NFC West: T.J. McDonald

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With two games to play in the 2014 NFL season, the St. Louis Rams defense is playing as well as any unit in the league.

After something of a sluggish start, the Rams defense has raised its level of play in the past eight games. But because of that slow start, the ranking don't necessarily reflect how far that group has come.

Before the season is finished, that's something they're hoping to rectify.

[+] EnlargeDrew Stanton, Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree, Eugene Sims
AP Photo/Tom GannamAfter recording just one sack in their first five games, the Rams defense has 36 sacks in their last nine.
"I think personally being in the top 10 or being in the top 5 for us would be great, especially with how young this defense is and the teams we’ve beat," defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. "It would be a great confidence booster for us going into next season."

In terms of overall defense, the Rams are tied for 11th in the league in yards allowed per game at 339.9. Reaching the top 10 is a reasonable goal considering that the No. 6-ranked Jets are giving up 329.8 yards per game and the others between the Rams and Jets are even closer to the Rams' number. Making the top 5 would take a more Herculean effort since No. 5 Buffalo is yielding just 313.4 yards per game. If the Rams can get there, it would be the the first time since 2001 they've finished in the top 10.

Of course, yards allowed per game isn't necessarily even the best measure of a defense. The Rams are also tied for 12th in the league in points allowed per game at 21.2. Were it not for the points allowed by offensive turnovers or special teams, they'd already rank near the top of the league. They still have a chance to break into the top 10 there, also, as No. 8 New England is just 1.2 points ahead of them.

Considering the fact that the Rams have not allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters, they would seem to have a realistic shot of reaching that top 10 also. Over the past eight games, the Rams have given up 15.1 points per game, second fewest in the league in that span.

"It would be a great thing to say that nobody scored a touchdown on us the rest of the season," safety T.J. McDonald said. "That would be great. The rest is just playing good ball, playing consistent ball, play physical like we know how and execute the plan for the week."

After posting the most combined sacks in the NFL over the past two seasons, the Rams would need record-setting performances to reach the top of the league this year after the slow start in which they had just one through the first five games. They now have 36 on the season, which is tied for 10th in the NFL. Detroit is fifth and has 39 so the Rams have a shot to shoot up that chart as well.

Even if they don't the Rams need to have two more sacks than Buffalo the rest of the way to have the most in the league in that category over the past three years combined.

While they'd much rather be making a move toward the postseason, the Rams defense at least has manufactured something to strive for in the final two weeks.

"That’s not a bad way to go," end Robert Quinn said. "The defense is playing great, even field goals are kind of unacceptable for us. That’s just how our defense wants to be, be stingy out there, give up no points and try to give our offense the most opportunities possible. We know throughout the year we shot ourselves in the foot and everybody had their turns but overall we stuck together as a team and trying to finish the year strong."

T.J. McDonald carving his own path

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The recent ascent of the St. Louis Rams' defense has been expected if not overdue. But it's no coincidence it has taken off in recent weeks at the same time some of its young cornerstones have begun coming into their own.

Perhaps none of those young players has made more strides over the past three weeks or so than safety T.J. McDonald.

Sometimes, that has meant putting up impressive numbers as he did two weeks ago against Arizona with nine tackles and a sack. Sometimes, it's more about the physical presence he provides, such as last week against Denver when he had five tackles and two pass breakups, but ensured that Denver pass-catchers would feel every bit of them.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsT.J. McDonald, a physical safety, has also shined in coverage over the past three games.
On a defense loaded with more familiar names like end Robert Quinn, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, it's McDonald's performance from the safety spot that has elevated the Rams' defense into one of the league's best over the past three weeks.

"It’s just been tremendous growth, especially this whole season and the past few weeks in particular," fellow safety Rodney McLeod said. "The guy is showing up in every phase, whether it’s special teams and on defense, tackling, pass-breakups. We’ve got to work on his hands a little bit, but other than that, the guy has been doing a great job for us. It’s just great to see him making plays back there at a time like this when we are trying to make a push for the playoffs and we need everybody to step up and make plays for us."

In many ways, McDonald's play has been what was expected when the Rams used a third-round choice on him in the 2013 NFL draft. McDonald quickly claimed a starting spot and earned praise for how fast he was able to pick up the system. A fracture in his leg limited him to 10 games as a rookie with mixed results.

