Secondary Makes Strides in 2015

Posted Jan 12, 2016

The five first-round picks on the D-line received plenty of preseason attention, but the Rams' defensive backs were a unit to write home about over the course of the season.

While much of the preseason attention on the Rams’ defense focused on its five first-round draft picks up front, the team’s defensive backs certainly made strides of their own in 2015.

“I think overall our secondary drastically improved this year,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “It was something that wasn't talked about a lot in the preseason, [but] we always talked about it in our room -- ‘Why can't they be talked about as one of the best units?’”

Cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins in particular had standout seasons. Both made some nifty interceptions -- like Johnson’s pick six against Detroit and Jenkins’ helmet pick in Arizona -- and they hit hard to make strong tackles. Jenkins finished with three interceptions, 13 passes defensed, and a forced fumble, which safety Rodney McLeod returned for a touchdown. Only Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters and Bengals safety Reggie Nelson recorded more than Johnson’s seven interceptions, and Johnson also had 12 passes defensed.

“It was a rough year last year with getting hurt and only playing two months,” Johnson said. “But this is my first complete season. I’m glad to come out cool.”

As a unit, the secondary had to work through injuries throughout the year, and the process began in training camp. On the first weekend in August, second-year cornerback E.J. Gaines suffered a season-ending foot injury. Coming off a strong rookie season, Gaines was in line to start for 2015. Instead, Johnson was pressed into duty and excelled.

“First off, him going down that hurt the whole secondary. But he’s getting back,” Johnson said. “It’s the ‘next man up’ philosophy. I'd started a lot of games in my career, so when he got hurt and I had to start, it was nothing.”

Gaines’ rehab progress has been steady, and he should be fine to return for the start of the offseason program in April.

“I’m just excited to get back for next season, and I can’t wait,” Gaines said. “I’m excited for the football team, and coaching staff is excited to get me back.”

But Gaines’ injury was not the only one the secondary had to deal with. Johnson and Jenkins missed games with minor ailments, and safety T.J. McDonald was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 11 after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

“I got a head start on it having the surgery early,” McDonald said. “So I’m on schedule, feeling good. Definitely have a great plan in place. I’ll be ready to go.”

The hard-hitting safety was having a strong season of his own prior to the injury. He finished sixth on the team with 80 tackles, and had 1.0 sacks, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and fumble recovery.

Together, McDonald and McLeod have worked to become a strong tandem of safeties. Laurinaitis had praise for the way McLeod in particular played a crucial role in the Rams’ defensive scheme.

“We call Rodney McLeod our ‘angel’ back there, kind of our savior because when something breaks he's got to make some unbelievable tackles to save touchdowns,” Laurinaitis said. “As aggressively as we play, when something does pop he has to be that angel to save us. I think, because we do play him so deep, people don't realize how tough a job he does have. He's done phenomenal.”

With these core players -- which also includes slot corner Lamarcus Joyner and weakside safety Mark Barron -- growing together, the unit used its strong rapport to its advantage throughout the year.

“Big time, chemistry is there, playing with those guys,” Johnson said. “Everybody stepped up. When guys got hurt, a lot of guys stepped up. It was a ‘next man up’ philosophy all year, and I’m proud of those guys.”

However, with Johnson, Jenkins, Barron, and McLeod all set to become free agents, the Rams could have some tough decisions to make depending on how the market shakes out.

“We’ve got some key free agents that we have to get back. That’s going to be our focus, especially in the secondary,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve drafted well there. They’ve produced. We’ve developed them and we don’t want to develop them for anyone else. So, we want to be sure that we’re able to get them back. We’re confident we can do that.”

As for the players, McDonald and Johnson said they’d like to stick together, too.

“I hope we get them all back, definitely. But I also understand that there’s a business side of it too,” McDonald said. “So we’ll see how it goes. But I definitely hope we can all stay together.”

“I love my teammates, love my coaches,” said Johnson, adding he’d love to continue his career with the Rams. “Like I said, we’ve built a chemistry over four years. And we’ll see.”