ST. LOUIS – The mission began simple enough. It was introduced, like such things tend to be, in a meeting room at Rams Park during organized team activities at a time when coach Jeff Fisher pitched his vision to a young defensive line. It was received, like such things are, with optimism and a sense that history waited to be made.
The mission inspired. It began as another Fisher tale from his playing days as a defensive back at USC and, later, the Chicago Bears. Earlier this spring, at Rams Park, talk from the 17-year veteran coach turned to the 1984 Bears and their single-season record of 72 sacks. Soon enough, Fisher, only months into healing a once-proud franchise, looked at his defensive linemen and instructed them to dream large.
“These guys did it,” St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn recalled the coach saying. “Why can’t we?”
With those words, the mission became a symbol of respect. The Rams’ defensive line will be one of the team’s muscle areas this fall, and the question showed Fisher’s faith in a unit that has one of the squad’s most diverse collections of personality and skill.
There’s fifth-year defensive end Chris Long, a grinder who agreed to a rich four-year contract extension Sunday. There’s fifth-year defensive tackle Kendall Langford, a laid-back 295-pound load who’s acclimating himself to the Midwest after spending each of his previous NFL seasons with the Miami Dolphins. There’s Quinn, a second-year defensive end, the self-proclaimed “boring one” who likes to crack a smile when he’s not on the field chasing quarterbacks (five sacks) or punts (three blocked). And there’s rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers, a jokester with raw ability selected 14th overall from LSU with the body of a bath plug.
Their mission? Make their first season together a terror for opposing offenses.
“I’ve seen the downs,” said Long, who had a career-high 13 sacks last season. “When it turns around, I want to be a part of it.”
“We would love to have a bull’s-eye on our back,” said Langford, who had 141 tackles with 7 ½ sacks in his Miami career. “Football starts up front on both sides of the ball.”
“We’re becoming such a tight-knit group that we can pick each other up,” said Quinn, who had 23 tackles last season. “We’re young, but the bonds are definitely growing a lot closer.”
“It’s a puzzle,” said Brockers, who had 79 tackles and two sacks at LSU. “Hopefully, at the beginning of the preseason we’ll have this thing rolling.”
A roll would be fine by Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis and defensive line coach Mike Waufle. The sooner, the better before the Rams jet to Ford Field to face Megatron and Matthew Stafford in Week 1. Those minds inherit a group that contributed to St. Louis’ 39 sacks last season, a total that tied the Oakland Raiders for 15th in the league in the category.
But look to the future. The additions of Langford and Brockers add to the group’s fascinating veteran/youth mix: Long is the silver fox at age 27, and Langford follows at 26; Quinn is 22, and Brockers is the pup at 21.
It all seems promising. As with any chemistry project, though, a reaction takes time. The Rams’ defensive line represents potential, but its ability to short-circuit offenses within a schedule this season that includes firepower like the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers will be a mystery until the shorts and shells of training camp are packed away for the fall.
So will the defensive line meet its promise? Brockers described the experiment best. He said continuity is coming “in pieces,” which is obvious when watching scenes from training camp like Monday afternoon, when Waufle screamed commands such as, “I want to see some lifting out there!” and “Good job, 94 (Quinn’s number)! Now you’re starting to look like a defense!”
“We’re all different guys, but we all jell and understand each other,” Langford said. “We can talk to one another when one isn’t doing so well or coach up and help. We’re all easy to talk to – cool guys, nice personalities, good football players, intelligent football players.”
That’s a good thing, because high football IQs will be required to help raise the Rams. For St. Louis, the defensive line has been a focus for most of the past half decade. Consider that the team spent four of its past six first-round draft picks on the area: Adam Carriker, Long, Quinn and Brockers.
Three of those players remain faces of the Rams’ future. Carriker – a defensive tackle selected 13th overall in the 2007 NFL Draft – was the lone blank round after he was deemed an awkward fit for St. Louis’ 4-3 alignment, before he was traded to the Washington Redskins in April 2010.
So that mission Fisher introduced in OTAs? The Rams have the talent to try.
“I definitely think there is no ceiling,” Quinn said. “I think we’ve got so much potential. We’re young. We’re still growing. We’re still getting to know each other. It’s kind of unreal – all the guys have so much talent. It’s going to be something fun to watch.”