But when the Rams hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in the offseason, many believed McDonald was a perfect safety for his system. At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, McDonald is the prototype of a Williams safety who can be a force near the line of scrimmage offering an additional hammer in the run game with emerging blitz skills. That McDonald wasn't known for his coverage abilities didn't figure to matter given Williams' propensity for playing with a lot of single-high safety looks, a look that would generally feature McLeod on the back end.

True to that idea, McDonald spent much of the early part of the season near the line of scrimmage, defending the run and bringing the blitz. Through the Rams' first eight games, McDonald had almost an identical split in snaps played in the run box (230) and snaps played on the back end (221).

What's interesting, though, is how much more McDonald has been asked to do in coverage over the past three weeks. Although that lines up with the arrival of Mark Barron via trade, Barron has only been heavily involved in one of those games.

According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, McDonald has played 144 of his 209 snaps over the past three weeks in coverage, which works out to about 69 percent. For what it's worth, McDonald has earned his highest grades in coverage from PFF over that same span.

"I feel like I am recognizing things faster and I am more comfortable in the defense," McDonald said. "I feel like I’m on my toes and playing downhill and having a lot of fun playing.

"I think just like any new defense, anything that’s new, you have got to understand what your job is, and that was the first thing. Everybody was trying to make sure they did their job. I felt like we got a good grip on what our coaches want from us. Then it becomes 'what is the offense going to do?' Then we put that stuff together and really focus on what is going on with them."

Against the Broncos, quarterback Peyton Manning targeted McDonald seven times and came away with three completions for just 6 yards with a long of 3 yards. Even on those rare completions, McDonald was quick to lower the boom and finished with a pair of pass-breakups.

It was the type of performance that left many making the seemingly endless and easy comparisons to his father, former six-time All Pro safety Tim McDonald. But as McDonald continues to string together solid performances, maybe it's time to start letting what he does on the field stand on its own.

"I have definitely walked in his shadow for a long time," McDonald said. "I can’t say I’ve been trying to stray away from that, but at the same time you want to be your own man and you definitely want to be known as, I want people to one day be able to say 'That’s T.J.’s dad' not 'I’m Tim’s son.' I have a long ways to go. I’m in no rush, I’m just trying to get better, have fun and play ball."
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ST. LOUIS -- Bundling up before heading into a snowy evening, St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis paused when a reporter mentioned to him that his team could have pitched a shutout against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

"Should have pitched a shutout," Laurinaitis quickly corrected.

Indeed the Rams' defense, perhaps playing as well as any group in the league over the past three weeks, could have held Peyton Manning and the high-octane Broncos scoreless in the Rams' stunning 22-7 victory at the Edward Jones Dome. As it was, they held Denver to its lowest point total since Manning arrived in 2012. It was also the first time since Week 13 of 2001 that Manning had attempted 20 or more passes and his team scored seven or fewer points.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsThe Rams consistently pressured Peyton Manning, including this fourth-quarter sack by Aaron Donald.
For coordinator Gregg Williams' defense, there have been signs of reaching Max Q the past two weeks but shutting down Manning & Co. served as the ultimate notice to the rest of the league that the Rams are not a team, especially not a defense, you want to see on the schedule over the season's final six games.

"The scheme is built so that, if everyone is on the same page, you can play really fast," Laurinaitis said. "I think the last few weeks we have been able to just come in and play extremely fast and trust each other and know we don’t have to be perfect but let’s be aggressive. The light bulb is kind of switching on but we have got to keep that thing on, I don’t want it to run out."

If the Rams can find a way to duplicate Sunday's combination of scheme and execution, the light bulb should be able to burn brightly for the rest of the season.

Although the Broncos had 397 total yards, the Rams held them to 28 yards on 10 carries. Over the past two weeks, they've allowed just 56 rushing yards on 32 carries, which is the best two-game stretch against the run in franchise history. In making that group so one-dimensional, the Rams were able to throw a variety of tricks at Manning.

