T.J. McDonald carving his own path

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The recent ascent of the St. Louis Rams' defense has been expected if not overdue. But it's no coincidence it has taken off in recent weeks at the same time some of its young cornerstones have begun coming into their own.

Perhaps none of those young players has made more strides over the past three weeks or so than safety T.J. McDonald.

Sometimes, that has meant putting up impressive numbers as he did two weeks ago against Arizona with nine tackles and a sack. Sometimes, it's more about the physical presence he provides, such as last week against Denver when he had five tackles and two pass breakups, but ensured that Denver pass-catchers would feel every bit of them.

On a defense loaded with more familiar names like end Robert Quinn, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, it's McDonald's performance from the safety spot that has elevated the Rams' defense into one of the league's best over the past three weeks.

"It’s just been tremendous growth, especially this whole season and the past few weeks in particular," fellow safety Rodney McLeod said. "The guy is showing up in every phase, whether it’s special teams and on defense, tackling, pass-breakups. We’ve got to work on his hands a little bit, but other than that, the guy has been doing a great job for us. It’s just great to see him making plays back there at a time like this when we are trying to make a push for the playoffs and we need everybody to step up and make plays for us."

In many ways, McDonald's play has been what was expected when the Rams used a third-round choice on him in the 2013 NFL draft. McDonald quickly claimed a starting spot and earned praise for how fast he was able to pick up the system. A fracture in his leg limited him to 10 games as a rookie with mixed results.

But when the Rams hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in the offseason, many believed McDonald was a perfect safety for his system. At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, McDonald is the prototype of a Williams safety who can be a force near the line of scrimmage offering an additional hammer in the run game with emerging blitz skills. That McDonald wasn't known for his coverage abilities didn't figure to matter given Williams' propensity for playing with a lot of single-high safety looks, a look that would generally feature McLeod on the back end.

True to that idea, McDonald spent much of the early part of the season near the line of scrimmage, defending the run and bringing the blitz. Through the Rams' first eight games, McDonald had almost an identical split in snaps played in the run box (230) and snaps played on the back end (221).

What's interesting, though, is how much more McDonald has been asked to do in coverage over the past three weeks. Although that lines up with the arrival of Mark Barron via trade, Barron has only been heavily involved in one of those games.

According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, McDonald has played 144 of his 209 snaps over the past three weeks in coverage, which works out to about 69 percent. For what it's worth, McDonald has earned his highest grades in coverage from PFF over that same span.

"I feel like I am recognizing things faster and I am more comfortable in the defense," McDonald said. "I feel like I’m on my toes and playing downhill and having a lot of fun playing.

"I think just like any new defense, anything that’s new, you have got to understand what your job is, and that was the first thing. Everybody was trying to make sure they did their job. I felt like we got a good grip on what our coaches want from us. Then it becomes 'what is the offense going to do?' Then we put that stuff together and really focus on what is going on with them."

Against the Broncos, quarterback Peyton Manning targeted McDonald seven times and came away with three completions for just 6 yards with a long of 3 yards. Even on those rare completions, McDonald was quick to lower the boom and finished with a pair of pass-breakups.

It was the type of performance that left many making the seemingly endless and easy comparisons to his father, former six-time All Pro safety Tim McDonald. But as McDonald continues to string together solid performances, maybe it's time to start letting what he does on the field stand on its own.

"I have definitely walked in his shadow for a long time," McDonald said. "I can’t say I’ve been trying to stray away from that, but at the same time you want to be your own man and you definitely want to be known as, I want people to one day be able to say 'That’s T.J.’s dad' not 'I’m Tim’s son.' I have a long ways to go. I’m in no rush, I’m just trying to get better, have fun and play ball."