Rams' Season Hinges on Marcus Peters, L.A. Defense Playing as Big as They Talk

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 19:  Marcus Peters #22 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrates defeating the Kansas City Chiefs with the score of 54-51 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 19, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Marcus Peters talks a huge game, but it's been a while since he came within an area code of backing it up.

In anticipation of Sunday's NFC Championship Game meeting with the Saints in New Orleans, the Rams cornerback tweeted "It's gumbo week let's eat" on Monday, with an attached photo of himself raising a triumphant fourth-down fist in the air. 

Someone must have reminded Peters that Saints receiver Michael Thomas burned him like blackened catfish in their last meeting, catching 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown, because he deleted the tweet a few minutes later. But balloons cannot be unpopped, and limelight-seeking cornerbacks cannot walk back ill-advised smack talk without lots of folks noticing.

The "gumbo" remark was a callback to Peters' response to Sean Payton's statements after the Saints beat the Rams 45-35 in Week 9. Paytona subtle sensei in the ways of trash talk—emphasized that the Saints game-planned to target Peters in coverage against Thomas because they "liked that matchupa lot."

"Tell Sean Payton keep talking that s--t, we're going to see him soon," Peters said after the game, per ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry. "You feel me? And then we're going to have a nice little bowl of gumbo together."

Peters missed tackles, slipped and fell, got caught out of position and was outrun by Thomas throughout that game. Promising all of that and a spicy bowl of seafood and okra in the French Quarter to Payton is the exact opposite of a threat.

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Before GumboGate (or Operation Gumbo Drop, or whatever) began simmering again, Peters had a lot to say about Amari Cooper after the Rams beat the Cowboys in Saturday's divisional-round matchup.

"I think he got strapped tonight," Peters said of Cooper. "He had that TD, but he didn't do s--t."

"I choked him out," he added. "He couldn't do nothin'. He was crying for his mama. That's how he is." 

Peters then said he was just playing around, which is the interview equivalent of trying to delete a tweet.

Marcus Peters let Michael Thomas get loose for more than 200 receiving yards in the Rams' 45-35 loss to the Saints in Week 9.
Marcus Peters let Michael Thomas get loose for more than 200 receiving yards in the Rams' 45-35 loss to the Saints in Week 9.Bill Feig/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Walk-back or not, "He had that touchdown, but..." belongs in the all-time annals of self-defeating trash-talk, just below he broke my nose, but I ruined his shirt by bleeding all over it.

Cooper's touchdown came one play after Peters yanked his facemask while Cooper blocked him, tacking 15 yards onto the end of a Cowboys fourth-down conversion. Cooper also scored on a two-point conversion and drew pass interference against Aqib Talib in the end zone to set up a short Cowboys touchdown.

So, Cooper was hardly "choked out." Instead, he was a big reason why the Cowboys stayed in the game even though their defense was getting run over. And Peters rarely covered Cooper, anyway. He was busy allowing rookie Michael Gallup to catch six passes for 119 yards, including a bomb to the 1-foot line after Peters abandoned him in coverage.

You get the idea: Like a middle schooler who just got an electric guitar for Christmas, Peters plays terribly but can't stop talking about how awesome he is.

Now, this isn't going to be one of those columns where the middle-aged (white) writer chides the talented young (black) athlete about poor sportsmanship and the perils of growing too big for his britches, then praises Philip Rivers as a national treasure for acting like a drunken lawyer dressing down a teenage security guard at a Jimmy Buffett concert on the field every week.

Brash overconfidence is a survival tactic for many cornerbacks; self-doubt can ruin a career when every mistake makes the opponent's sizzle reel. And trash talk is fun! This is an entertainment business. Peters is free to talk like a wrestling heel but play like a wrestling jobber, and wisenheimers like me are free to roast him once the receivers he covers are done with him.

But Peters' unrealistic self-evaluations are a symptom of a bigger problem plaguing the Rams: The whole defense suffers from a bad case of believing its own billing.

On paper, the Rams assembled a defense to rival the 1985 Bears. Aaron Donald is having an MVP-caliber season. Free-agent signee Ndamukong Suh was a three-time All-Pro earlier in his career. Talib, an offseason trade acquisition, went to five straight Pro Bowls before this season. Lamarcus Joyner, Mark Barron and Michael Brockers are all long-tenured, highly compensated starters.

Ndamukong Suh has been effective at stopping the run, but also has played a big role for a defense that ranked a disappointing 19th this season in yards allowed.
Ndamukong Suh has been effective at stopping the run, but also has played a big role for a defense that ranked a disappointing 19th this season in yards allowed.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In late October, the Rams traded for Dante Fowler, the third overall pick in 2015. And Peters himself intercepted 19 passes and was voted to two Pro Bowls in three seasons before the Chiefs tired of his personality quirks (and, possibly, his politics).

On the field, however, this mercenary squad has been a severe disappointment: 20th in points allowed, 19th in yards allowed, 19th in Football Outsiders' DVOA (28th in run defense), dangerously vulnerable against the Rams' better opponents, including the Saints.

Peters deserves a significant chunk of the blame, but not all of it.

Barron, an undersized linebacker playing through a lingering Achilles injury, has had a miserable year. Fowler has been a non-factor, just as he was in Jacksonville. Joyner, playing under an $11.3 million franchise tag, has too often been an easy mark in coverage. Suh is a sturdy run-stuffer getting paid like an elite game-changer, just as he was in Miami. Backups and role players rarely make an impact.

The Rams defense is full of guys who freelance instead of minding their assignments, are a step slow in pursuit, look reluctant to take on blockers, overrun open-field tackles and disappear for long stretches of games and hope no one notices.

In other words, Peters isn't the only guy with a big reputation or paycheck who doesn't always look dialed in. He's just the one who makes the most noise.

The Rams performed a delicate chemistry experiment when they picked up high-maintenance personalities like Peters, Suh and Talib in the offseason. There was always a risk of friction, finger-pointing, dumb penalties and the dreaded "lost locker room" if the Rams faced too much adversity.

None of that happened. That's a credit to the players and the coaches, not to mention an offense that averaged 32.9 points per week, making the frequent defensive whoopsies easier to shrug off.

But something has been off about the Rams defense for much of the season. It cost them home-field advantage for the NFC title game when the Saints beat them in Week 9. It almost cost them a first-round bye when they lost to the Bears and Eagles. The Rams defense should have been better, and for next few weeks, it absolutely must be better.

Alvin Kamara and the Saints ran past the Rams for 141 yards in their first meeting this year. If that happens again in the NFC title game, it would likely end the Rams' season.
Alvin Kamara and the Saints ran past the Rams for 141 yards in their first meeting this year. If that happens again in the NFC title game, it would likely end the Rams' season.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The soundbites and deleted tweets made it hard to tell if Peters and his teammates realize that.

If the Rams lose Sunday, they will become another cautionary tale about go-for-broke Dream Team splurges. And with their budget groaning, veterans aging and assistant coaches leaving, they may not make it back to mid-January for a while.

As for Peters, Sunday will define the rest of his career. He'll either back up the talk or be written off as being more about the talk than the game.

Peters did his best to slam the breaks on any gumbo talk when reporters asked him Wednesday about his feud with Payton.

"We ain't going to talk about no gumbo," he said Wednesday, per Christopher Dabe of the Times-Picayune. "We can talk about all that stuff afterwards."

Sounds like Peters is eager to quit jawing and start covering receivers the way he used to. And not a moment too soon. If he plays on Sunday the way he did most of this year, he won't be eating gumbo. He'll be in it.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier. 

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