Rams would benefit from DE Hayes' return

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It’s unlikely we’ll know whether St. Louis Rams defensive end William Hayes will return from a knee injury until just before Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans.

What we already do know is that getting Hayes back in the mix, especially this week, would be a welcome addition for a team preparing to face Houston’s eighth-ranked rushing attack.

Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton acknowledged as much on Thursday.

“It’ll be huge,” Walton said. “He’s a great asset to us. He’s well-oiled in the run game, rushes the passer well. He’s stout and he plays with a lot of energy. He has great toughness, one of the leaders on the defense. He brings that emotion, that no nonsense attitude about the way he plays and that’s really going to be a big boost for us.”

From Walton’s words, it sure sounds like Hayes is set to make his return after missing the past two-plus games because of an injury suffered in the Sept. 22 loss at Dallas.

This week, Hayes has returned to practice, working on a limited basis Wednesday and Thursday and doing a little bit more each day.

Despite that obvious progress, Rams coach Jeff Fisher is a bit more cautious about the return of his versatile lineman.

“If he’s able to go, he was playing well before he went down,” Fisher said. “(He) just helps in our rotation to keep everybody fresh. So, we’ll see how he is.”

Hayes is the Rams’ best run defender at end and pass-rusher at tackle as he moves all over the line depending on down and distance.

Given Houston’s zone running scheme with an emphasis on stretch plays, having Hayes’ ability to set the edge would certainly be a boost for a run defense that showed signs of improvement against Jacksonville but has struggled mightily against better rushing teams this year.

According to Pro Football Focus’ ratings, Hayes was the fifth-best run defender among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 despite playing just 378 snaps at the position, well below the 900 plays by top-ranked Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants.

Even if Hayes isn’t back to 100 percent yet, the Rams will need all hands on deck to deal with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Hayes’ presence would go a long way toward slowing that dynamic duo and making the Rams' defensive line rotation whole again.