Cornerback E.J. Gaines said early in training camp that the Los Angeles Rams could have the best secondary in the league, even after losing starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safety Rodney McLeod in free agency.
That certainly has not been the case through the Rams' first two preseason games, but the addition of Gaines to the first unit could mark a turning point toward that goal.
Working extensively with the starters Monday, Gaines was able to build on his productive outing against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday. Gaines played most of the second quarter with the second unit and finished with four tackles.
"It felt good, man. It was exciting to get out there," Gaines said.
A pulled hamstring limited Gaines' activity during the first few weeks of practice at UC Irvine. His return to game action Saturday nearly one year after he suffered a season-ending Lisfranc fracture in his foot was nearly derailed by a sprained ankle, but Gaines felt as if he could go after participating in pregame warmups.
"E.J.'s first time back, I was really pleased with what we saw out of E.J.," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He went out and made some really big-time tackles, which was kind of reminiscent of the E.J. we had a couple years ago."
Gaines, who had 70 tackles and two interceptions as a rookie in 2014, was expected to start opposite Jenkins last season. Trumaine Johnson replaced the injured Gaines and had a team-high seven interceptions, leading the Rams to use their franchise tag on him.
Jenkins signed with the New York Giants, leaving Gaines, nickel back Lamarcus Joyner and free-agent addition Coty Sensabaugh competing for the vacancy at corner.
The resulting uncertainty has been evident so far in the preseason. Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott was 10 of 12 for 139 yards and two touchdowns starting in place of Tony Romo in the opener.
And Kansas City's Alex Smith went 9 of 12 for 137 yards and one touchdown last week. Both quarterbacks took advantage of open receivers. Joyner and Sensabaugh were unable to make plays on the scoring throws.
The defense hasn't allowed a point in the second half so far, allowing the Rams to stage second-half rallies to win both preseason games, but has yet to intercept a pass.
"Is the glass half-full or is it half-empty? Well I'd rather see no points given up in the first half than I would the second half because your starters are playing in the first half.
"Too many big plays, too many explosive plays. Not enough plays on third down, not enough turnovers by our standards," Fisher said. "We need to get better. The corner position still is up in the air, the other side, be it Lamarcus or Coty or E.J."
Gaines didn't try to deflect the criticism aimed at the secondary. When asked how much better they can be, Gaines said: "Man, a million times better than we have shown in the preseason so far."
The focus for the secondary this week will be on starting fast, Gaines said, while he is still trying to adjust to the speed of the game.
"You can't really simulate that out here on the practice field, but getting out there in the preseason will do me good," Gaines said.