Long's Ascent No Laughing Matter

Posted Nov 18, 2010

Through nine games in the 2010 NFL season, the Rams sit tied for first in the NFL in sacks with 28.

Considering the pedigree of coach Steve Spagnuolo and his reputation for generating pass rush as a coordinator in New York, that stat in itself might not be too surprising. As the resident expert on the subject, Spagnuolo offers a pretty reasonable explanation for his team’s success bringing down the quarterback.

“To me sacks always come back to 80 percent want (to),” Spagnuolo said. “You can draw up all different kinds of things and so that comes back to the players. We have some guys that can find their way to the quarterback and get it done.”

Of course, desire and effort are a big part of rushing the passer but if you ask the assembled, diverse collection of players providing most of that pressure, you’ll find there’s another extremely important ingredient to successfully creating havoc for opposing quarterbacks.

“We have a lot of different personalities,” end C.J. Ah You said. “You’ve got to have fun and we have a great group of core guys and some young guys. Everyone is cracking jokes and just trying to keep it fun. When you have fun, you play a lot better.”

It’s no coincidence that the player who is perhaps having the most success of the Rams’ pass rushers is also the one who keeps the jokes coming on a regular basis.

Now in his third season in the league, defensive end Chris Long is fulfilling the monumental expectations that go with being the son of a Hall of Famer and the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft.

On the field, Long has developed into a devastating, relentless pass rusher who spends nearly as much time in an opposing backfield as the quarterback. He’s posted 5.5 sacks, including at least one in each of the past four games. He also leads the Rams in quarterback hits (14) and pressures (13).

“It’s been fun to watch him develop,” veteran defensive end and noted Long mentor James Hall said. “I would say since the first game against Arizona he did some things that I noticed that I am impressed with. It’s just fun to see him develop week in and week out. It’s fun watching him just developing his own style of rushing the passer and having success.”

Off the field, it’s Long who has taken it upon himself to keep his teammates loose with well executed jokes and pranks in the right situations.

Long’s propensity for keeping the mood light is limited to when he deems the situation to be appropriate. But he also does not discriminate in his targets.

Veteran tackle Fred Robbins has been on the receiving end of a number of those jokes as has Ah You, who is Long’s roommate on the road.

During the Oklahoma-Missouri football game on Oct. 23, Long attacked OU alum Ah You via Twitter saying on the social networking site that “my roommate CJ Ah You is so mad about Oklahoma, his alma mater he just threw a bottle at me that struck me ... some people have no class.”

Long went on to play “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat for Ah You for most of the rest of the night.

“He’s like a little brother that’s like really annoying,” Ah You said, laughing. “He’s definitely the prankster, always making us laugh or doing something. If it’s not him, it’s somebody else. We are always having a good time.”

Keeping things light and having fun is imperative over the course of a long season, which Long says is the impetus for his playful jabs.

“We have got to have fun,” Long said. “We have to have fun because it’s a long, rigorous season. If you don’t have fun at the right times and keep it light at the right times, you will probably lose your mind. Defensive linemen by nature are supposed to be a little bit off anyway. I have heard D line coaches say if there’s not something wrong with you, I don’t want to coach you. There are definitely some unique personalities in our D line room and that helps a lot.”

While Long is second on the team in sacks (behind Hall’s 7.5), his breakthrough performance so far in 2010 can in essence be traced directly to the bond he shares with his defensive teammates.

When asked about his effort this year, Long points to a number of factors, not least of which is the performance of his teammates undoubtedly spawned from the amount of fun the group has together.

“I think it’s a team thing,” Long said. “I think we all feed off each other. We are all making plays because one play Fred will get great push and I might benefit from it or James and vice versa. It’s really a team thing. When we are winning and things are rolling and we have leads, it’s really helpful for the defense. It’s been fun to play team defense.”

Defensive coordinator Ken Flajole concurs that part of Long’s success is directly correlated to the work of his teammates but also offers the normal improvement of a player as talented as Long, particularly in his second season in the system.
“I think anytime you are in the second year of the same scheme, guys are more comfortable,” Flajole said. “I think the fact that some other guys around him have played well have opened things up. I don’t think people are able to necessarily chip or double to Chris because James Hall is doing a nice job and Freddie Robbins is rushing the passer.

“Chris is on a natural progression. We are real proud of what he’s done and what he’s accomplished. I think the thing that gets lost is that some of the other guys around him are playing better too which allows people to have to spend time on those guys and not necessarily Chris get all the attention. He gets more single blocked and he does a good job of taking advantage of it.”

Helping Long’s cause even further was a simple position switch that instantly made him feel more comfortable this season.

Coming out of Virginia three season ago, Long not only had to make the adjustment from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense but also from a more natural spot on the left side to the right side.

With end Leonard Little opting not to return this year, Long was moved to his more natural spot on the left side. That might seem like a small thing but being able to get to the place he knows where his dominant (right) hand can be used on the inside has also made a noticeable difference.

“It makes a difference,” Long said. “Just like any player has a side they prefer, I am on that side now and that’s not to take away from the fact that I wasn’t as good of a football player as I am now for the first two years of my career, period. Whether it was the left or right side. It’s comfortable for me and I appreciate being over there.”

Although Long is well aware of the perceptions and expectations that come with the territory of being who he is, he’s never let that affect his approach to the game.

His teammates regularly compliment him for the all out effort he gives on every play, be it in practice or a game. And for all of those outside expectations, nobody sets the bar high for Chris Long than Chris Long himself.

“I’ve always had high expectations around me but that’s good,” Long said. “I just do what I can in that respect to please the people around me. But at the end of the day, are you comfortable with your effort? Are you comfortable with what you are doing for your team or the way you are viewed as a teammate? These are all really important things and those are the No. 1 things for me.”

And that’s no joking matter.