Shane Gray provides special Rams commentaries on 101sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneGmoSTLRams.
Will the St. Louis Rams’ front four be dominant? Could it prove to be the NFL’s premier defensive line? Time – as always – will tell the tale, but it looks as if this stunningly talented group is ready to put it all together this fall.
In the Rams’ front four, we see a complete collection of premium draft picks – three first-rounders and a third. Few defenses boast such a heralded assemblage of talent.
At defensive end, Chris Long and Robert Quinn may be the best pass-rushing tandem in all of football. In 2012, the combo combined for 22 sacks. What’s scary for opposing defenses is that this dynamic duo is only going to get better.
Last season, Long led the NFL in hurries for a third consecutive campaign. Through five seasons, he has continually grown his game. Now in his sixth year and just entering his prime at age 28, Long expects to continue to ascend.
“I can get a ton better,” Long recently said.
Part of Long’s constant betterment comes by way of an ever-expanding repertoire. For example, late last season we saw him successfully incorporate the growing-in-popularity pre-snap “standup” routine. This new wrinkle could help Long get to the quarterback a split-second sooner more often. If so, the sack totals we’ve customarily grown to expect from him could swell.
“It’s a little change-up that can work in some situations,” Long said.
Across from Long, Quinn possesses as high of a pass-rushing ceiling as any player in the league. At just 23, Quinn oozes athleticism, speed, explosive power and quickness. Who will ever forget him nearly chasing down Adrian Peterson’s long touchdown run a year ago? Practicing daily against four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long daily should only make him better.
But how good can Quinn actually become, particularly as a pass rusher?
According to defensive coordinator Tim Walton, he can be the game’s best. In Walton’s eyes, Quinn is a legitimate contender to challenge for a sack title at some point in his career.
“No question about it, because his speed is unbelievable,” Walton said. “He can really rush the passer, he can really close off the edge, and he plays physical. He has great endurance, (is) very athletic, and you just don’t find guys with that type of ability to close and he can do it all in time. He can be a special player for us.”
Second-year defensive tackle Michael Brockers owns a year of starting experience and renewed health after fighting through a troublesome ankle issue during much of last season. Brockers could quickly transform into one of the game’s best DTs and is one of the league’s top breakout player candidates. Thus far, Brockers is playing lights out after coming to camp bigger and stronger than a year ago.
“He’s worked very hard,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s changed his body and we think he can be a dominating player in the front. He’s gained a tremendous amount of strength.”
“He’s a stud up front,” Walton added. “He’s a big athlete. He gives you a lot of flexibility. Also, being able to play a 2-technique, 1-technique, 3-technique, put him right over the center in the zero – so he gives you a lot of flexibility because he’s athletic. He can run, you can widen him out a little bit and get him on the edge, so that’s a valuable option for him also.”
Fellow DT Kendall Langford, 27, returns for both his second season in St. Louis and his second season at his new position. Last year, Langford made the not-so-easy switch from a 3-4 end to a 4-3 tackle. Although the adjustment took time, he was playing very well by the latter part of the schedule. In 2013, Langford should be even more comfortable inside, and thus, further improved.
With both DTs capable of pushing the pocket more consistently, it seems reasonable to think Long and Quinn could at least match their 2012 total of 22 sacks – and possibly up those totals by a fairly significant number.
The key to this line being an all-around premier troop, however, is its run defense. It has room to grow in that regard.
“Our rush defense wasn’t nearly where we wanted it be (last year),” Long said recently. “My goal is just to help this team win and help this D-line be recognized as an elite unit.”
Considering the fact that the line should be one of the game’s prime pass-rushing units, a strong showing versus the run will result in this group being rightfully regarded as one of the game’s elite.
With Brockers being experienced and stronger and Langford more adjusted to the inside game, it seems reasonable to expect that the starting D-line’s run defense will be enhanced.
If so and when considering the aforementioned pass-rush potential, this front four could at least be mildly reminiscent of one of the game’s historical best, the Fearsome Foursome. That, of course, would make Rams fans of all eras a very happy bunch.