THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams have plenty of options at safety, but enough for Maurice Alexander to go from starter to inactive to off the roster in eight days?
“Nobody could have seen that coming,” Blake Countess said Thursday.
Depth has been on display in recent weeks with starter Lamarcus Joyner missing the last two games due to a hamstring injury. Cody Davis intercepted a pass against the Seattle Seahawks, and second-year defensive backs Countess and Marqui Christian have had their moments.
The real revelation has been rookie John Johnson III, benefitting from the available practice and playing time. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said the steady progress shown by the third-round draft pick from Boston College made the Rams comfortable moving on from Alexander.
“John Johnson was ready to play,” Phillips said. “We felt it all along. He played good in the preseason. We thought he was ready to play and he was, and I think he’s a heck of a football player. He makes some plays that not many players, not many good players can make.”
Johnson had three tackles and an interception in his first career start, the Rams’ 16-10 loss to the Seahawks. Johnson showed his range throughout the game, displaying equal ability to play centerfield or be down in the box. Countess said Johnson has an understanding of the game well beyond that of a typical rookie, as demonstrated when he read quarterback Russell Wilson’s eyes to pick off a pass into the flat intended for tight end Luke Willson and returned it 69 yards.
Phillips was just as impressed with how Johnson broke up a deep ball for Doug Baldwin in the first quarter.
“A tough play for a free safety and he was on top of it, so got a lot of savvy and doing a good job for us,” Phillips said.
Even with Johnson’s strong performance, the assumption was that Alexander would be back up on the active roster this week at the Jacksonville Jaguars, perhaps with the two of them splitting time. Instead, Alexander was placed on waivers Monday.
“There was some talk in the room that (Alexander) hadn’t been playing to the level that we expect from our room, so he was down one week,” Countess said. “Nobody thought he was going to be let go. But it happens and that’s the business we’re in, so it’s next man up in our room and we know that. I’m sure Mo will be fine wherever he lands. We all take it as a learning experience.”
The Rams should get their first look at Johnson and Joyner on the field together this week. Joyner has been limited in practice but is expected to make his return against a Jacksonville offense that looks more like what Phillips saw when he got his first coaching job in the NFL in 1976.
The Jaguars lead the league at 165.2 yards rushing per game, with rookie running back Leonard Fournette averaging 21.8 carries per game.
“When I first started everybody had leather helmets,” Phillips said. “But it’s interesting to see in this day and time you can run the football and win games, and that’s what they are doing. It’s an old, old formula, but they are doing really well with it.”
After allowing 229 yards rushing in a loss to Washington and 189 in a win at the Dallas Cowboys, the Rams fared better defending the run versus Seattle by holding them to 62 yards. The Seahawks averaged a paltry 2.5 yards per carry, and their longest run was nine yards.
Giving up explosive runs was one of the reasons Alexander was phased out so quickly, and Johnson will need to avoid rookie mistakes.
“Now, rookies will give you a little bit of gray hair,” Phillips said. “But, let’s be honest, if they’re good enough, they make plays for you.”
NOTES: Phillips expects linebacker Mark Barron (knee) to play despite missing two days of practice.