Instead of the usual two or three checks that Laurinaitis can make out of certain offensive looks, the Rams had six or seven. On defensive tackle Aaron Donald's fourth-down sack in the fourth quarter, Laurinaitis got called out as the MIC linebacker by Broncos rookie center Will Montgomery. Laurinaitis had shown blitz but offered a subtle change at the line of scrimmage, switching the side where he lined up in an effort to create enough confusion to throw the Broncos off.

At the snap, Montgomery took the bait and end Robert Quinn peeled around the inside to Manning. Quinn was unable to bring Manning down, but Donald cleaned it up for a sack.

And the tweaks weren't just based out of blitz looks, either. On cornerback Trumaine Johnson's fourth-quarter interception, the Rams showed a normal Cover 3 look before the snap, something Manning had probably seen plenty of times in his tape study. But Williams had installed a different coverage from the same look earlier in the week and Manning threw down the right sideline where Johnson made an acrobatic interception.

"As long as all 11 are on the same page, we’ll be all right," Laurinaitis said. "That’s a great job by the defensive coaching staff knowing it would come to that and the best part about Gregg Williams is he gives me the freedom to call stuff if I don’t want to check and the feeling of the play just isn’t right, we play the call. A couple of times it happened and a couple of times he checked. It was the combination of a great game plan and just executing."

Of more importance than the yardage, the Rams held Denver to 4-of-12 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth. They also had two interceptions, two sacks, four quarterback hits and 12 pass breakups. Of those dozen breakups, five came from Quinn and linebacker Alec Ogletree near the line of scrimmage.

Even when Manning completed a pass, a member of the Rams' secondary was there to greet him with a crushing blow such as Rodney McLeod's big hit (and subsequent penalty) on Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

"It energizes us but, also, they know," McDonald said. "The offense knows that you put that ball up, you’re going to feel it. I think that’s something we take pride in, being a physical defense and offenses knowing that it’s not sweet [out there]."

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

November, 9, 2014
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 31-14 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.

What it means: Although the final score wouldn't indicate as much, this was a game that was winnable for the Rams. They actually had the lead entering the fourth quarter and missed some opportunities to put the game away. But, as has been custom all year, the Rams were unable to finish against the best fourth-quarter team in the league in terms of scoring and turnover margin. The Rams are now 3-6 on the season and any realistic hopes of mounting a second-half charge probably faded away with their latest fourth-quarter meltdown.

Stock watch: Down -- Rams quarterback Austin Davis. At halftime, Davis had a passer rating of 145.8, a number that mostly reflected a 59-yard touchdown catch by tight end Jared Cook. Though the offensive line didn't provide much cover and the receivers rarely got open, Davis struggled to recognize blitzes and sufficiently get the ball out in short order. He threw two inaccurate fourth-quarter passes that ended up as interceptions for Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson returned one 30 yards for a touchdown to put the Rams away. It was Davis' fourth pick-six of the season. He also coughed up a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. While Davis has done some admirable work, it has become clear that pinning any future hopes on him as a starter would be foolish.

Costly call: With 4:13 to go in the third quarter, Davis hit Cook for a big gain down the right seam, a 41-yard gain that looked to set the Rams up with a prime chance to take a two-score lead inside Arizona's 10. But after Cook broke a tackle and headed for the right sideline, tight end Lance Kendricks delivered a crushing block to Arizona safety Tony Jefferson as he turned to pursue Cook at the 20. The block sprang Cook loose for more yards, but the officials flagged Kendricks for an illegal blindside block. Instead of first-and-goal, the Rams had a first-and-10 at Arizona's 35 and ended up punting. It was a big missed opportunity that dearly cost the Rams.

Game ball: Safety T.J. McDonald. The second-year safety has had his ups and downs in his first season and a half, but he was all over the field Sunday. In what was probably the best performance of his young career, McDonald finished with nine tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and a quarterback hit.

What's next: Their three-game road swing finally over, the Rams get to head home to take on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos before another trip to the West Coast to play San Diego the following week.
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- That the St. Louis Rams made any moves at all before Tuesday's trade deadline was a bit of a surprise. That they were buyers rather than sellers was even more of a surprise.

