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Jury still out on Rams defense after Week 3 of training camp

Figuring out a way to improve against the run and identifying position battles are key

Los Angeles Chargers v Los Angeles Rams
Can the Rams defense stop the run?
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As Week 3 of the Los Angeles Rams training camp came to its conclusion, they put on the exclamation point by taking on their housemates, the Los Angeles Chargers in SoFi Stadium. The Rams defense had serious trouble stopping the run in a 34-17 loss. The Bolts rolled up over 200 yards rushing at a salty 6.9 yards per carry.

The Rams started out in a 4-2-5 defense and predominantly stayed in it. They did mix in some 5-2 or 3-4, however you may want to identify it. By my rough count it was 44 snaps with four men down and 18 in the 3-4. While the two late long TD runs were against the the 3-4, Chargers running backs, particularly early, regularly ran off tackle for gash runs against the 4-3.

Defensive bright spots were not outwardly evident, but there was a little shine under the tarnish. With the mediocre play and so many different players rotating through formations, it is tough to discern who is making their way up the depth chart. At least six defensive positions are still undetermined, but a few roster battles were delineated. Here’s how I see the defense after Week 3 of training camp.

Defensive line: Who will lineup with Aaron Donald?

Particularly early in the game, but also later to a lesser extent, the Chargers had great success running between the tackles. The L.A. four man fronts were consistently gashed off tackle by crashing down on the defensive tackle and screening out the defensive end. Against the pass it looked like the Rams line was working on keeping pocket spacing and containment, rather than cutting loose. It all makes for a seven candidate position battle.

Larrell Murchison looked the best of the group, but far from outstanding. Bobby Brown didn’t play much and what he put on film was not very good. Some plays looked he wasn’t giving a full effort. Marquise Copeland didn’t play much better, but did hustle. He seemed to get engulfed by the Charger linemen on run plays. Kobie Turner and Desjuan Johnson both has some solid reps, but also looked like rookies on others. Still works in progress. I thought Jonah Williams and Earnest Brown got some decent push on pass rush reps considering the Bolts were throwing predominantly short.

The rest

TJ Carter saw 33% of snaps and Taron Vincent mopped up a few at the end. Both did log a tackle, but are practice squad material at best.

Cornerbacks: Surprises in preseason opener

Ahkello Witherspoon sat out the opening preseason game and although he’s nursing a broken finger, it probably safe to say that he’s got starting role locked down. But there were some surprising developments in the cornerback room, which may have expanded position battles. At the very least, they’re becoming more interesting.

Outside corner #1: Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson vs. Derion Kendrick vs. Robert Rochell

Hodges-Tomlinson played outside corner, not in the slot or “Star” role. Overall, he played very well and ended up with a couple of nice pass breakups. Some of that success may be attributed to the fact that he covered a receiver (Quentin Johnson) that he had gone against everyday of his college days at TCU.

THT consistently showed stellar ball-hawking talent at the college level, it’s his diminutive size that pundits question. In his first pro action, he showed that he plays bigger than he measures. If he can prove to handle the outside corner role, it adds a much-needed speed and athleticism factor to the defense. He backed up his opening performance by covering Davante Adams in the Rams/Raiders joint practice and according to early reports, held his own.

Kendrick has missed most of the first three weeks of camp with a hamstring issue, but reports are that he is ready to return to action. The second-year player from Georgia earned some early starts last year as a rookie and his performance was-up-and-down. He appears to be sticky in underneath coverage, but his lack of long speed shows when turning and running in downfield coverage.

Rochell started opposite THT vs. the Bolts and may be on the hot seat. He enters his third season out of FCS Central Arkansas and while he is an enticing combination of size, length, and speed, his progress has been slow. In the 2nd drive of the Chargers game, the deep safety rotated down towards the center of the field and Rochell let a wide receiver run right by him, wide open behind the defense. Luckily, the QB was looking underneath. It could have simply been a case of early-season miscommunication, but there’s no denying that Rochell has struggled adapting to the pro game.

Slot corner #2: Jordan Jones vs. Shaun Jolly

Jones got the surprise start at slot corner against the Chargers and the undrafted rookie basically played to form. On the games opening play, he read a quick wide receiver screen, slipped a poor block attempt and made a solid tackle. Overall, he gave up four receptions without a defense, but three were short completions in off-coverage and he decisively made quick tackles. He was a step behind on a long crossing pattern that was completed for 13 yard and again made a sure tackle.

Jolly re-tweaked his hamstring on Monday and now is shelved indefinitely, effectively putting him dangerously close to the roster bubble.

The rest

There were plenty of late-game reps to go around for Timarcus Davis, Vincent Gray, Cam McCutcheon, and Tiyon Davis. None made any marked progress and Timarcus Davis had a bad penalty on a 3rd and 17 play when the Rams were still within striking distance of a win.

