Thursday August 11th, 2016

Things are just getting started with the Rams on Hard Knocks, but at some point on the show, expect defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to talk up his group.

“I feel that we’re going to have a chance to be, if we’re not the fastest defense in the National Football League, in the top two or three, team speed-wise,” Williams says. “I think that's going to help with how people try to spread us out.”

Those are lofty expectations, considering Los Angeles’s competition for the top spot will likely include its NFC West rivals in Arizona and Seattle, plus Carolina, Denver and possibly Green Bay—but they aren’t totally unrealistic. Despite widespread injuries, Williams’s unit finished No. 7 in overall defense by Football Outsiders and fourth in quarterback pressures per snap by Pro Football Focus.

The Rams will also be replacing two front-seven veterans that were on the backside of their careers, end Chris Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. William Hayes, Eugene Sims and Quinton Coples will see more playing time at end. Alec Ogletree will move full-time to middle linebacker, leaving former safety Mark Barron at weakside linebacker and Akeem Ayers on the strong side.

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“I have multiple leaders every year, and the guys that are having to step up here were already in our leadership council beforehand,” Williams says. “Alec Ogletree is doing a fantastic job. Mark Barron is doing a fantastic job in the roles that they’re playing. Why I tell you that is leadership is example first, mouth second. You don’t have to say a lot when you’re providing the right example. Those two guys do provide the right example. Alec has great poise also but up on the front, we’ve got guys that do a great job of providing a great pass rush, great run front, providing a toughness that when they talk, everybody listens to them.”

The Rams will have little trouble dominating up front, where All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald anchors a stacked line alongside Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn, who is being brought along slowly in his return from back surgery. In his reps during camp, Quinn looks like he’s back to the player who had 19 sacks in 2013 and a total of 40 from ’12 to ’14.

“When Robert is the Robert we saw before the injury, it's going to be an explosive, explosive front,” says Williams. “And everything right now is saying, without jinxing it, he’s fine. But what we’re trying to do is progressively bring him back, not take a lot of beating right now in the training camps and preseason games because he’s proven he can play. Let’s get him into the real games.”

The Rams will likely need all the pass rush they can get. The secondary lost some experience after cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Rodney McLeod left in free agency, but it returns a true franchise cornerback in Trumaine Johnson, promising in-house replacements in E.J. Gaines and Lamarcus Joyner, and Maurice Alexander to join T.J. McDonald at safety. The Rams also signed ex-Titan Coty Sensabaugh to play nickel.

“In the back end there will be a little bit of a restructure, but we've got some good people in organization where they’ve been planning and had some good young people rising up behind them,” says Williams. “I think people are going to be pretty impressed when they see some of these guys get the opportunity to play more this year. It's going to be a fun group. If we stay healthy, we’re going to have a chance to be pretty good.”

With the offense in flux outside of running back Todd Gurley, the Rams need the defense to be better than that if they’re going to emerge from the NFC West with a playoff berth.

Other notes from Rams camp

• I only saw one practice, but Case Keenum looks like the much more consistent quarterback for the Rams at this point, and I have a hard time seeing No. 1 pick Jared Goff doing enough to overtake him before the season starts. In the same practice where Hard Knocks made it look like Goff was on the rise, he threw two terrible picks where he had panicky feet. That’s not a good sign for a quarterback many thought would be much more game-ready than No. 2 pick Carson Wentz. Goff has a really tough time operating under center, and that’s a problem when you’re going to be a run-first team behind Todd Gurley.

• Tight end Tyler Higbee, who dropped to the fourth round in the draft because he’s facing assault charges, has been a standout in camp. He’s similar to Travis Kelce in height, playing style, swagger and ability to irritate a defense. Higbee has made a lot of plays in camp, and you can tell it bothers the defense the way they hit him after receptions. The Rams have Lance Kendricks as the starter, but Higbee will be a factor if he behaves himself. Rookie receivers Mike Thomas (sixth round) and Duke Williams (undrafted free agent) have had their moments.

• Ends Quinton Coples and Ethan Westbrooks stood out in one-on-one drills, while former Patriots first-round pick Dominique Easley did not. He still has an explosive first step, but if he doesn’t win off that, he can easily be shut down.

• Left tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 pick in 2014, still struggles in pass protection. The Rams really need him to take the next step in that area. Backup center/guard Eric Kush, Mr. Tank Top on Hard Knocks, has a lot of playing strength and toughness.

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Settle down

The Hall of Fame Game: Everybody knows canceling it was embarrassing, and nobody’s happy about it, but stuff happens every once in a while. All the talk about someone needing to be fired as a result is complete hot-take nonsense. And put me down as not wanting to move the game if the Hall of Fame follows through on its standing plan to upgrade the stadium. Every week games are played in ungodly temples devoted to stoke the greed of rich people. It’s O.K. if one meaningless exhibition, that barely features few if any starters, is played on a modest field in a place that has meaning.

Eagles taking it slow with Wentz: Word out of Philadelphia is that Wentz is a distant third to Sam Bradford and Chase Daniels in the quarterback competition. Wentz might not even play his rookie season. I’m sure the ever-patient Eagles fans will be just fine with that. In reality, it’s a great plan, and the fans should be patient. The goal is sustained success. You don’t get that with shortcuts.

Live from San Diego: Chargers' chance to stay may depend on strong start to season

Go nuts

Chargers are to blame for Bosa fiasco: San Diego is about to start the preseason without No. 3 pick Joey Bosa signed and in camp. What an embarrassment. The two sides are facing off over the payout of Bosa’s $17 million signing bonus and offset language in the event Bosa was released before playing out his contract. The Chargers have dug in on both, which is just wrong. Usually for a player taken that high in the draft, it’s one or the other: A player gets most of his cash, but accepts the offset language; if he doesn’t want offset language, he gets all or most of his money now. Here’s the thing: How the Chargers pay the bonus does not affect the cap. It’s strictly a cash flow issue and it shows them to be cheap. NFL teams already have a stranglehold on these draft picks thanks to the new CBA. Under the old rules in 2010, the Rams gave No. 1 pick Sam Bradford a contract that paid him $31.2 million ($18 million signing bonus) in his first two seasons…. six years ago! The Chargers are being ridiculous, but it’s going to hard for them to back down now. Stay tuned.

What’s going on with the Steelers?: So far, Pittsburgh will be without running back Le’Veon Bell (four games) and receiver Martavis Bryant (at least a year) as the result of suspensions. Tight end Ladarius Green, whom the Steelers lured away from San Diego with a rare big-money contract, has not been cleared to practice, reportedly due to issues with recurring headaches. And star receiver Antonio Brown was nearly ejected from a practice for verbally abusing an NFL official. This is not a good start for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. And I can’t imagine these embarrassing situations reflect well on coach Mike Tomlin in the eyes of the Rooney family. The Steelers need things to settle down in a hurry.

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