So it was that the Rams shipped fourth and sixth-round picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for safety Mark Barron, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Scheffer. In making the trade, the Rams add the No. 7 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerMark Barron, the seventh overall draft selection in 2012, started all 37 games he played in with the Buccaneers.
On paper, adding any talent to a secondary ranked last in the league in opponent completion percentage is a good move, and Barron has long been considered an emerging talent with upside. The Rams liked him coming out of Alabama but passed on him to move down in the 2012 draft before selecting defensive tackle Michael Brockers with the 14th pick.

But the question the Rams must now answer is where, exactly, Barron fits within coordinator Gregg Williams' defensive scheme. At first blush, one would think that Barron could slide in and play alongside T.J. McDonald while the Rams keep tabs on injured safeties Rodney McLeod (knee) and Cody Davis (concussion).

That might be the case until McLeod returns, but Barron and McDonald seem to have similar skill sets. Both are considered "box" safeties who are at their best when they play near the line of scrimmage.

Tampa Bay parted with Barron in part because they clearly preferred not to use him in that role. In two-plus seasons with the Bucs, Barron lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on only a quarter of his snaps (606 of 2,434 snaps including penalties). Left to roam the back end, Barron was often left in coverage, where he has had his share of ups and downs during his career.

If the Rams are to best utilize Barron, Williams will have him spend more time near the line of scrimmage, a job that has thus far been McDonald's. In seven games this season, McDonald has spent half of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, which is double Barron's percentage.

Theoretically, the two could play together, but the question then becomes which one will retreat to more of a free safety role? Barron has obviously done it more and, in fairness, is third among safeties in pass breakups since 2012 with 17.

On the rare occasions McDonald has been tasked with coverage responsibilities, it hasn't worked out too well. For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus grades McDonald as one of the worst coverage safeties in the league with a grade of negative-11.0.

One other option is to use Barron or McDonald in a nickel linebacker role which would allow Williams to devise blitz schemes with both McDonald and Barron and McLeod (when he returns) on the back end.

Giving up a fourth- and sixth-round pick likely won't have any sort of damaging effect on the Rams' future and Barron is under contract through next season with an available fifth-year option after that. Taking a flier on Barron in an effort to get better now while thinking about the future. It makes this a relatively low-risk, high-reward move for the Rams.

But for them to realize that reward, Williams and Co. will have to do something they've so far failed to do: Make the pieces fit together.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A day after the St. Louis Rams went through a practice missing a handful of key starters, they got many of them back for Thursday night's session.

Heading the list was safety T.J. McDonald, who missed Wednesday with a concussion. McDonald went through the concussion protocol and was cleared to return Thursday. He practiced on a limited basis after he said he felt a little "foggy" on Sunday night.

The Rams also got guard Rodger Saffold (knee), receiver Kenny Britt (ankle) and defensive end William Hayes (illness) back. All three practiced fully.

On the other side, running back Benny Cunningham was added to the report as a limited participant with a knee injury. Cornerback Brandon McGee was downgraded to limited participation after practicing full on Wednesday.

Here's the complete rundown from Thursday's injury report:

Did not practice: CB Janoris Jenkins (knee), C Tim Barnes (shoulder)

Limited practice: S T.J. McDonald (concussion), LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar (toe), CB Trumaine Johnson (knee), CB Brandon McGee (foot), RB Benny Cunningham (knee)

Full practice: WR Kenny Britt (ankle), DE William Hayes (illness), G Rodger Saffold (knee), DE Ethan Westbrooks (hand)
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams safety T.J. McDonald knows all about a Chip Kelly offense. He found out the hard way.

As a USC senior in 2012, McDonald was a part of a Trojans' defense that was scorched by Kelly's high-octane offense to the tune of 62 points and 730 yards of total offense in a 62-51 Ducks' win. The Trojans edged Oregon in 2011, but McDonald's team was on the wrong end of a 53-32 loss in 2010 in which the Trojans surrendered 599 yards of total offense.

Those numbers are enough to cause McDonald some nightmares this week as the Rams prepare to face Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. That preparation isn't easy and there are many layers, but McDonald says there is one thing that stands above the rest when getting ready for Kelly's fast break offense.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
AP Photo/Tom GannamJames Laurinaitis on the Eagles: "It seems like they're running the same stuff over and over, but they just do it really well."
"I could give you 150 ways to prepare for it, but once you get into the game, it’s a different feeling," McDonald said. "The biggest thing is to have your eyes up. That’s the thing we are stressing all this week is making sure your eyes are right and they run a lot of similar plays to each other, so just don’t let your eyes fool you."

