St. Louis Rams Position Analysis: Defensive Backs

Last year: The Rams allowed 16 touchdown passes, their fewest since 2002, and the fourth fewest in the league. Four of the TDs came in a 45-7 beat-down by Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Rams also finished tied for 11th in the league with 17 interceptions, the most for the team since 2007, and 15th in passing yards allowed.

Coach: Chuck Cecil, a longtime assistant under coach Jeff Fisher at Tennessee, returns for his second season as secondary coach. As with the other defensive assistants, Cecil’s role will change this season with the hiring of Tim Walton as defensive coordinator. Cecil will not be asked to help call defenses as he was last season when the Rams operated without a defensive coordinator.  

Three questions:

1. Who’s at safety?

Last year’s starters, Craig Dahl (49ers) and Quintin Mikell (unsigned), are gone and the competition for the starting safety jobs will be among the most heated in training camp. Darian Stewart, entering his fourth season with the Rams, has an edge for one spot, though he was slowed by injuries in organized team activities. Third-round pick T.J. McDonald, the biggest of the group at 6 feet 2, 219 pounds, impressed the coaching staff in offseason work and was a regular with the first team during OTAs. Second-year Rodney McLeod is expected to make a bigger impact this season than as a special teams whiz. Eight-year veteran Matt Giordano, who started 13 games with the Raiders last season, brings experience to a group that doesn’t have much.

2. What will Cortland Finnegan do next?

Secondary leader Finnegan already livened up the offseason with a Twitter shot at a former teammate: “Craig Dahl we know how you play thanks for the tips we know who to attack early and often.” Dahl had attracted the attention of his former team when he told San Francisco-area reporters that the Rams’ success against the 49ers last season was based in part on knowing what they were going to do. Finnegan figures to have much more to say in the days leading into Sept. 26, when the Niners visit the Edward Jones Dome for a Thursday night game.

As long as he plays the hard-nosed defense that has made him a Fisher favorite, Finnegan is not likely to be reined in much by his coach. In his first season with the Rams, Finnegan led the team’s DBs in tackles to go with three interceptions. He has started every game for the past three years.  

3. What does Janoris Jenkins do for an encore?

The Rams would take a repeat of his rookie season, when Jenkins led the league in defensive touchdowns with four. Jenkins was far from perfect, though. He was burned for four touchdowns during one three-game stretch and also was suspended by the team for a game after violating team rules. But after slipping in the draft because of off-the-field trouble in college, Jenkins proved worthy of being a second-round pick. He started 14 games and proved to have a knack for making big plays. He will open training camp as the projected starter at right corner.

Quote: “I’m impressed by the way guys pick things up, the learning curve of those guys. We think that we’ll have a great group of guys that will be able to help us a lot.” — Defensive coordinator Tim Walton on the team’s inexperience at safety

What others are saying: In Lindy’s Pro Football preview, the secondary was given a rating of 6.5 (on a 1-to-10 scale). “Again, depth is suspect,” it wrote.

Bottom line: Cornerback is a strength of the defense, but there are questions about the safety spots because of inexperience. Overall, the secondary should benefit playing behind a line that is considered one of the best in the NFC.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.