EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have an extensive history of working together. Their defensive philosophies are similar and, now that they are reunited in St. Louis, the scheme isn't expected to change much at its core.
Sure, there will be tweaks here and there, but for the most part, the roles of the 11 defenders will be the same. But there is one player on the defense who figures to have much more on his plate in 2014 if Williams' history is any indication.
Second-year safety T.J. McDonald stepped into a starting role immediately as a rookie and Fisher clearly trusted him to take on a lot of responsibility in the defense. That role will almost certainly expand for McDonald in Year 2.
“When T.J. got going early in the season before the injury, you didn’t look at T.J. and see a rookie," Fisher said. "You saw someone that played like an experienced player. With that being said, Year 2 is completely different. He understands, he’s in great shape right now. Gregg’s going to be able to do a lot of things with him on defense.”
For evidence of how that might manifest itself, one need only to look at how Williams has used big, athletic safeties in his recent past. While serving as the defensive coordinator in New Orleans, Williams was able to take veteran safety Roman Harper and turn him into a two-time Pro Bowler. He did so by using the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Harper like a sort of safety Swiss Army Knife.
Harper spent plenty of time in the box, blitzing frequently and essentially serving as a de facto fourth linebacker. In three years with Williams as his coordinator, Harper posted 287 tackles, 12 sacks, 10 forced fumbles and 16 run stuffs.
After learning of Williams' hiring, McDonald, the son of six-time All Pro safety Tim McDonald, quickly took to studying how Williams had deployed his safeties in the past. He immediately liked what he saw and began envisioning himself doing many of the things Harper once did.
"That is me," McDonald said. "I feel like that fits my game pretty well and it is me right now. Once I get a grip on it and everything comes together, I’m confident I’ll be able to make plays."
At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, McDonald actually cuts a more imposing figure than Harper, but it's easy to see how he could fit into a similar role. While McDonald has flashed some solid cover skills, he's probably best used closer to the line of scrimmage, especially so long as the smaller and speedier Rodney McLeod is playing more of a center field spot on the back end.
The Rams plugged McDonald into the 2013 starting lineup right away, a move that belied his third-round draft status and served as clear evidence of his football acumen. After starting the first four games of the season, McDonald suffered a fracture in his right leg against San Francisco on Sept. 26 but didn't need surgery and was placed on injured reserve with the "designated to return" label.
McDonald returned to the lineup on Nov. 24 against Chicago and played in the final six games. A solid start was interrupted and McDonald struggled to get back on track upon his return.
"It was hard," McDonald said. "Especially having to sit out those eight weeks. That was tough not being able to play with the guys. Coming back, I was trying to get better every week but not just mentally, but also physically and making sure I was getting back to 100 percent. I was just happy I got to play."
For what it's worth, McDonald spent his offseason back home in California, working out at USC with some former teammates. He says he's back at full strength during these organized team activities and has his eye on making up for the time he lost in his rookie season.
"There’s definitely ways that I wish I would have done some things better," McDonald said. "Based off the injury, it made things a little bit difficult. But I came back out there, put myself in position to make some plays and as a rookie you are always going to have things you want to improve on. For me, I am just focusing on a lot of those things and coming out this year hoping I can capitalize on everything I learned last year."