Practice Report 10/4: Gaines Effective in Return

Posted Oct 4, 2016

CB E.J. Gaines played in his first game since the end of the 2014 season and tied for the team lead with seven tackles against Arizona on Sunday.

It’s been a long time coming for E.J. Gaines, as the cornerback made his first regular-season appearance since Week 16 of the 2014 season on Sunday against the Cardinals. While Troy Hill started on the outside opposite Trumaine Johnson, Gaines subbed in and played well.

Head coach Jeff Fisher said after the game Gaines played for most of the second half, and, as it turns out, Gaines was in for 69 percent of Los Angeles’ 77 defensive snaps.

“Man, it felt good to actually get out there in a regular-season game and try to help this defense,” Gaines said after Tuesday’s practice.

The cornerback said he didn’t necessarily have butterflies, but he was ready to play.

“It was more just excited and geeked to kind of get out there and help this offense, help this defense, help this football team — regardless of what it was. Getting out there and trying to help this team more,” Gaines said.

Gaines tied for the team lead with seven tackles and also had two passes defensed in Arizona, playing well in his first action.

“There was no evidence of any injury, or anything,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “He just went out there and played like he did a year ago.”

Gaines started 15 of the Rams’ 16 games as a rookie in 2014. As a sixth-round pick out of Mizzou, the cornerback led the team with 14 passes defensed. With that, Gaines provides a boost.

“It’s a year of starting experience at the position in our defense,” Fisher said. “That’s what’s helpful for him.”

With Gaines playing such significant snaps, it stands to reason that he can reclaim his starting spot on the outside sooner than later. But for him, just being on the field to help the team is what’s important.

“If that was me starting or not starting, whether it was special teams or whatever — but getting out there and starting with the defense, it’s a feeling that I haven’t felt for a while,” Gaines said. “But I’m excited to do that.”

That’s especially because the Rams’ next game will be at the Coliseum. Gaines, of course, was inactive for the home opener while still recovering from his thigh injury.

“Well for me, it’ll be really exciting to get out there in from of the home [crowd] and try to make some plays,” Gaines said. “And, hopefully, the stands will be rocking and the fans will be ready for us to come home.”


One of the reasons Los Angeles has gotten off to a 3-1 start this season is the solid play of its special teams unit.

Kicker Greg Zuerlein has made all five of his attempted field goals and each of his extra point attempts. Punter Johnny Hekker leads the league with 15 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, and has not yet recorded a touchback. And though the Rams do not get many punt return opportunities with wide receiver Tavon Austin’s strength in the area, they made the most of the one they received on Sunday with a 47-yard return to set up the go-ahead touchdown.

“We blocked it like we blocked it out on the practice field,” Fisher said of the return. “We’re hoping that we get those opportunities. Tavon is not someone that you want to punt to deep down the field, and we understand that. But when we get an opportunity, we have to make it count.”

Hekker’s punting ability also gives the Rams a distinct advantage given the way the defense has been playing.

“I don’t think he has a touchback yet this season, so he’s putting the ball down where they have to fair catch it at the 10 or the eight or the 12,” special teams coordinator John Fassel said. “A 90-yard field for an opposing offense against our defense — we just don’t think they’re going to score, so that’s critical.”

As for Zuerlein, it’s no secret that the kicker had a tough 2015 season. That’s part of why Fassel said he’s been proud of how well the start of the season has gone for him.

“He’s made every field goal, he’s made every PAT – which, I don’t know how many kickers, after four weeks, can say that. His kickoffs have been solid,” Fassel said. “He’s worked really hard, he’s really good, and you have to keep it going.”


— One of the byproducts of Gaines coming back to play corner is Hill will see less time on the outside. But, that also means Hill will be free to play more snaps on special teams, which is a lift for that unit.

“The last two games, we haven’t been able to use him because he’s started at corner – and we were planning on using him a lot, but once he starts at corner, we lessen the load on special teams,” Fassel said. “If we get him back, he’ll be on all of them. He’s a good runner, super slippery as a cover guy, as far as teams having to try to block him, he’s got a good sense as a blocker – usually as a corner, you’re a tackler – but now, on the return game, you’re a blocker, which is usually an offensive skill. He’s kind of got that knack for doing that.”

— Defensive end Ethan Westrbooks started Sunday’s contest against the Cardinals, and defensive end Matt Longacre was active for the first time in 2016. Both played 56 percent of the Rams’ defensive snaps, which, according to Fisher, provides a boost at the end of games for the club’s other starters like defensive tackle Aaron Donald and defensive end Robert Quinn.

“Ethan got an opportunity to start, and Matt an opportunity to play 30 or 40 plays, and he was productive,” Fisher said. “That’s the key, is that you have to have depth, and you have to keep them fresh all the time. When you get to the end of the game when you need a play, you’re getting the plays out of Aaron and out of Rob because they’ve been subbed for, and they’ve got an opportunity.”