Rams' D-line can rush the passer and has become much more stout against the run
By STAN McNEALFS Midwest
Last year: If the defensive line wasn't the Rams' strongest unit a year ago, it was 1A to the linebackers. The Rams improved from 31st to 15th in run defense, giving up 117.5 yards per game, and they finished tied for first in sacks (52). As for an encore, all the key players return and are expected to enter training camp healthy.
Coach: Long-time NFL assistant Mike Waufle returns for his second year with the Rams, and again will be assisted by Clyde Simmons, a two-time first-team All-Pro during a 15-year playing career that ended in 2000. Waufle, a Super Bowl champion when as assistant with the Giants, enters his 16th season as a D-line coach.
1. What's new?
Well, sacks leader Chris Long was married and restructured his contract to give the Rams some needed cap space. Plus, backup end William Hayes scored a three-year contract to return to St. Louis. Other than that, not a whole lot has happened since we last saw the Rams' front four enjoy a strong 2012.
All the starters and key backups are back and, given the relative youth of the group, still should be improving. The Rams did not draft a defensive lineman, and none of the four undrafted free agents the team signed merited special recognition during OTAs.
2. Is Robert Quinn ready to upstage Long as the sacks leader?
Quinn is coming hard after finishing his second season with 10½ sacks, more than doubling his total of five from his rookie season. Long, who finished with 11½ sacks, saw his total decrease slightly after recording 13 sacks in 2011.
Lining up as the right end, Quinn must match up against the opposition's best offensive lineman but, because of that, he could see fewer double teams. Quinn is considered more of a playmaker than Long, but the veteran Long is a relentless rusher and, to this point, has proven more durable. Their quest for sacks should lead to a spirited in-house competition. No matter who ends up with the most, both will be expected to finish in double figures again.
3. Will Michael Brockers step up?
Absolutely, the 320-plus-pound tackle should be better in his second season. He pretty much lived up to expectations in his rookie season considering a high-ankle sprain that cost him the first month of the season.
Brockers, in fact, should not be counted out in the race for the team sacks lead. He plays on the inside and last year made his biggest mark in stuffing the run game, but the 2012 first-round pick can rush the passer, too. He had four sacks in his rookie season, three of them coming in the second half of the season.
Quote: "We expect the same type of results. That's the strength of our defense, those guys up front. We have depth. We're going to keep it going. Those guys chase the ball and play with great effort." -- Defensive coordinator Tim Walton in the final week of OTAs
What others are saying: "The defense is legit and will only get more brawny with another year of Jeff Fisher's mentoring. They have playmakers, are well-equipped to deal with the read-option schemes they see, and they will turn teams over and get after the quarterback. -- CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora, in naming the Rams as a surprise team for 2013
Bottom line: The Rams' offense will enter camp with all kinds of questions, but the team has high expectations and the defense is considered sound. The No. 1 reason is a defensive line that knows how to pressure the passer. The next step to becoming an elite group is continued improvement against the run.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.