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Rams secondary still has plenty to prove with game against Buccaneers

Rams secondary still has plenty to prove with game against Buccaneers
Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and defensive tackle Aaron Donald tackle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin during a game on Sept. 18.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Rams cornerback Coty Sensabaugh gave Jameis Winston a rude introduction to the NFL.

Sensabaugh was playing for the Tennessee Titans in the 2015 season opener when he intercepted Winston’s first pass for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and returned it for a touchdown.

“Hopefully,” Sensabaugh said Tuesday, “he’ll remember and want to throw me another one.”

The Rams face the big-armed Winston on Sunday at Tampa in a possible tipping point game for the secondary.

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The Rams are 1-1 and tied for first place in the NFC West. But the secondary, as it was dating to the off-season, remains a concern.

“Average,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson said when asked to assess the group’s performance, “with a lot of room for improvement.”

“Decent,” Sensabaugh said, “but I don’t feel we’ve made enough plays on the ball.”

Said cornerback E.J. Gaines, who has been sidelined for the first two games but could return Sunday: “We’ve been on a roller coaster. We’ve made some really good plays and then made some bad plays. We need to be a lot more consistent.”

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The Rams’ defensive line will play a large role in trying to neutralize Winston, but the onus will be on a secondary still struggling to find its footing in the aftermath of free-agent departures by cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Rodney McLeod.

The Rams are giving up 204.5 passing yards per game, which ranks ninth in the NFL. They are one of seven teams without an interception.

But they have given up only one touchdown pass, one of only eight teams to surrender one or zero.

“The continuity is starting to click,” said cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who has played through a broken toe suffered early in the season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Gaines’ return would add stability to the secondary, something the Rams envisioned since February, when Coach Jeff Fisher, General Manager Les Snead and Vice President of Football Operations Kevin Demoff had a choice to make based on economics:

Keep Johnson or Jen-kins?

The Rams put the near $14-million franchise tag on Johnson — who had seven interceptions last season. And they were counting on Gaines, a starter for 15 games as a rookie in 2014, to be fully recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him all of last season.

Gaines, however, suffered a thigh injury during the exhibition season, and the Rams are still scrambling to solidify the spot opposite Johnson.

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“He’s been there, he’s done it, he’s played there, he’s excelled there,” Fisher said of Gaines on Monday. “We’ve missed E.J. there.”

Gaines practiced Tuesday and will be assessed at the end of the week, Fisher said.

“They can’t wait for me to get back,” Gaines said, “just like I can’t wait to get back.”

Sunday would be good timing.

San Francisco quarterback Blaine Gabbert and Seattle’s Russell Wilson offered the Rams dual-threat challenges. 

The secondary struggled against Gabbert in a 28-0 defeat. Wilson had suffered an ankle injury in Week 1 and the Rams benefited from his decreased mobility in a 9-3 victory Sunday at the Coliseum.

Winston, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, has performed at different extremes this season.

He passed for 281 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception, in a 31-24 season-opening victory over Atlanta.

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Last week at Arizona, he completed 27 of 52 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown, but had four passes intercepted and fumbled.

His passer rating of 72.7 ranks just ahead of the Rams’ Case Keenum (57.8), but the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State is regarded as a potent gunslinger.

Fisher got a glimpse of Winston’s talent and competitiveness in a 31-23 victory over the Buccaneers last season.

“He can push the ball down the field,” Fisher said, adding, “In our game last year, he just missed a few. And one can only imagine had he hit them.

“We can’t afford to give him those opportunities. He’s going to be one of the top quarterbacks in this business for a long time.”

If Gaines returns Sunday he probably will start opposite Johnson, with Joyner playing in the slot.

If Gaines is not ready, the Rams could turn again to Troy Hill, who replaced Sensabaugh early against Seattle. The Seahawks immediately went after Hill, a former undrafted free agent from Oregon.

Hill expects that Winston will do the same.

“We have a proven corner on the other side and I’m unproven,” Hill said, “so I’m anticipating that.”

Johnson intercepted a Winston pass in last season’s victory. He anticipates more challenges from a quarterback who does not back down.

“He’s going to definitely give you opportunities,” Johnson said, adding, “He doesn’t care who’s covering who —he’s going to throw the ball up.

“And I like that.”

Quick hits

Owner Stan Kroenke attended practice. ... Receivers Pharoh Cooper (shoulder) and Nelson Spruce (knee) practiced during the light workout. They will assessed after Wednesday’s full-speed practice, Fisher said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @LATimesklein


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