With two receivers lined up left, Rams quarterback Nick Foles hit Tavon Austin on a quick screen pass as Kenny Britt went out to block the cornerback.
Austin, as he normally does in training camp, flashed his speed and quickness while weaving through defenders and drawing praise from the large crowd gathered at Rams Park as training camp opened.
The problem is, Austin would have been stopped cold behind the line of scrimmage had the players been tackling that day.
It’s early in camp, but it’s become customary for the Rams’ secondary to make plays. On Austin’s reception, safety Rodney McLeod diagnosed the play quickly and flew to the line of scrimmage, putting himself in position to make the tackle. Whether it was the receivers or the formation in general, McLeod read his keys quickly and immediately diagnosed what Frank Cignetti’s new offense was trying to accomplish.
Now in year two under Gregg Williams, McLeod appears to have a greater understanding of route combinations and passing concepts, which is vital for defensive backs at the pro level.
As well as consistently being in position on passing plays, McLeod looks completely in sync with corner Janoris Jenkins, and notched a slick one-handed interception of Foles during camp.
Jenkins is off to a great start as well. The fourth-year veteran has always had the athletic tools to be a legit number one corner, but discipline has been an issue. With a new contract waiting for him at some point over the next year, Jenkins has been in the hip pocket of receivers at camp and he’s avoided the mental mistakes that have plagued him in previous years. He’s been part of a Rams secondary that has made Foles and the rest of the quarterbacks look hesitant and inconsistent early in camp.
Granted, the Rams’ defense should be ahead of the offense at this point.
While the defense is in year two under Williams, the offense is learning a new system. As for Foles specifically, not only is he learning a new playbook, he’s also developing a sense of timing with his receivers and getting a feel for the protection capabilities of his inexperienced offensive line. He’s also working with a new center every three days and is trying to establish a leadership role with a new team. Thus far, he’s excelled at that.
If the defense weren’t ahead of the offense at this point, something would be terribly wrong. But, that doesn’t mean expectations for the secondary haven’t changed from where they were a few months ago.
Due to the strength of the front seven, many see the secondary as the defense’s Achilles’ heel.
But thus far, there’s no reason to believe that the defensive backfield is going to be a weakness, especially when the front four does its thing during games.
As of this writing, E.J. Gaines could miss time after suffering an injury Sunday during practice.
But, he’s as fundamentally sound as any defensive back on the roster and should be ready to build on a solid rookie season.
If Gaines’ injury is serious, Trumaine Johnson is capable of starting opposite Jenkins. Jeff Fisher said over the weekend that, from a conditioning standpoint, this is the best Johnson has looked in his four years in St. Louis. Johnson has the size that NFL teams covet, and he’s shown flashes of something special in previous years, such as his interception of Peyton Manning last season.
Like Jenkins, Johnson is playing for a contract. Maybe 2015 will be the year he puts it all together as well.
The Rams’ depth at cornerback is also quietly becoming a strength. Lamarcus Joyner struggled with penalties and mental lapses as a rookie last year before getting hurt, but the game should start slowing down for him in year two. Marcus Roberson also had three interceptions in Sunday’s practice, and you can see his confidence growing after he went undrafted out of Florida in 2014.
Is the Rams’ secondary mistake proof? Of course not.
McLeod and Jenkins need to prove that they can avoid the mental lapses of last year. Gaines and Johnson need to stay healthy. T.J. McDonald is a vicious hitter whose star is on the rise, but he has limitations in coverage. Joyner underwent baptism by fire as a rookie and needs to make significant strides in his development so that he’s not a liability when Williams calls for his nickel defense.
The secondary will prove itself September through December, not in early August against an offense scrambling to get its feet under itself.
But, the early returns are promising and expectations are growing.
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