The Eagles' offense isn't necessarily revolutionizing football but it is bringing a new look to the NFL. With an emphasis on tempo -- Kelly prefers to run as many plays as possible in a game -- the Eagles intend to create a dizzying combination of confusion, tired legs and big plays.

In the Rams' locker room this week, all of those things have been discussed, but nothing has surpassed the importance of dotting the eyes.

Much of what the Eagles do is the same from play to play, though it comes out of different formations and personnel packages. On a given drive, Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur won't hesitate to call the same zone-read repeatedly knowing that the defense won't have enough time to correct a weakness in the middle of the series. Many of those runs are used to help set up something big down the field on play-action passes.

Retaining gap discipline is even more important against the Eagles' running game because of running back LeSean McCoy's knack for freelancing when holes close.

Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis offered the best explanation of the importance of eyes.

"It seems like they’re running the same stuff over and over, but they just do it really well," Laurinaitis said. "What they count on you doing is, they count on one play you getting your eyes out of sorts and then bam, there’s a big play. And they’re successful at it. ... And those are things that have hurt us in the first three games, quite frankly. There’s been great defense then six plays, seven plays where we have bad eyes and then boom, it’s a big play. So we’ve just been stressing, if you have great eyes your technique is going to follow that, you’re going to have great feet, you’re going to have great hands, everything will follow it, but let’s communicate, have great eyes and focus on what your job is. That’s really what we’ve been stressing all week, and they challenge you on that because they’ll find them, they’ll find the open guys."

In order to work on all of those things this week, the Rams' scout team is doing all it can to simulate the Eagles' tempo. It's one thing to have your head up and on a swivel early in the game, but after the Eagles run play after play, it can quickly catch up to teams in the second half. That is why the Eagles had some slow starts in their first three games, but went on to outscore opponents 74-24 in the second half of those victories.

The scout team offense has attempted to run an offensive play every 20 seconds in practice, forcing the defense to handle substitutions accordingly and Laurinaitis to ensure that his defensive teammates are lined up properly and ready to go at the snap without having their heads down searching for air.

Because of the tempo, the Eagles make it hard to get any sort of substitution pattern going for the defense. That means the onus falls on Laurinaitis and the defense to be aware and ready to go when they do want to make subs and to communicate flawlessly before every snap. If that doesn't happen, those big plays can come in bunches.

"They’re high-tempo from start to finish, complete- incomplete, run plays, penalties they’re going," coach Jeff Fisher said. "It’s about our ability on defense to communicate, to disguise looks, to stop the run, to challenge receivers. It’s a wide open offense, and I can appreciate the job Nick (Foles) has done in that offense. You can appreciate how this team in one year made the playoffs, so it’s quite a challenge for us.”

Whether a Rams defense that has struggled with less unique offenses so far this season is up to the challenge remains a question. On Sunday, seeing will be believing.

Special teams give Rams a boost

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Any wins the current version of the St. Louis Rams can come up with likely won't qualify them for many beauty pageants. The way the team is constructed, they're going to have to find ways to win, even if it's ugly.

That means low-scoring games in which everyone contributes and not just on offense and defense but special teams, too. It's something the Rams freely acknowledge and was readily apparent in Sunday's 19-17 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Whether it was kicker Greg Zuerlein making four field goals on the rain-soaked field of Raymond James Stadium, safety T.J. McDonald coming up with a blocked punt and field goal to set up two of those kicks or punter Johnny Hekker providing his usual yeoman's work, the third phase was all that it needed to be for the Rams on Sunday.

McDonald
"We’re kind of in that mode right now as they talked about, we are scratching and clawing and everybody has got to contribute," coach Jeff Fisher said. "All three phases have to contribute and make plays."

And make plays they did against Tampa Bay, with nobody coming up bigger than McDonald. The second-year safety is an emerging piece on the defense but proved to have even deeper value on Sunday.

