by Cian Fahey
For as long as Jeff Fisher has been the head coach in St. Louis, expectations for the Rams have risen during the offseason, only to be blown back to reality during the regular season. Injuries and inconsistencies have kept the offense in a constant state of spontaneous combustion, limiting what Fisher and his staff could achieve. Replacing Sam Bradford with a quarterback that Chip Kelly jettisoned while also rebuilding the offensive line with rookies has stunted the optimism surrounding the offense entering this season. The defense, on the other hand, is a completely different story.
The Rams defense has ranked seventh, 11th, and ninth in DVOA over the past three seasons. It has built its success by primarily relying on young foundation pieces who have continually shown signs of growth over the courses of their short careers. The front seven has led the way, which is unsurprising considering the investment the franchise has made there over the years. Entering the season, the Rams have five former first-round picks and two former second-round picks making up their defensive front. Another former first-round pick, Nick Fairley, is the team's fifth defensive lineman. While draft position isn't always a surefire sign of talent, most of these picks have panned out. That is reflected in the unit's consistency against the run.
Over the past three seasons, the Rams have ranked 10th, third, and fourth against the run by DVOA. Adding Fairley and outside linebacker Akeem Ayers, along with the expected development of Aaron Donald and Alec Ogletree, should allow this front seven to become one of the very best in the NFL. Question marks emerge in the secondary, however. The Rams haven't had quality cornerback play under Fisher. Janoris Jenkins was drafted to be a big-play cornerback who intimidated quarterbacks with his ball skills. Instead he has become a favorable target for the opposition, creating big plays for the offense more consistently than for the defense. Trumaine Johnson was an inconsistent starter across from him. E.J. Gaines, a sixth-round pick last season, may be the team's best cornerback, but he sustained a potentially serious injury during training camp.
Having Fairley, Donald, and Robert Quinn amongst a stocked defensive line rotation will allow the Rams to cover some of their deficiencies at cornerback. That will be tougher to do at the safety spot. Teams that can get quick pressure with just four pass rushers can get by without high-quality safety play in the NFL, but those looking to be more aggressive can't. Safety is one of the toughest positions in the league to play. Because of how offenses stretch the field both horizontally and vertically while actively searching out mismatches, safeties are doing more now than they ever have before. They can't afford to have significant weaknesses because the offense will repeatedly expose them. That is why the quality of safety play across the league is so bad.
Like most teams, the Rams have questions to answer at their safety spots. Unlike most teams, they also have a player who could potentially be one of the best safeties in the NFL next season. That player is T.J. McDonald.
McDonald wasn't one of the Rams' high draft picks even though they have 11 former first- or second-rounders on their defense alone. McDonald was selected in the third round of the 2013 draft, so he is entering his third season in the league. He established himself as a full-time player last season, accumulating 1,191 snaps. Most of those snaps came in the role of a strong safety, with Rodney McLeod playing free safety behind him. No defensive back played as much as McDonald last season -- he played 99.6 percent of defensive snaps, tied with Philadelphia's Malcolm Jenkins at No. 1 -- and even though Lamarcus Joyner and Mark Barron are available to compete for playing time, neither is expected to.
The 24-year-old McDonald got better as the season went on last year and showed off a rare skill set by the time the season came to a close.
At every position, it's important to be a good run defender. As an in-the-box safety, you have to be a versatile run defender. McDonald is a long, strong defender with the athleticism to work to both sidelines in a hurry. Crucially, he combines those traits with discipline and consistency. On this play, we can see how McDonald works in space. He lines up in the position of a linebacker, exposing him to the block of the much bigger guard working to the second level. Instead of attempting to take on the guard's strength, McDonald shows off awareness and balance to glide past his block attempt, pushing his opponent away with his extended arms. From there, McDonald was able to quickly close on Marshawn Lynch before he could advance further downfield.
McDonald's length is more notable than his size. He can likely still get bigger, but it's his length that offers value at the point of contact. Although he often concedes more ground than he would like, the safety's length allows him to wrap ballcarriers up and drag them down with greater consistency than most of his peers. He can also use those long arms to work through contact and get off blocks.
Like any safety, McDonald isn't going to consistently dominate offensive linemen when engaged with them in tight situations. He can be effective against offensive linemen with his hands and strength, to a greater degree than most safeties. Against tight ends is where McDonald can really show off his ability. On this play, the safety is lined up to the far left of the offense, just outside the widest tight end of the group. The play doesn't initially work to his side of the field, but McDonald uses his hands and strength to hold his position while keeping his eyes in the backfield to set the edge. When the ball is reversed back towards him, he is able to shed the blocker and make the tackle close to the line of scrimmage.
The valuable run-stuffing strong safety is essentially extinct. Only run-stuffing safeties who can cover are still valuable in today's NFL. Even a monstrous safety such as Kam Chancellor is only so valuable because of his ability to play in space. Chancellor may not play in as much space as Earl Thomas, but that isn't a necessity within the construction of his defense. McDonald can play a similar role to Chancellor, excelling in Cover-2 situations and lining up closer to the line of scrimmage while being best suited to stay out of single-high looks.
