With all 11 starters returning on defense for the St. Louis Rams, one of the most anxious and excited to hit the field is veteran end Chris Long.
Long’s 2014 season began with an extensive foot and ankle injury in the opener in Minnesota that not only ended his streak of 97 consecutive starts but robbed the defense of one of its most consistent performers and a proven team leader.
“I don’t have any issues with it that I notice when I’m out there, so it’s in the rear-view mirror,” said Long, who has been with the Rams since 2008. “The experience will have made me better having to miss some time, something I’ve never done. I think it’s probably changed me for the better. It was hard. It was the hardest part of my life — I’m lucky to say — so far. I’m happy it’s over and I’m happy it’s in the rear-view.”
After missing Long missed three training camp practices with back tightness, but pronounced himself good to go Tuesday as he joined his teammates for their first workout in full gear. While the always colorful Long said the Rams didn’t miss him last season, the statistics say otherwise. A vaunted defense tagged with the preseason nickname #SackCity was anything but that through five games when it collected only one sack.
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“Maybe we retweeted something or favorited something on Twitter, but it wasn’t something that came from us,” Long said. “We don’t want a nickname, we just want to go out and earn it and earn our reputation. We know who we are no matter what. Even in those low points last year where people were questioning what the hell was going on with us, we know who we are. Nobody hits the panic button.”
The Rams finished with 40 sacks on the season and after undergoing surgery, Long returned Nov. 30 against Oakland and started the final five games. He finished with 20 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery in six games.
“I don’t think they missed me,” Long said. “I think we’re pretty darned good. One of the things is we’re so deep that the next man up thing is real with our group. I think that’s a cliche a lot of the time, but with our group we really have the depth and I believe in that sense, we’re as good as anybody.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher had a different view of Long’s absence.
“I think there was an effect,” Fisher said. “We lost some production; you figure there’s sacks that we missed, big plays that we missed late in games. But the other side of that is Ethan (Westbrooks) got a chance to play, we played some of the younger guys. It’s just really good to have him back.”
Long said quarterback sacks can be a misleading stat. This team has collected them in bunches at times, then suffered through droughts at others.
“Pass-rushing is a streaky thing and sometimes you’re playing well and you’re doing everything you can and you’re winning rushes, but the ball is out,” Long said. “There’s a number of factors that contribute to not getting sacks, so I don’t think I had much to do with that. I just think that’s a lull.”
Expectations are high for a defense led by Long, two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Quinn, 2014 NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald, veteran middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and an impressive group of young cornerbacks and safeties.
That optimism is muddled a bit by constant rumors of the Rams’ potential move back to Los Angeles.
“I’ve just continued to approach that question the same way,” Long said.