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Practice Report 12/31: Finishing Strong Defensively

Posted Dec 31, 2015

CB Trumaine Johnson and the Rams' defense are one step way from their goal of finishing the season 4-0.

NAPA, Calif. -- A few weeks ago, the Rams fell to 4-8, which was a record far from the expectations the club had set for itself coming into 2015. Despite the disappointment, the team continued to stay focused, and defensively, coordinator Gregg Williams set a high bar for the last four games.

“Gregg always talked about going 4-0 the last quarter of the season,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “That was a big goal of ours. We’re at 3-0, we can accomplish that. Do something we haven’t done here, win four in a row and kind of move on from that.”

“I believe it’s important for a confidence standpoint to be doing right at the end of the year,” Williams said. “I was pretty hard, pretty stern about this last quarter of the season, about being 4-0. And we wouldn’t be in position right now to go do that, to be 4-0 in this last quarter, had we not taken care of business in the first three games.”

Now at Week 17, having the opportunity to finish a season at .500 is still significant, given it’s a mark St. Louis has not reached since the 2006 season.

“It’s not where we want to be, and quite frankly, this team, we’re going to look back and be like, ‘Goodness, how aren’t we 10-6 or 11-5?’” Laurinaitis said. “But it feels better to be at 8-8 saying that than at 6-10.”

Even though the playoffs are not an option, multiple players have said the team has treated these last couple weeks as if they were the postseason.

“We always talked about, hey, if we do make the playoffs, we’re going to have to go up somewhere like Seattle and play in a playoff-type atmosphere,” Laurinaitis said. “So we treated that like a playoff game, and we got over that hump of not winning there in a decade. Hopefully, it spurs our franchise around like it did the Cardinals, when they went up there when nobody was winning at Seattle.”

“We’re treating this game like a playoff game,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson said. "We treated the Seattle game like a playoff game. That’s our mindset coming in. So I feel like if we do what we’ve got to do, we’ll come out with a victory.”

Last week, the defense played one of its best games against a Seattle offense that had been rolling. The multiple injuries to the unit, especially across the defensive line, made holding the Seahawks to just 17 points and 313 yards of offense that much more significant.

“The way our D-line played was remarkable. Really, the whole defense,” Laurinaitis said. “We were super physical with them, especially in that first half. I’m not sure a team has played them as physical as we did on Sunday. Anytime you can score on defense that early in the game, it really just lets you relax and play fast.”

Sunday’s victory also saw Johnson continue his run of strong play. He’s now intercepted a pass in each of his last four games, bringing his total to seven on the season.

“Finishing strong is the focal point,” Johnson said. “Our goal was to finish 4-0, and I’m doing everything possible to finish 4-0. So if anything, just finishing 4-0 and strong.” 

“Tackling very well. Playing very smart. Jumping routes. Understanding route concepts, formations, splits, alignments and things like that. He’s doing a great job with that,” Fisher said of Johnson. “The hand-eye coordination is extraordinary. He can make plays on the ball.”

But this week presents another divisional challenge with the 49ers. While San Francisco has gone through its share of disappointments this year, it’s still a team with a noticeable identity on film.

“That’s their bread-and-butter right now, is keep the ball away from opposing offenses,” Fisher said. “They do a nice job of the conventional run game with the I-formation and stuff and the extra tight ends.”

“They do a great job of that,” Williams said of the Niners’ run game. “You take at those guys when their offensive linemen get off the bus, you say, well there’s some football players there. And they’re big, strong men. And we’ve got to play well in the run game.” 

Plus, quarterback Blaine Gabbert has played well since taking over for Colin Kaepernick. The St. Louis native and Mizzou product has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,677 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. And while he may not be known as much for running as Kaepernick, Gabbert has rushed for 178 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts in 2015.

“For the most part, they’re still the same 49ers -- the same structure, the same play concepts,” Williams said. “There’s a few other tendencies that Blaine does better and is able to do some things.”

“Colin, he had the zone-read style runs that were built in for him, they don’t do that as much with Blaine,” Laurinaitis said. “But it seems like on third-and-whatever, if Blaine’s first two options aren’t there, he’s running it.”

Shutting the offense down will be a challenge, considering the two teams are division rivals and thus know one another quite well.

“We’re going to have to be ready to go,” Williams said. “This division is a strong division. They know us, we know them. So it’ll come down to who’s prepared the best.”

“We expect everything from them,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s the NFC West. There’s no motivation [needed] for either team other than division game, cap it off. We’ve got all offseason to heal up.”

INJURY REPORT & ROSTER MOVES

With only one game remaining, the Rams placed defensive tackle Nick Fairley (concussion) and defensive tackle Doug Worthington (thigh) on injured reserve on Thursday. To replace them on the active roster, St. Louis promoted running back Malcolm Brown from the practice squad and claimed cornerback Troy Hill off waivers from New England.

Brown could be a bit of insurance in case Todd Gurley (foot) is unable to play on Sunday. The running back did not practice once again on Thursday, but Fisher said Gurley does not necessarily need to participate in Friday’s session to be active against the Niners.

“He’s getting treatment on the foot right now, so we’ll see how he is tomorrow,” Fisher said.

Elsewhere on the injury report, safety Mark Barron (concussion) was back at practice participating on a limited basis. Defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks (concussion) was upgraded to a full participant from limited on Wednesday. And defensive tackle Michael Brockers (thigh) was also upgraded from limited to full.

Offensive lineman Andrew Donnal (knee) was limited and cornerback Eric Patterson (ankle) did not practice.