One tried and true rule of the secondary, you can never have enough quality cornerbacks. And the Rams' lack of depth there has jumped up and bit them in recent weeks.
Say what you will about the play of cornerback Cortland Finnegan this season, but the Rams have missed his veteran presence in the back end since he went on the injured reserve list because of a fractured eye socket.
"Yeah, of course, you do," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "It's the experience factor. He's played in a lot of games. Big games like this (vs. New Orleans) against good people. But what we're doing is we're giving younger players opportunities to play.
"They're getting better. That's the encouraging thing. The only way to get better is to play, so that's what they're doing. They're improving."
But as the last two weeks have demonstrated, sometimes it's learning the hard way. There have been times against San Francisco and Arizona that the Rams' youngsters have simply been overmatched trying to cover veterans such as Anquan Boldin of the 49ers and Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals.
Trash-talking Boldin in San Francisco didn't work. A veteran of his stature isn't going to get thrown off his game by mere words. Boldin proved to be a catalyst for the 49ers' offense in a 23-13 San Francisco victory with nine catches for 98 yards.
Last Sunday in Arizona, Fitzgerald schooled the Rams' cornerbacks to the tune of 12 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown in a 30-10 Cardinals triumph. Fitzgerald caught everything -- and we mean everything -- thrown his way. He was targeted 12 times and caught 12 passes. Even in football, that's called batting 1.000.
The Rams had been playing more press coverage in recent games but went back to the more passive approach of playing more "off" coverage against Arizona with little success. Quarterback Carson Palmer's 84.4 percent completion rate (27 of 32) was the second-best in franchise history, behind Kurt Warner's 92.3 percent.
With few exceptions, Palmer was more than happy to pick the Rams youthful secondary apart with underneath stuff, giving the Rams' front four little time to get into the backfield.
You can debate whether the Rams have the right players on the back end -- and it's clear it's the weakest position overall on the roster. But it's also a case of the Rams being simply too young in the secondary to compete effectively on a week in, week out basis.
At cornerback, the starters are second-year men Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Both are long on competitiveness and athletic ability, but short on discipline and technique. Johnson wasn't an every-down cornerback until Finnegan's injury.
"This is next man up," Johnson said. "I'm just taking advantage of my opportunity. I'm way more comfortable out there from last year to this year."
And if he gets beaten on a play?
"It's always about the next play," Johnson said. "You can't be hard on yourself on one play. You've just got to keep playing your game."
Without Finnegan, the next players in line at cornerback are rookie Brandon McGee, who has been nicked up much of the season and was considered very raw to begin with, and Quinton Pointer, a second-year man who has spent half the year on the practice squad.
One of those two, by the way, may see a lot of action Sunday against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints because Jenkins is questionable with a back injury.
At safety, the Rams have gone with Rodney McLeod, a second-year man in his first year as a starter at free safety. McLeod has helped bail the Rams out of their cornerback shortage because he's also been able to play the nickel back role.
Rookie T.J. McDonald is back at strong safety after missing six games with a broken leg. That leaves safety Darian Stewart as the first guy off the bench when the Rams go to five defensive backs. He's the most experienced player in the secondary, at least among those seeing regular playing time, with 51 NFL games (including 19 starts).
"We keep growing every week," defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. "The guys are working. The guys have been trying. You get experience by playing. They're working hard at practice every day and you keep working on technique, fundamentals."
Even so, without Finnegan, Walton said: "Somebody has to step up and be the leader now, and they have to develop at a faster rate. Our job as coaches is to keep trying to push that ... and keep working to escalate their development as soon as we can."
There's no time like the present for development given the fact that the Saints are in town. It's easily the best passing game the Rams have faced this season, which means the secondary will be under extreme pressure all day.
"I don't know where to start," McDonald said. "They've got weapons everywhere. It's one of those things where we've got to make sure we're on all of our little assignments."
And the big ones, too.
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