Safety: Not much to see here

After getting lots of props from the Rams coaching staff in the first two weeks of camp, the unit quieted down in Week 3. The Chargers were content to run the ball and stay with the underneath stuff. They did try a couple of mid-range passes down the sideline, but generally stayed short.

The top four, Jordan Fuller, John Johnson, Russ Yeast, and Quentin Lake are locked. Fuller and Johnson sat out and Yeast played a little over a quarter. Undrafted Tanner Ingle did have a couple of splash plays and played his way into a position battle.

Safety #5: Tanner Ingle vs. Jason Taylor

I had Ingle down for three tackles, a sack, a stop at the line scrimmage, and a sideline push out. His two tackles for loss came on blitzes out of slot coverage. He was quiet on special teams, but arguably had the two biggest plays on defense.

Taylor didn’t flash on defense, but did live up to his draft profile as a special teams stalwart. As gunner on kickoffs and punts, he got past his blockers and broke down well, forcing two blocking in the back penalties.

The rest

The Rams cut Richard LeCounte after the game. He was always long shot and needed a strong showing on special teams. Even with all the different rotations, he was only in on return units. The silly pass interference and getting faked silly on a touchdown sealed the deal. Maybe a little early, but inevitable.

Torrence struggled in his first pro action, missing three tackles and taking some bad pursuit angles. Just like his his draft profile warning, he didn't wrap up, bouncing off of a couple runners and overran makable plays by not breaking down.

Off ball linebacker: Three is enough

“Will” linebacker #1: Christian Rozeboom vs. Jake Hummel

A real competition here. Rozeboom appears to be the early front runner and only appeared in a handful of snaps. Hummel is coming off a mid-season hip injury that ended his rookie season and could make strides as he gets more comfortable on the field. Both candidates had four tackles vs the Chargers.

Although ‘Boom is a better fit as a thumping, traditional middle line backer, he is the front runner to start opposite Ernest Jones. He has an aggressive nature and flies to the ball. As weak as they were against the run in the opener, the Rams may end up needing two run-centric linebackers behind this years defensive front.

Hummel moves a little better of the two and looks smoother in coverage reps. He is not as aggressive as Rozeboom, not timid at all, just more of a read-and-react style. He uses his hands, sifts through traffic pretty well, and is more of a thinking man’s linebacker than hammer.

The rest

Jaiden Woodbey looks bulked up, but appeared heavy-footed and missed a couple of tackles. His play didn’t do much, if anything, to upgrade his standing. Kelechie Anyalebechie, Ryan Smenda, and DeAndre Square all got looks on defense and special teams, none really stood out. Hard to make a case for the Rams to keep more than three linebackers, unless one these undrafted upstarts really steps up their game.

Edge: The guys who are supposed to keep opposing runners from getting outside and rush the passer— didn’t

How bad was it?

None of the Rams edge/defensive ends initiated a tackle until 12:20 of the 2nd quarter

Other than Michael Hoecht, the edge battle is wide open. Hoecht didn’t play much, but the snap rotation was pretty equal amongst the other candidates. While there were a few nice individual plays, no one was a consistent winner.

Keir Thomas showed some juice rushing off the edge, particularly when he lined up against the right tackle. He did get pinned on a long TD run. Zach VanValkenburg fared better against the run, but didn’t show much of a pass rush. Nick Hampton was invisible. Young did have an “almost” sack, not much else.

Although Thomas and VanValkenburg both gave up the edge for those long 4th quarter TD’s, the undrafted pair had the best body of work overall.

Injured: Ochaun Mathis and Shaun Jolly with no reported timetable for their return.

What’s next?

Week 4 of camp includes two joint practices with the Las Vegas Raiders and closes with the Rams taking on those same Raiders on Saturday August 19 at 6 p.m. PST.

I really think the three linebackers will be alright and enough. In Week 1, L.A. was subbing in an extra safety for the “Mike” linebacker in obvious passing situations, effectively creating a 4-1-6 formation.

The secondary needs to show that it can be the defenses strong point. Stacking two good games in a row would be a great start for such a young group. If the youngsters can prove ready and mesh with the experienced guys, fans can start to feel a measure of confidence.

It is imperative that the Rams figure out a way to stop the run. They weren’t terrible rushing the passer, there were quite a few close calls. Yes, two key starters Aaron Donald and Ernest Jones are not dressing out, but amongst the seven defensive line candidates, no one is yet standing out above the rest. Same thing with the edge unit, they have to show some improvement in both the run and getting after the passer.

There isn’t much on the free agents list to help improve the defensive front. If Bobby Brown can’t get his act together at nose tackle, this group will need to add some beef.

The Chargers bullied them and the NFL exploits weakness.