Super experience added by Bobby Wagner puts Rams defense on another level
Six weeks after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium they added another layer of All-Pro talent.
Linebacker Bobby Wagner gives the Rams possible future Hall of Famers at every level of the defense heading into Thursday night’s season opener against the Buffalo Bills at SoFi Stadium.
Donald is a three-time NFL defensive player of the year. Wagner is a six-time All-Pro. And Ramsey is redefining the cornerback position.
“It’s fun,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said when asked about leading a unit with so much talent.
The Rams start prep for their season opener against Bills and should have all the starters ready to go, with the exception of Van Jefferson. The receiver’s status is unknown as he recovers from knee surgery.
Last season, the Rams ranked 15th in scoring defense, 17th in total defense, sixth in rushing defense and 22nd in passing defense.
The Rams lost several players from that unit, including Hall of Fame-bound edge rusher Von Miller — now playing for the Bills. Nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day and rotational outside linebacker Obo Okoronkwo also signed with other teams.
But the Rams still have Donald, arguably the most dominant player in the league.
Donald’s brief flirtation with possible retirement ended when the Rams gave him an extension that makes him the highest paid non-quarterback in NFL history.
Donald enters his ninth season with 98 sacks, not counting six he recorded in the postseason.
Donald leads a line that features nose tackle Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson, and includes Marquise Copeland, Michael Hoecht and Jonah Williams. Second-year pro Bobby Brown is suspended for the first six games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy.
“When you have a close-knit group like we have, obviously, you feel a lot more comfortable going out there with those guys knowing that they are going to be where they need to be,” Donald said, “and they can help you to get free and make things happen.”
Said Morris: “You find those complements for Aaron, and allow Aaron to be his very best self.”
After last season, the Rams were set to go with second-year pro Ernest Jones as their main inside linebacker. Then the Seattle Seahawks released Wagner after 10 seasons. Wagner, an Ontario Colony High alum, sought a return to the Southland.
“To be back here, to play in front of family and be close to family, it’s definitely a surreal feeling,” he said.
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Now, Wagner is mentoring the ascending Jones — and all of the Rams young players.
“He’s definitely taken a lot of us under his wing, third-year safety Jordan Fuller said, adding, “He’s going to make his plays but put his team first, that’s what I love about him.”
Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd will rush from one side of the line with versatile Justin Hollins and lengthy Terrell Lewis in rotation on the other.
“Those two complementary skill sets should be able to do some things that you want to do on the opposite side of Flo,” Morris said. “Will they be Von Miller? You can’t ask that out of them.
“You have to let them be their best selves.”
L.A. Times NFL writers Gary Klein and Jeff Miller answer readers’ big questions as the regular-season kickoff approaches.
The Rams were 7-1 last season before they acquired Miller. The veteran had five sacks during the regular season and four in the playoffs, including two in the Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I don’t feel like we need to fill anybody’s shoes,” Hollins said. “It’s just a next-man-up type of thing.”
Coach Sean McVay and Morris have managed Lewis’ workload because of a knee issue. Last season also was a mental challenge for Lewis, a healthy scratch the last five regular-season games and for the playoffs.
Lewis said he “got over that hump,” learned from the experience and was looking forward to this season.
“When you are around people like Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner and Jalen Ramsey, you know when you see them on the field you feel their presence,” he said. “I want to put myself over that pedestal where it’s like, ‘OK , now that I’m healthy, I can show you that every day and it won’t be no doubt after that.’ ”
Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson have had a history of injuries, so minor setbacks had the Rams being careful with their running backs, who have battled soft-tissue injuries this summer.
Ramsey played through shoulder issues last season and had left shoulder surgery during the offseason.
The seventh-year pro leads a secondary that includes cornerbacks Troy Hill, David Long, Robert Rochell and rookies Decobie Durant and Derion Kendrick.
Fuller, Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott are experienced safeties and Terrell Burgess and Russ Yeast will provide depth.
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