In the second quarter, McDonald knifed around the edge and blocked Michael Koenen's punt to give the Rams a first down at Tampa Bay's 28. At the beginning of the fourth, McDonald again found a way into the backfield along with cornerback E.J. Gaines and deflected kicker Patrick Murray's 24-yard field goal try to keep the Bucs' lead at one rather than expanding to four.

The Rams turned both blocks into field goals for six points that the Rams could not have won without.

"It’s like a stop so it’s a good feeling and it gives the offense a little more confidence, a little more juice going back out there on the field knowing we didn’t give up any points so it’s good for the whole team," McDonald said.

Zuerlein also provided a strong response in sloppy conditions after a shaky preseason and missing a 50-yard kick against Minnesota last week. But even with the field offering little solid footing, something clearly evident on Zuerlein's kickoffs, he managed to convert from 36, 35, 46 and 38 yards. The last of those coming with 38 seconds to go and providing the Rams with the winning points.

"Anytime you can help your team win the ball game, it’s huge as a kicker," Zuerlein said. "The guys are out there depending on you to do your job. They’ve been battling it out for the whole game and you’ve just got to pull through for them.”

It's probably a bit much to expect similar performances from the special teams every week, but any close approximations will be more than welcome for a team that needs all it can get from everyone on the roster.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have an extensive history of working together. Their defensive philosophies are similar and, now that they are reunited in St. Louis, the scheme isn't expected to change much at its core.

Sure, there will be tweaks here and there, but for the most part, the roles of the 11 defenders will be the same. But there is one player on the defense who figures to have much more on his plate in 2014 if Williams' history is any indication.

Second-year safety T.J. McDonald stepped into a starting role immediately as a rookie and Fisher clearly trusted him to take on a lot of responsibility in the defense. That role will almost certainly expand for McDonald in Year 2.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceSafety T.J. McDonald figures to be a useful piece in coordinator Gregg Williams' scheme for the Rams.
“When T.J. got going early in the season before the injury, you didn’t look at T.J. and see a rookie," Fisher said. "You saw someone that played like an experienced player. With that being said, Year 2 is completely different. He understands, he’s in great shape right now. Gregg’s going to be able to do a lot of things with him on defense.”

For evidence of how that might manifest itself, one need only to look at how Williams has used big, athletic safeties in his recent past. While serving as the defensive coordinator in New Orleans, Williams was able to take veteran safety Roman Harper and turn him into a two-time Pro Bowler. He did so by using the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Harper like a sort of safety Swiss Army Knife.

Harper spent plenty of time in the box, blitzing frequently and essentially serving as a de facto fourth linebacker. In three years with Williams as his coordinator, Harper posted 287 tackles, 12 sacks, 10 forced fumbles and 16 run stuffs.

After learning of Williams' hiring, McDonald, the son of six-time All Pro safety Tim McDonald, quickly took to studying how Williams had deployed his safeties in the past. He immediately liked what he saw and began envisioning himself doing many of the things Harper once did.

"That is me," McDonald said. "I feel like that fits my game pretty well and it is me right now. Once I get a grip on it and everything comes together, I’m confident I’ll be able to make plays."

At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, McDonald actually cuts a more imposing figure than Harper, but it's easy to see how he could fit into a similar role. While McDonald has flashed some solid cover skills, he's probably best used closer to the line of scrimmage, especially so long as the smaller and speedier Rodney McLeod is playing more of a center field spot on the back end.

The Rams plugged McDonald into the 2013 starting lineup right away, a move that belied his third-round draft status and served as clear evidence of his football acumen. After starting the first four games of the season, McDonald suffered a fracture in his right leg against San Francisco on Sept. 26 but didn't need surgery and was placed on injured reserve with the "designated to return" label.

McDonald returned to the lineup on Nov. 24 against Chicago and played in the final six games. A solid start was interrupted and McDonald struggled to get back on track upon his return.

"It was hard," McDonald said. "Especially having to sit out those eight weeks. That was tough not being able to play with the guys. Coming back, I was trying to get better every week but not just mentally, but also physically and making sure I was getting back to 100 percent. I was just happy I got to play."

For what it's worth, McDonald spent his offseason back home in California, working out at USC with some former teammates. He says he's back at full strength during these organized team activities and has his eye on making up for the time he lost in his rookie season.