Being athletic enough to play as a deep safety in the NFL isn't unusual. Athleticism is important, but safeties typically play consistent coverage by relying on their technique and awareness. On this play against the Oakland Raiders, McDonald lines up as part of a two-deep shell roughly 18 yards from the line of scrimmage. The development of the play will offer a clear example of McDonald's process, and his ability to read routes as they develop in front of him and act accordingly.
The outside cornerback to McDonald's side of the field lined up off the line of scrimmage, suggesting quarters coverage. Because of that cornerback's alignment, McDonald's eyes are initially drawn to the slot receiver infield. As the receiver runs his stem, the safety squares his shoulders and feet to him and takes very short steps backwards, moving at a slow pace. This doesn't really affect his positioning on the field, instead just giving him slightly more depth in case he needs to bail out of his current technique to break on an intermediate route or turn with a deep route.
As the play develops, the slot receiver turns to run towards the sideline. Once McDonald recognizes that the receiver has committed to the out route, he directs his eyes to another area of the field.
McDonald's eyes led his feet and his shoulders to the outside receiver who was breaking infield. The safety was able to comfortably turn his hips to bring his weight forward and close on the receiver. The depth of the receiver's route made it impossible for McDonald to get to him before the ball arrived from the quarterback, but it was the underneath linebacker who was out of position. That linebacker, Alec Ogletree, was too aggressive against the quick out from the slot, creating a throwing lane for the outside receiver's shallower-than-expected route.
Despite the space between receiver and safety, McDonald is able to quickly close ground before hitting the receiver hard. He doesn't prevent the reception, but he immediately brings the play to a halt once the ball is caught, preventing any yards after the catch. This is the kind of deep coverage that McDonald should be expected to effectively execute. He can be relied upon with these assignments because of how quickly he diagnoses what is happening in front of him.
This play against the Denver Broncos shows off McDonald's ability to read the offensive linemen's actions to understand what the offense is trying to do. McDonald has his eyes on the quarterback from the beginning of the play, so the offensive linemen to that side of the field are in his line of sight. When those linemen advance forward, McDonald immediately knows that this is a screen pass to his side. He is able to comfortably beat the linemen to their spots to tackle the receiver in space, once again completely shutting down any potential for yards after the catch.
Asking McDonald to do anything more strenuous than these types of coverages in a deep alignment is simply playing away from his strengths as an individual. In the Rams' talented defense, he shouldn't be forced into a role with which he isn't comfortable unless Rodney McLeod gets injured. McLeod is the perfect complement for McDonald, which is why he should hold onto his starting spot ahead of other contenders during training camp and the preseason.
When playing closer to the line of scrimmage, McDonald's versatility really stands out.
On this play against the Chargers, the Rams rotate their safeties just as the ball is snapped. This sends McDonald towards the line of scrimmage with McLeod dropping deep behind him. As he is wont to do, Gregg Williams is blitzing. His second-level defender comes from the middle of the field, so Philip Rivers is being encouraged to release the ball to his tight end running across the field. That tight end, Antonio Gates, is the responsibility of McDonald. Gates is very athletic despite his age and turns to suddenly change his crossing route into a curl route. From where McDonald is closing from, it would be easy to overrun the play and slide past Gates' right shoulder.
Instead, the safety shows off impressive control and athleticism in space to make an immediate tackle. This appears to be a relatively simple play, but it's an important one to make consistently because of the space behind the tackle point. If McDonald is out of control to any degree, Gates' athleticism will allow him to brush off an unbalanced tackle attempt before turning into space for a first down and a potentially huge gain.
McDonald's rounded athleticism and body control allows him to match up against the tougher tight ends in the NFL. He won't shut them down alone in space, but he has the upper body strength to fight them in press coverage and the intelligence and explosiveness to consistently make plays from off coverage. Because he covers ground so quickly, McDonald can also be a primary piece of disguising coverages, lining up over one receiver before accelerating to cover another just after the snap or dropping into a distant zone coverage.
Although he can be a key part in disguising blitzes as part of coverages, McDonald also has plus ability as a pass rusher. Most defensive backs simply sprint towards the quarterback and will only get pressure or a sack if unblocked. McDonald has more ability than that.
For this sack of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, McDonald comes off the edge aggressively before using a precise and explosive spin move to penetrate the pocket. He beat a running back in space, which is something you'd expect an edge rusher to do but not something you would expect a defensive back to do. McDonald had two sacks last season and neither was a result of going unobstructed to the quarterback.
With so many stars in St. Louis, it will be hard for McDonald to get a share of the limelight. He can still be effective on the field, though. If he can live up to his potential, McDonald could develop to the point where he mirrors the play of Kam Chancellor. Chancellor is clearly the best strong safety in the NFL without any equal. Even if McDonald can only get close to that level, he will still be a major piece of the Rams defense -- a defense that should be amongst the best in the NFL.