Run through a quick spot check in your head. What's the one area of the St. Louis Rams roster that you're least worried about?
Granted, it's a much better group across the board than we've seen in some time. But if there's one strength that really stands out it's the defensive line, specifically the pass rush. So why the headline?
From Greg Bedard at Peter King's The MMQB:
I think the Rams are going to be challenged rushing the passer. I know coach Jeff Fisher thinks he has plenty in left end Chris Long and right end Robert Quinn, but it's difficult to see. In one-on-ones on Saturday, the offensive line dominated (save for the indomitable Michael Brockers).
The Rams are very talented in the secondary, which hopefully will allow the pass rush a little more time to get to the QB. That needs to happen, or the defense is going to have a tough time getting off the field. Third-round pick T.J. McDonald looks very impressive at safety.
This is a bit like interceptions in practice: is it a good sign for the CB or a bad sign for the receiver? In short, it's hard to get a complete picture. Several players were out when Bedard was there, including Eugene Sims.
The Rams led the league, well, tied for the league lead in sacks with 52 last season. Of those 52 sacks, 39 of them came from the defensive line. Chris Long had 11.5, Robert Quinn had 10.5 and William Hayes had 7 sacks.
And it wasn't just sacks the defensive was providing. Long led all 4-3 defensive ends and the entire league with 55 quarterback hurries. He had another nine quarterback hits. Quinn had 26 hurries.
The one constant is Long. He had 58 hurries and 12 hits the year before, in a different defensive scheme, to go with 13 sacks. That was Quinn's rookie year, but he still managed to collect six sacks, nine hits and 21 hurries.
We have enough of a history with Long to see there's a pattern established. The guy can flat out get to the quarterback, and has done so again and again. His sacks totals may change from year to year, but as long as he's crashing pockets, it should translate to sacks for guys like Quinn and the others.
Knock on wood, but Chris Long has yet to miss a game in his professional career. That's significant.
Based on personnel alone, the Rams shouldn't have a problem generating a pass rush from their front four. However, repeating 50-sack seasons is a rarity in today's NFL. The last team to do it was the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001 and 2002. The good news is that Fisher's Titans have done it before too, in 1999 and 2000. The Rams also had 50 or more sacks in both those seasons.
But the Rams will need more than a footnote in the history books to do it this year. There are a couple of wild cards in the mix.
Michael Brockers - Based on what we've seen in camp so far, Brockers is poised for a big year powering his way through guards and centers. You can expect him to get double-teamed early and often if his camp success carries over. That could mean fewer pressures and sacks for him, but tying up two blockers will help the other pass rushers.
Kendall Langford - Brought over from Miami's 3-4 defense, Langford took awhile to catch on. He did still manage four sacks, but he'll be counted on for more pressure up the middle.
William Hayes - Last year was Hayes' breakout as a pass rusher. His seven sacks nearly doubled his career total, which begs the question of whether or not it was an outlier season. He moves inside in some packages which helps his numbers.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar - He's out with the four-game suspension to start the season, and that will definitely impact the Rams pass rush. Dunbar had 4.5 sacks last year and 13 pressures.
New coordinator - The Rams had five sacks from the secondary, three from Quintin Mikell. Will they be able to blitz some with T.J. McDonald? Another question has to do with Tim Walton's preferences. The disguised safety blitzes were a part of the defensive playbook last year. The defensive playbook isn't supposed to change much with Walton, but it's still worth wondering if we'll see that in the mix. The Lions did not generate as much pressure with defensive backs last year, but Louis Delmas was on the shelf for most of the season.
Note the second part of Bedard's statement, about the secondary. With Finnegan and Jenkins tying down receivers, that should help give the pass rushers more time. We saw some of that last year too. There's something of an unknown here too because of the situation at safety and Trumaine Johnson having an up and down training camp.
Schedule factors into the mix too. I doubt the Arizona Cardinals are going to allow nine sacks in a game against the Rams this year.
In the end, it's hard to see the Rams struggling to generate a pass rush. The track record established by Long and Quinn virtually assures that the team can generate pressure. And the unit's deep enough that it can still contribute to a quarterback's misery should any of the regulars have to sit with an injury.