"There’s definitely ways that I wish I would have done some things better," McDonald said. "Based off the injury, it made things a little bit difficult. But I came back out there, put myself in position to make some plays and as a rookie you are always going to have things you want to improve on. For me, I am just focusing on a lot of those things and coming out this year hoping I can capitalize on everything I learned last year."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There was a time in the not so distant past where, if you ranked NFL rosters from No. 1 to 32, placing the St. Louis Rams at No. 31 would have been considered a compliment.

As the Rams trudged through one and two-win seasons, the lack of talent was so glaring that not coming in last on such a list would be cause for celebration. But those times are gone. Or they should be, anyway.

The folks from Pro Football Focus released their own roster rankings Insider on ESPN Insider on Thursday and much to my surprise and, perhaps, that of many others, the Rams checked in at No. 31. That is not a typo, the Rams finished ahead of Jacksonville, narrowly avoiding a last-place finish.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
AP Photo/Tom GannamMiddle linebacker James Laurinaitis is rated as a below average starter in an analysis of NFL rosters by Pro Football Focus.
Four or five years ago, anyone watching the Rams would have been hard-pressed to disagree. As we sit here in 2014, most would do so vehemently.

To put some context behind the ranking, Pro Football Focus has its own methods of measuring each player's production. They use film study and have developed their own grading system which is then used to assign each player a color designation. Those colors correlate to a label for each player of "elite," "high quality," "good starter," "average starter," "below average starter," "poor starter," "not enough information" and "rookie."

Obviously, the more players ranked as a "good starter" or above, the better the roster will be. For example, the No. 1 ranked Seattle Seahawks have three elite starters, seven high-quality starters and eight good starters. According to PFF's metrics, the Seahawks have just two below average starters and zero poor starters.

When it comes to the Rams, the only elite player according to PFF is defensive end Robert Quinn. That is an assessment that is hard to disagree with both in the sense that he is absolutely an elite player, but also in the roster being void of others who would qualify for that label.

However, it's in the middle part of those rankings where I would disagree with PFF's ranks. Of the team's 22 starters, PFF has the Rams down for seven below average starters, eight average starters and two poor starters. That means 17 of the 22 players on the roster are average of worse, according to PFF.

Included in the group of below average starters are middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and tight end Jared Cook. Running back Zac Stacy and defensive tackle Michael Brockers are two of the starters deemed average, and safeties T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod are the two listed as poor starters.

While Laurinaitis, Ogletree and Cook certainly have their faults, I wouldn't consider any of them below average based on how they produce compared to others at their positions. That is not to say any of them should be considered elite, but Laurinaitis and Ogletree were two of the most productive linebackers in the league last season, and Laurinaitis has a track record of producing far better than below average or average. Ogletree has plenty of improvement to do, but improved throughout the season and provided plenty of flash plays. Cook didn't put up numbers commensurate with his contract in the first season, but still finished 10th in the league among tight ends in receiving yards, fifth in yards per catch and tied for 11th in touchdowns. If nothing else, those numbers would put him right at average.

By no means am I saying the Rams should be a top 10 or even necessarily a top 20 roster, but it's hard to understand how some teams on the list, such as Minnesota and Oakland, could be ahead of St. Louis.

The Rams certainly have more than their share of question marks heading into 2014. They have been the youngest team in the league two years running and look poised to be once again next season. It's also worth considering that a roster that young still has managed to finish with seven wins in each of the past two seasons. If the roster was older and treading water, I could understand the argument for it being one of the league's worst.

But it isn't. It's folly to think all of the Rams' young players will develop into top starters in the league. There is plenty of work to be done before the Rams roster can be considered one of the league's best. But they've done enough that they should no longer be deemed one of the worst.
Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine JohnsonGetty ImagesThe Rams have been pleased with the work of CBs Trumaine Johnson (22) and Janoris Jenkins.
The St. Louis Rams said goodbye to cornerback Cortland Finnegan early in free agency, releasing him in a move that will save them $7 million in salary-cap space. Safety Darian Stewart signed with the Baltimore Ravens. Fellow safety Matt Giordano remains unsigned.

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.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll countdown to that with a position-by-position look at what the St. Louis Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: The Rams bring back both of the safeties who started the majority of their games in 2013.

