THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Although E.J. Gaines had to wait nearly two years to get back into the Rams’ lineup, he’s getting the chance to make up for that lost time.
Gaines seems likely to get major playing time at cornerback for Los Angeles (3-1) on Sunday at home against Buffalo, finally returning at full strength from the injury woes that slowed his career just when it was taking off.
Gaines played in his first game since Dec. 21, 2014, last Sunday as the Rams rallied to beat the Arizona Cardinals, 17-13. The third-year pro missed all of last season with a foot injury, and a thigh injury kept him out of the first three games of their homecoming season in Los Angeles.
If Gaines reclaims the starting job that he improbably won in 2014 as a rookie, he will be happy — but the real thrill is just running onto the Coliseum field for the first time.
“If that’s me starting or me not starting, if it’s special teams or whatever, just getting out there with the defense, it’s a feeling I haven’t felt for a while,” Gaines said. “But I’m excited to do it.”
The Rams’ move to the West Coast uprooted Gaines, a born-and-raised Missourian from Independence who played four seasons at the University of Missouri before the Rams drafted him in 2014. The sixth-round pick immediately earned a key role in the Rams’ secondary, starting 15 games and making 70 tackles with two interceptions and 14 pass breakups as a rookie.
He was in competition last year with Trumaine Johnson for a starting cornerback job opposite Janoris Jenkins in training camp, but that foot injury ended his season. Johnson went on to earn a $13.95 million contract for this season on the franchise tag, while Jenkins got a lavish free agent deal with the New York Giants.
Gaines wasn’t bitter about his bad break, and he didn’t sulk when he got hurt again in training camp in California. He kept working for a return, and he finally made it three weeks into the season.
“He just went out there and played like he did a year ago,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “(He has) a year of starting experience at the position in our defense. That’s what’s helpful for him.”
While Gaines’ return was uncertain this summer, the Rams attempted to patch the hole left by Jenkins with free-agent signee Coty Sensabaugh. While Fisher hasn’t directly criticized Sensabaugh, he wasn’t active against the Cardinals, apparently due to his inexperience with special teams.
The Rams instead put veteran journeyman Troy Hill in the starting lineup for the past two games, but Gaines entered the game in Arizona in the second quarter as a slot defensive back. He eventually slid into the key job on the outside of Los Angeles’ defense.
Gaines got back into the game rhythms gradually, but he appeared to fit in flawlessly on a defense that hasn’t actually changed extensively since late 2014. The Rams, who forced five turnovers by the Cardinals, still have a dominant front seven, including a defensive line that helps the secondary in multiple ways.
“I think just getting after the quarterback, pushing the pocket back and then trying to make plays on the outside in the secondary, and that’s what we need,” Gaines said.
Gaines’ familiarity with third-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ schemes has been a boost to his preparation, and he’s eager to show everything he learned to the Rams’ new fans at the Coliseum, which was packed for the home opener last month.
“For me, it’ll be exciting to get out there in front of the home (crowd) and try to make some plays,” Gaines said. “For this football team, it’s exciting to get two road wins and come back home. Hopefully the stands will be rocking and the fans will be ready for us to come back home.”