners can always improve. I’m pleased what we got out of them last year," Fisher said. "Jenks had a couple issues with the ball, he got tangled up in the Seattle game on the Golden Tate touchdown and a couple others, but was productive week in, week out. Tru, on the other hand, didn’t give up a lot of plays, the balls were in front of him, thought he tackled well, it’s been good to see Tru in the building, he’s committed, he’s working hard this offseason. I think he’s really growing up and maturing, think you’re going to see a lot more improvement out of him.’’
Meanwhile, at safety, the Rams believe in T.J. McDonald at one starting spot but his running mate remains a spot up for debate. McLeod started every game last season and proved valuable if for no other reason than his versatility to play in the slot when needed. But the Rams are still in serious need of a ball-hawking, rangy safety to complement McDonald.
That's why one of the most consistently predictable mock draft selections found anywhere is the Rams taking Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and, to a lesser extent, Louisville's Calvin Pryor, with the No. 13 overall pick.
Armed with 12 picks in this year's draft, it's a safe bet the Rams will select at least one corner and one safety somewhere along the way. All that remains to be seen is whether those positions are enough of a priority for those picks to happen sooner than later.
In place: The top four cornerbacks on the roster all remain under the Rams' control for 2014, though the possibility for tweaks remains. Starters Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are set to enter their third year and will be back as will Brandon McGee, who is set to enter his second season.
Where the intrigue comes in is with veteran Cortland Finnegan. Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have publicly given Finnegan the vote of confidence in terms of his return, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be back under the same contract with his $10 million salary cap hit. The Rams technically don't have to do anything with Finnegan's contract right away since they have room to sign a player or two without restructuring, but having an agreement in place if they plan to bring him back would seem to be a priority.
Pending free agents: Quinton Pointer (exclusive rights)
What’s needed: Simply put, the Rams need to find another starting-caliber cornerback or at least good enough to be one of the top three options on the team. They've invested picks and time in Jenkins and Johnson, and though signs of progress have been evident for both, inconsistency has been just as prevalent. Many believe defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can get that duo on track, but even if that's true, the Rams need another option ready to go.
Finnegan played hurt before he went on injured reserve last year and didn't look right before the season even started. He's still relatively young at 30 and one would think he has some gas left in the tank, but it's hard to imagine the Rams bringing him back at his projected cost.
Possible fits: The obvious name here is pending Tennessee free agent Alterraun Verner. Verner had his best season last year under the guidance of Titans defensive assistant Williams, who is now running the defense in St. Louis. He would certainly fit the need for a starting-caliber corner. But Verner figures to get a hefty contract, and with what the Rams have invested in Jenkins and Johnson and the lack of return on investment for Finnegan, it might not be the best idea to invest heavily in a corner who doesn't have a long track record of success.
Other top corners who will be available include New England's Aqib Talib, Miami's Brent Grimes and Green Bay's Sam Shields. All figure to get big-money deals. The better bet for the Rams might be to find a mid-level veteran type like Oakland's Tracy Porter or San Francisco's Tarell Brown.
Verdict: I wouldn't be surprised if the Rams kicked the tires on Verner, but I also don't expect them to spend the kind of big money on a free agent that would be required to land him. They could use an early pick on a top corner, but they could use a veteran presence in the secondary. Perhaps Finnegan will be that guy, coming back on a lesser contract.
- Let's get our weekly praise for defensive end Robert Quinn out of the way right now. The most impressive thing about Quinn's day against the Bucs wasn't his three sacks. It's that he managed to get them despite having only a handful of snaps in which he didn't receive extra attention. Quinn is often described as being super athletic and fast, both of which are true, but his non-stop motor deserves mention, too. As this game went on, Quinn began to find ways to use the extra blockers against the Bucs. On his second sack, Quinn noticed an extra blocker in the form of a running back chipping on the outside, Quinn made contact with the back and left tackle Donald Penn, used an inside spin move and got to Mike Glennon for the sack. His understanding of space and angles has improved to the point where he's finding ways to not only win athletically but with intelligence as well. To think, Quinn is only 23.
- The Rams run defense has made certain strides in the final month and a half of the season, shutting down nearly everyone since that Tennessee game. This one was no different. There are many reasons for that improvement, including better tackling across the board but one player who might not be getting enough credit is defensive tackle Kendall Langford. Langford has been integral in shutting down the run and he was particularly impressive in this one. Langford and Michael Brockers punished the interior of Tampa Bay's offensive line for most of the day, pushing them around in the run game or, at worst, getting a standstill at the point of attack. Langford isn't just occupying blockers, either. He had a couple of nice plays getting off blocks and dropping Bobby Rainey for a loss.[+] EnlargePhoto by Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesRobert Quinn recorded three sacks against the Buccaneers, bringing his season total to 18.
- It was a solid day overall for the Rams linebackers with Alec Ogletree again leading the way. His week-to-week progress continues. Watching him go after the ball is impressive. Quinn gets most of the attention for his ability to get strip sacks but Ogletree has a knack for identifying when to go after the ball and then finding a way to get it out when he does. Both of his forced fumbles came after he'd established the tackle was about to be made and before the runner was down. It's an ability that seems to be innate for Ogletree, who had no glaring missed tackles to my eye, another sign of improvement.
- James Laurinaitis has quietly put together another strong season and he was good in this one as well. Laurinaitis seemed to know where Rainey was running every time he got the ball and was a sure tackler when he got there. Jo-Lonn Dunbar also had perhaps his most productive game of the season.