T.J. McDonald is entering his second season after an up-and-down rookie season marred by a leg injury. But the Rams believe in McDonald and he figures to maintain his starting position going into 2014.

More tenuous is the other safety spot where Rodney McLeod started all 16 games and also served as de facto nickel cornerback for much of the season. McLeod improved as the season went along and finished with two interceptions. He had a lot on his plate for a second-year undrafted free agent.

Cody Davis and Matt Daniels are also under team control for 2014. Davis returns after a rookie season in which he appeared in 12 games, primarily on special teams.

Daniels likely would have had an opportunity to play last season were it not for a season-ending leg injury suffered in the second week against Atlanta.

Pending free agents: Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano

What’s needed: An athletic upgrade for McLeod who is capable of running the alley and patrolling center field when McDonald is operating near the line of scrimmage. New coordinator Gregg Williams likes to use one safety in the box, bringing him on blitzes and moving him around. McDonald figures to fill that role, leaving the Rams cornerbacks needing a big-play safety who can help over the top. McLeod is a nice piece to have because of his versatility, but is probably better suited for a backup role and special teams at this point in his career. With Giordano and Stewart headed to free agency, the Rams could also use some veteran depth.

Possible fits: The free-agent class at safety is a good one compared to other positions. Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Clark, Miami’s Chris Clemons and New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins are just a handful of the recognizable names that figure to hit the open market.

Byrd is the prize, but the Rams don’t seem to be in a hurry to spend the type of money required to land him. Likewise, the team may not want to spend big money on any free agent after splurging the past two years.

But the Rams did well in a saturated market last year, landing offensive tackle Jake Long at a relatively bargain price because so many tackles were available. Perhaps a similar opportunity could arise this year.

Jenkins is already free and familiar with Williams’ defense but isn’t necessarily the type of roving ball hawk the Rams need on the back end. Clemons is maybe the most intriguing name on the list, but he figures to be right behind Byrd and Ward as the most expensive guy available.

The Rams could also choose to bring back someone like Giordano to add some veteran depth.

Verdict: No position on the Rams' defense could use an influx of talent more than safety, and it’s the one spot that if the team could solidify might take the defense to the next level. The Rams could choose to address the position in the draft, though the crop of safeties in this year’s class is actually not as strong as the free-agent group. I still don't believe the Rams will spend big on any free agent not named Rodger Saffold, but if they want to get a mid-level type at a position of need, safety might make the most sense.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For the third consecutive week, St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin is questionable for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks because of an ankle injury. But there appears to be a bit more hope than there's been the past two weeks.

Austin was a limited participant in practice Friday, ending a run of nearly three straight weeks in which he'd gone without participating in any practices. In each of the past two weeks Austin has missed those workouts then missed the ensuing game. Austin getting some work on Friday at least leaves the door open that he could return for the season finale.

Technically, the questionable designation makes a player participating a 50/50 proposition. Austin is likely to be a game-time decision for Sunday.

Here's the rest of the Rams' Friday injury report:

Doubtful: RB Daryl Richardson (thigh)
Questionable: Austin (ankle), S T.J. McDonald (illness)
Probable: DE Chris Long (thigh)

McDonald and Richardson did not practice Friday. Long was a full participant.

Tavon Austin remains out

December, 26, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams receiver Tavon Austin again did not practice Thursday as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Austin
Austin suffered the injury Dec. 8 against Arizona and has not played or practiced since, missing games against New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has expressed optimism the past couple of weeks that Austin might be able to return in time to get back on the field, but time is running out for that to happen.

The Rams have one more practice Friday before traveling to Seattle for the season finale. If Austin doesn't at least get some work in at practice, it seems likely his season will end without another appearance.

Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams were without safety T.J. McDonald because of an illness and running back Daryl Richardson did not practice because of a thigh ailment.

Defensive end Chris Long returned to practice as a full participant after sitting out Wednesday with a thigh injury.

Rams-Buccaneers study session: Defense

December, 24, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- Some thoughts and observations on the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after reviewing the All-22 film.

  • 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.
  • [+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Robert Quinn
    Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesRobert Quinn recorded three sacks against the Buccaneers, bringing his season total to 18.
    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.
  • 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.

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