T.J. McDonald's leadership in the secondary has been invaluable for the Rams this season.
Jonathan Dyer/Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
ST. LOUIS — Through all of the changes in the Rams’ young secondary, one constant has been there to maintain stability.
Strong safety T.J. McDonald may be only a year removed from his rookie season, but he’s become something like the veteran leader of a group coach Jeff Fisher says continues to evolve through injuries, trades and shifting roles. As one of just two defensive backs to start all nine games, McDonald ranks third on the roster with 82 tackles, including 57 on his own, putting him just one behind linebacker Alec Ogletree for the team lead.
"I think T.J.’s playing the safety position right now as good as any safety in the league," Fisher says. "The last couple weeks, I think his play, his body of work speaks for itself."
McDonald made a team-high 12 tackles and played a big role in limiting Arizona to a season-low 28 rushing yards last week, and says it was the kind of game where opportunities kept coming his way. But his athleticism clearly created plenty of chances as well, and he even came away with his first sack on quarterback Carson Palmer.
Fisher says McDonald makes plays all over the field, and he’s shown no fear in wrapping up big running backs like Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Dallas’ DeMarco Murray. The experience of 10 starts a year ago has been evident for the third-round draft pick out of USC, and he says he’s still learning and improving each week.
The system of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been a perfect fit for an aggressive, hard-hitting player like McDonald, who posted the Rams’ season high with 17 tackles earlier this season at Philadelphia. He’s enjoyed the heavy blitzing, which has meant plenty of chances to offer run support and make tackles in the backfield.
"It means a lot," says Ogletree, another second-year player who has impressed Fisher the past two weeks. "He’s a very physical player and he comes downhill when he needs to and he plays the pass really well, too. He’s an all-around good player."
Fellow safety Mark Barron offers some similar attributes, and he’s feeling much more comfortable in his still-limited role after making six tackles, including a sack, in his second game since being traded from Tampa Bay. The duo has clearly strengthened a run defense that has given up well under its season average of 124.2 rushing yards in the last two games combined.
McDonald’s leadership has also been invaluable in the absence of cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins, who have missed a total of nine games with knee injuries. Even free safety Rodney McLeod has battled a calf injury, although he has still started and made at least five tackles in every game.
"Our secondary’s been evolving all year long," Williams says. "It’s kind of created a good, versatile environment there. There’s guys knowing the big picture a little bit more because they’ve been asked to do more because they’ve been asked to play more than just one position."
Rookies E.J. Gaines and Lamarcus Joyner have both seen significant playing time, with Gaines starting at corner every week. He moved to nickelback a week ago when Joyner went down with an injury, and that’s where Gaines expects to be against Denver with Johnson and Jenkins poised to start together for the first time all season.
By staying on top of his game, McDonald says he’s been able to offer plenty of leadership for the rookies, who have shown potential but often been inconsistent. Gaines turned in one of his best performances with three pass breakups, including two in the end zone, at Arizona, and he’s been eager to learn from McDonald and the other veterans in the secondary.
They’ll need to be at their best against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, who haven’t been held to fewer than 20 points and rank second behind Indianapolis with 317.9 passing yards per game. Barron says the challenge of facing the best should motivate the secondary, most of whom are young enough to have looked up to Manning in high school or earlier but haven’t gotten the chance to face him on the field.
"The last time I played him we came away from the game thinking maybe he had cheated or something the way he was calling it out for them," says Barron, whose Buccaneers lost to Manning 31-23 in 2012. "He’s a smart guy. He knows the game, so you most definitely have to be disciplined and smart when you play them."
There’s no good time for a secondary to face one of the best quarterbacks of all time, but the Rams could have hardly picked a better week this season. They’ll be as healthy and deep as they’ve been all year, even if Joyner’s groin keeps him on the sideline.
McDonald will undoubtedly be called upon again to fly all over the field and play physically with his 6-foot-2, 217-pound frame. Only this time, he’ll have a little more help.