Much to gain from a T.J. McDonald return

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
11:30
AM ET
T.J. McDonald AP Photo/Scott BoehmRams safety T.J. McDonald is close to returning from injured reserve.
ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Rams safety T.J. McDonald is edging ever closer to a return to the defense.

Precisely when that comeback becomes official remains to be seen though signs are pointing in a positive direction according to Rams coach Jeff Fisher.

“He’s coming along,” Fisher said. “He did a lot of work last week outside and inside. It’s a confidence factor now, but we’ll continue to give him reps.”

McDonald returned to practice with the Rams last week for the first time since suffered a fracture in his leg in Week 4 against the San Francisco 49ers. That injury landed McDonald on injured reserve but with a special designation that allows him to return to practice after six weeks and games after eight.

Under old rules, McDonald’s season likely would have been cut short long before it ever got rolling. It’s a thought that occurred to the rookie out of USC before he was informed each team has an allowance which provides them one player per season who can go on injured reserve, be replaced on the roster and then come back later in the year.

“When I got the injury, I was disappointed,” McDonald said. “Then two days later once we figured out what the process was going to be, if I needed surgery, talked to the coaches and once they told me that I was going to be on IR. and I would be able to come back, that was all I needed to hear, that was my motivation for rehab and to get right. I have been working hard since.”

This week, McDonald will continue to work his way back into the mix and not a moment too soon for a Rams defense that has been lacking production from the safety position since McDonald suffered the injury.

Before the injury, which came about halfway through the game against the Niners, McDonald had 18 tackles and a pass breakup. Those numbers don’t jump off the page but McDonald at the least had showed a deep knowledge of the defense and had been helpful in knowing what the rest of his defensive teammates were to be doing on each play.

If nothing else, McDonald was able to at least line up in the right spot and maintain his responsibilities. He had some issues with missed tackles but it seemed many of his errors were correctable, growing pain type problems.

“I felt confident,” McDonald said. “Even in the games that maybe we didn’t play as well, I still felt like I was making strides every week and getting more comfortable in the defense. You’ve got to understand the first few weeks of the season you have got to get in shape too. It took me a second to get all the way into football shape and I was just getting that so I really was hitting my stride. That also was the reason I worked so hard to get back.”

Therein was the most disappointing part about McDonald’s injury. The Rams went through an offseason makeover at safety and McDonald was the only notable addition to the position.

After the team spent a third-round pick on him, McDonald quickly moved into the starting lineup and the Rams are clearly hopeful that he can be a long-term solution on the back end.

Removing McDonald from the lineup not only created a hole in the secondary -- replacement Darian Stewart has 20 tackles in almost twice as many games as McDonald -- it stunted the growth of a player the Rams need to develop.

For his part, McDonald kept a good sense of humor about the injury all along. He is quick to acknowledge the eerie comparisons between he and his father Tim as both played safety at the same high school and college and then were drafted by the St. Louis professional football teams. To top it off, both suffered serious lower body injuries in their rookie seasons.

“The similarities are crazy,” McDonald said. “I talk to my mom all the time like ‘Man, this is freaking me out.’ I don’t know if I need to talk to some voodoo something. What he told me about it was don’t forget how you got to the point where you were before you got hurt. I felt real good, real confident.”

McDonald is still working his way back and said though he’s not back to 100 percent yet he’s working now to regain the athletic explosion he had before the injury.

The Rams have no shortage of young players who need to continue to improve over the season’s final six weeks but McDonald ranks right up there with the most important.

“It can help my development a lot,” McDonald said. “Just because I haven’t been getting the experience doesn’t mean I haven’t mentally been taking the reps. That’s going to be helpful. I’ve done everything except play in the games.”

The sooner he can add that part of the equation, the better off he and the Rams secondary will be both now and in the future.

Nick Wagoner

ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter

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