THOUSAND OAKS — It’s first-and-10 in the red zone, the Rams defense trying to get off the field and limit the San Francisco 49ers to a field goal and keep it a one-possession game.
As the teams line up, linebacker Ernest Jones turns his back to the line of scrimmage to confer with safety Jordan Fuller. The ball is snapped just as Jones turns forward again, and he and Fuller are caught flatfooted as a screen is thrown to Deebo Samuel in the left flat.
Jones and Fuller try to recover, beelining toward the ball carrier. But Samuel cuts back past the pair as their momentum carries them past him as the Niners receivers reaches the end zone for the ultimately decisive touchdown.
San Francisco had presented what the Rams call a “gray look”, where the play could move to either side of the field. The kind of formation where teammates could read things differently. One that, if Samuel doesn’t score, the Rams shake it off and move to the next play.
But for Jones, it wasn’t a play he could let slide in the aftermath of the Rams’ Week 2 loss.
“I think it always starts with me. I gotta be a lot better as far as communicating with the guys, getting them in and out of the huddles and alerting different things,” Jones said. “I just hold myself to a higher standard so I gotta be out there not missing tackles that lead to scores.”
Jones entered his third season with a host of new responsibilities bestowed upon him. His teammates voted him team captain, and his coaches designated him as “the green dot”, the player on defense with a headset in his helmet to hear and relay play calls to the rest of the unit.
Teammates like Christian Rozeboom and coaches like coordinator Raheem Morris observe that Jones is making the right reads on most plays, and acknowledge that it’s impossible to right 100% of the time.
“It’s really starting to open your eyes and go tip to tip of the formation to see what’s going on, to see the big picture,” Morris said. “He’s really done a great job of taking his looks to own, for the most part. There’s always ones you miss, there’s always ones you want back.
“I find myself talking with him, if not more than I did with [former Ram Bobby Wagner], then the same amount because he can take it and give it to whoever he needs to give it to and do it at a really elite level, a fast level,” Morris added. “Despite what he may believe.”
But being able to weigh accountability for his mistakes without being too hard on himself does not come naturally to Jones.
“Truth be told, I’ve been trying to balance that my whole life. I’ll never get it figured out,” Jones said. “I just gotta figure out how to manage them, deal with it and just go on. I used to couldn’t look at the plays, but now I’m able to look at it and get mad every time I look at it but now I know, plays like that, just hustle, get there, go make the plays I know I can make.”
That is progress that Jones will take. He’s made plenty of it on the field since his rookie year. He was second on the Rams in tackles last season and leads the team with 19 through the first two games of the year.
In the process, he’s earned the trust of his teammates, young and old.
“I think Ernest is going to be a star in this league,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “He got all the abilities, he bulked up a little bit. He’s been flying around. His leadership role is what you want out of a mike linebacker, out of a guy that’s calling all the plays. He’s just gotta keep working.”
“He’s got high standards for himself, but just the overall leadership that’s so natural to him. He’s got a magnetism,” head coach Sean McVay added. “He’s got an authentic energy about himself that I absolutely love. He’s got great coachability and accountability. If there’s something that doesn’t go down the way that we want, he’s the first person to look inward which is what I love.”
Sometimes, it’s a gift and curse of Jones’ leadership. But he’s keeping his goals simple as he adjusts to the new role.
“I just want to communicate better for the young guys, get these guys lined up quicker,” Jones said. “And then overall, not be thinking too much so when the ball is snapped I can go play fast and get to the ball and make tackles.”
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