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Position Battles: Defensive Backs

Posted Aug 26, 2015

The Rams have a strong combination of youth and experience in the defensive backfield to compete with anyone in the league.

The Rams have a bevy of talent across their defense, but many point to the club’s front four as the unit’s biggest strength. But the group in the defensive backfield has talent to go around, too, as well as a healthy dose of confidence.

For St. Louis, this year’s crop of corners and safeties are out to prove that they are no longer just players with youth and potential. 

“It’s really the first time since we’ve been here that we’re no longer considered a young group, so we expect more of ourselves than any position in the room,” defensive backs coach Brandon Fisher said, complimenting the players’ attitude and intensity. “The sky is the limit for the group.”

Janoris Jenkins leads the way at cornerback, having racked up six defensive touchdowns since his rookie season of 2012 -- a mark that leads the rest of the league by two.

“Janoris is as talented and skillful as they come,” Fisher said. “He also brings a leadership factor that a lot of people don’t see. He sees the game differently than most corners do.”

While head coach Jeff Fisher said there was initially going to be competition for the starting corner role opposite Jenkins, the team’s plans changed when E.J. Gaines suffered a season-ending foot injury early in camp.

“You just see the success E.J. had last year -- he was a tremendous piece for this defense,” Lamarcus Joyner said. “With him being gone, we just have to tighten up our group and strengthen the continuity that much more with a key piece like that gone.

“We send our well wishes to him,” Joyner added. “We’ll get closer and go from there.”

So far, Joyner and Trumaine Johnson have stepped up and met the challenges brought on by losing the Mizzou product. Johnson has had a strong camp, notably making a key pass breakup and a key interception in the first preseason contest against Oakland.

“It all goes back to what he’s done this offseason,” Jeff Fisher said of the corner. “He was there every day, he’s worked, he’s taken care of his body, and he’s determined. If you get in that third and fourth year and play like he has, you should start making those plays when you have that kind of ability.”

Johnson said he stayed in St. Louis for the majority of offseason in order to stay focused on his training. By doing that, the corner says he improved his strength and his speed.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be here and work.”

The head coach has been complimentary of Joyner throughout camp, and recently said the second-year DB out of Florida State will be the team’s nickel corner.

“He’s light years ahead of where he was last year,” Jeff Fisher said. “It was all happening really fast, and it’s starting to slow down for him. When he knows exactly what to do, he does it very well. We’re counting on him to be effective in the slot, which means as a third corner, you’re probably going to play 50 to 60 percent of our snaps.”

Joyner responded well last week against Tennessee, tallying five tackles and a pass breakup in the contest.

“I just want to get better,” Joyner said. “Whatever this organization wants to use me for, that’s what I want to do.”

At safety, Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald have become particularly effective players in the defensive backfield. After coming into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia, McLeod has made himself into a steady and consistent player, according to Brandon Fisher.

“His knowledge is well past his years in this league and you just never worry about where he’s going to be, whether he’s going to get guys lined up,” the DBs coach said. “He does everything right.”

While all of the Rams defenders are physical, McDonald could be considered the “enforcer” of the group because he gives that group an extra edge.

“He’s wired differently than a lot of people,” Brandon Fisher said. “He’s got that screw loose. He’s an intense individual.”

“You’ve got to be a little crazy,” McDonald said. “You’ve got to be able to have that attitude to just go out there and do what you’ve got to do.”

But it’s his leadership ability that has impressed Gregg Williams. The defensive coordinator said he expects McDonald to take another step forward, calling the safety a natural leader.

“He’s such a very positive example in the meeting room, outside the office, inside the white lines,” Williams said. “I would imagine you’ll see more of a vocal T.J. because he’s done and earned his stripes in that way. But he’s set good examples.

“Hopefully, we can find a couple more packages to utilize his strengths too,” Williams added.

While those players may be the penciled-in starters, there is a good amount of depth at defensive back on the Rams’ roster. Safety Mark Barron should have his share of time on the field, and coaches have raved about Maurice Alexander’s progress. Plus, Marcus Roberson has been doing a solid job at cornerback, and undrafted rookie Imoan Claiborne has flashed both in practice and during the preseason games.

“Everyone is growing,” Brandon Fisher said. “Day in, day out, they come to work. They make the little things big. They’re doing everything right. There’s not a guy in that group who makes a mistake on purpose, and they hold each other accountable.”