- Rookie safety T.J. McDonald also looked to have one of his better games. He's had a habit of missing tackles he should make but I didn't see any from him and he looked more sure of himself coming on the blitz as well.
- Speaking of blitzes, the Rams did a nice job of “adding” in this one. The concept is simple. When a team sends extra blockers to one side, you can add pieces to the places vacated and create major matchup issues. On McDonald's sack near the goal line, the Rams moved Quinn to defensive tackle with Ogletree and McDonald lining up on the edge over left tackle where Quinn usually lines up. Both blitzed as the Bucs tried to send extra help on Quinn. Ogletree was picked up but McDonald went untouched and nearly had a safety. Coincidentally, Quinn still beat his man but McDonald simply got to Glennon first. That type of confusion comes from a simple but well-designed concept.
- William Hayes didn't play much but made the most of his chances. He played about 16 snaps but recovered two fumbles and stuffed a run in that time.
- I've consistently believed the Rams defensive line is at its best when the secondary -- especially the corners -- is aggressive in coverage. Which is to say when they play more press coverage and force routes to take longer to develop. Glennon had few chances to get the ball out quick and the Rams took advantage for seven sacks. ESPN Stats & Information keeps a statistic for time a quarterback has the ball before passing. Glennon's time in this one was 4.13 seconds on average. That's a bit longer than what he's used to and the credit for that goes to the Rams doing a good job in coverage. For comparisons sake, the Rams had just one sack against Arizona's Carson Palmer on a day when he got the ball out in 2.68 seconds. He did that against soft zones where receivers came open right away.
- The cornerback duo of Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins seems to be coming into its own a bit toward the end of the season. Jenkins has had some hard luck on close interference calls this year but he's also been guilty enough that he's not going to get the benefit of the doubt. Still, he continues to battle and come up with a picture perfect pass breakup or two seemingly every week. From a pure coverage standpoint, the past two games might have been his best of the year. Johnson was even better against the Bucs, though he appeared to get turned around on a long completion to Vincent Jackson. Hard to tell if it was his responsibility, though.
- Aside from a silly block in the back on a punt return, it was another solid day for the Rams special teams. Johnny Hekker and Greg Zuerlein make one heck of a punter/kicker combination.
Austin sat out Friday's practice, just like he did Wednesday and Thursday, as he continues to nurse his ankle back to health. He didn't practice before sitting out last week's game against New Orleans, either. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Austin will be questionable for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
Here's the Rams' complete Friday injury report:
Questionable: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh)
Probable: Offensive lineman Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)
The chances for Austin to get back on the field this week against Tampa Bay will likely hinge on his ability to return to practice Friday.
Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams made some additions to the two they had listed Wednesday. Here's the full breakdown:
Did not practice: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh), offensive tackle Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness)
Limited practice: Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)
Lost in the mix of McShay's projection of the Rams taking Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews at No. 2 was the fact that the Rams hold another pick, currently No. 14 overall, in the first round. McShay's projection there was no laughing matter.
OK, sorry, had to get that first bad pun out of the way now because I have a feeling McShay's choice of Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Rams with their second first-round pick is one that's going to be quite popular in the buildup to the draft.
Here's what McShay had to say about the free safety and the Rams:
"This might be something of a reach, but I actually think that safety has taken on more importance with the increasing number of slot receivers and pass-catching tight ends. Clinton-Dix doesn't have elite man-to-man cover skills, but he has good range when asked to cover the middle of the field and very good closing burst. He comes in hard, blows up plays and isn't afraid to mix things up. He's exactly what you're looking for in terms of a complete safety, and he fills another need for the Rams."
The safety position has generally been the biggest weakness of the Rams defense in 2013. They believe they have one piece locked in for the future in T.J. McDonald, who has started every game in which he's been healthy. McDonald is more of a box safety, capable of coming up and helping in run support. What the Rams need next to him is a ball hawking type to patrol the middle of the field. Rodney McLeod has improved as the season has gone on but is probably best suited as a backup and special teamer. If Clinton-Dix fits the play making mode, he would make sense for St. Louis.
Of course, there are other directions the Rams could go here if, as McShay says, the team considers Clinton-Dix a bit of a "reach" at this point in the draft. A top receiver such as Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans or USC's Marqise Lee would also have to be intriguing for an offense still in need of a true No. 1 type wideout. If the Rams felt one of those guys was capable of being that, it's something they'd have to consider.
But at the end of the day, the Rams' biggest need heading into the offseason is help in the secondary. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan may not be back and if he is, it would almost certainly be under a drastically altered contract. That leaves Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson as the top two corners. Even if the Rams believe that's their starting duo moving forward, another top corner would remain a necessity with the need for at least three in today's NFL.
Although plenty can change in the next five months, there doesn't appear to be a defensive back worth taking in the top 10. Thus, going with the best secondary piece available, be it a safety or a corner, would make a lot of sense for the Rams' second first-round choice.
In NFL parlance, the questionable designation translates to a 50/50 chance to play. Austin has watched practice each of the past two days with a walking boot protecting his left foot.
Jenkins has spent the week getting treatment on his back but took to social media earlier Friday to offer a strong statement that he plans to play against the Saints.
In response to a fan question, Jenkins said he'd be ready to play.
The possibility of playing without Austin is damaging enough to an offense without much big play potential in his absence. Not having Jenkins would also be harmful to a struggling secondary without much depth, especially against New Orleans' high-octane passing attack.
Here's the Rams' complete injury report for Friday:
Questionable: Austin (ankle), Jenkins (back), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh), Harvey Dahl (knee)
Probable: Cornerback Brandon McGee (foot)