Rams shuffle their secondary

12 hours ago • By Jim Thomas jthomas@post-dispatch.com314-340-8197

Even with season-ending knee injuries in two of his first three NFL seasons, cornerback Bradley Fletcher has managed to start 26 times in the league and led the Rams in interceptions, with four, in 2010 when he appeared in all 16 games.

But rookie Trumaine Johnson has moved ahead of Fletcher on the Rams’ depth chart, and with Fletcher’s contract expiring after this season it could be a harbinger.

And that isn’t the only shuffling going on at Rams Park. After being a surprise name on the pregame inactive list for Sunday’s contest with the New York Jets, fullback and special teams captain Brit Miller was released Tuesday. Miller’s departure frees a roster spot for the return of center Scott Wells.

Miller was the only fullback on the roster, but the emergence of tight end Lance Kendricks blocking out of the backfield contributed to Miller’s demise. So did the promotion of tight end Cory Harkey, an undrafted rookie from UCLA, to the active roster Saturday from the practice squad. That gave the Rams four tight ends on the 53-man roster, and in theory all of them can line up in the backfield if called upon.

As for the revamped secondary, Johnson actually moved ahead of Fletcher on the depth chart against San Francisco, although the change was somewhat masked by the one-game suspension of Janoris Jenkins.

In Jenkins’ absence, Johnson made his first NFL start against the ***** and was in for 50 plays on defense. In his eight previous games with the Rams, he had appeared in only 48 defensive plays — total. Fletcher was at his usual corner spot in the nickel package in that game.

Johnson, a third-round draft pick from Montana last spring, finished with five tackles against the ***** and held up pretty well.

“He wasn’t nervous,” Fisher said after that 24-24 tie. “He loves to play and he understands what we’re doing. We drafted him because he’s got talent to play corner in this league.”

With Jenkins returning to the starting lineup against the Jets, it was Johnson as the third corner in the nickel package. Fletcher was in for only one snap the entire game.

“We split packages,” Fisher said on Monday, tip-toeing around the subject. “We moved Trumaine into the nickel package where ‘Fletch’ had been playing, and we had ‘Fletch’ in three other defensive packages but we didn’t deploy them (Sunday).”

So Johnson is now the third corner?

“Trumaine is the third corner in the nickel, and ‘Fletch’ is the third and fourth corner in three of the other packages,” Fisher replied.

Of course, if Johnson continues to give up big pass plays as was the case against the Jets, the coaching staff might reassess the situation.

Johnson gave up a go-ahead touchdown catch by Chaz Schillens when he guessed wrong in coverage, and appeared to be responsible for a 32-yard reception later in the first half to Jeremy Kerley which led to a field goal and a 13-7 halftime lead for New York.

It’s probably no coincidence that the secondary change was made following the New England contest in London, a game in which Fletcher was called for three costly pass interference penalties. A couple of them didn’t look all that flagrant.

But after that game Fisher didn’t exactly jump to Fletcher’s defense when asked what he saw reviewing game film.

“I saw pass interference,” Fisher said at the time. “He’s grabbing. When you grab and the ball’s in the air, it’s pass interference. When you grab and the ball’s not in the air, it’s defensive holding. So in each case there was hand contact. Sometimes those aren’t called, but I can see what they (the officials) saw and why they called ’em.”

All told, Fletcher has been flagged for five pass interference penalties this season (one of which was declined), which ties for the league lead with Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, both with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Although Fletcher might not be playing much the rest of this season, he still is employed. The same cannot be said for Miller, the affable University of Illinois product. Miller, a fourth-year pro, was added to the Rams’ practice squad in September 2010 then promoted to the active roster a month later. Although he missed some time because of knee injuries, he seemingly had established himself as one of the team’s better special teams players — thus earning the captain’s designation.

All told, Miller appeared in 30 games as a Ram, with four starts at fullback. But Fisher has liked Harkey since training camp and wanted to give him a shot on the active roster. Harkey played on special teams against the Jets in his NFL debut, and was in for one play on offense late in the game — an incomplete pass thrown his way by Sam Bradford.

“Cory did a nice job for us on special teams during preseason and he’s done a nice job (in practice),” Fisher said. “So, it was an opportunity, and he actually did pretty well in the two (special teams) units he played on.”