Quinn Realizing Full Potential in Third Year

Posted Oct 8, 2013

A quick glance at Robert Quinn’s performance to begin the 2013 season would suggest a player well into his prime, a seasoned veteran whose ability has fully developed.

The reality is a player who is just beginning to assert himself as an elite pass-rusher, and whose swift rise to stardom is only outshined by the promise that his ability projects for the future.

In 2011, Quinn was a rookie first-rounder out of the University of North Carolina who hadn’t seen the field in more than a year. Both the layoff and the transition to an NFL workload meant the learning curve would be long, and Quinn’s patience would have to follow suit.

As he anticipated, Quinn played sparingly that rookie season as he adapted to life in the NFL.

“I kind of looked at it like a redshirt year,” Quinn said of his rookie season. “Last year, I look at as my rookie year or my freshman year. That’s how I break it down, so I look at this as being my true second year.”

Still, in limited action during that rookie season, Quinn displayed the raw athleticism and NFL-ready talent that led the Rams to select him with the 14th overall pick. In 15 games as a reserve while behind veteran James Hall, the 6’4”, 264-pound Quinn collected five sacks and 20 tackles. While the sample size was small, it served as a glimpse of what was to come.

Staying Grounded

A key pivot point as a professional began that rookie year for Quinn, who was granted the good fortune of having his locker placed nearby veteran defensive linemen Hall and Fred Robbins. Both players were in the twilight of their careers, the final season of 12-year stints in the NFL. For Quinn, he couldn’t have been gifted with a better pair of mentors.

Whether it was advice on how to separate the football and business sides of the profession, or simply how to maintain one’s health over the course of a long career in the NFL trenches, Hall and Robbins became a sounding board for Quinn, who made a concerted effort to internalize all the wisdom he could from the two elder statesmen of the Rams defensive line.

“They just taught you how to be a pro, and I appreciated having those guys here my first year, showing me the ropes and how to carry yourself,” Quinn said. “That way the game doesn’t beat you down and have you messed up mentally because you have so much going on. With that little advice and with who I am, it’s worked in my favor.”

Today, Quinn makes a point to remain humble and keep his approach on the field simple. For a player with as much immediate success as Quinn has enjoyed this fall, getting used to recent results can be an easy habit to take up, but Quinn has made a point of emphasizing methods over statistical results.

“A lot of things have to go right for a sack to happen,” Quinn said. I don’t ever think I’ve got an (offensive) tackle’s number, because when you start thinking like that, that’s when you try to do too much and all of a sudden you’re not as effective. I just try to take it game by game and what happens, happens.”

Setting a High Standard

Quinn can only shake his head when thinking of the talent in his 2011 draft class. There’s J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, who led the NFL with 20.5 sacks last season, Aldon Smith, the San Francisco 49ers’ sack-happy wunderkind, and the Broncos’ Von Miller, who finished just behind Smith with 19 sacks a year ago. All three were selected to the 2012 Pro Bowl and helped guide their teams to the playoffs last season.

“I had a heck of a class, especially on the pass-rusher side,” Quinn said. “(But) I think I’m right on pace with everyone else, with where players will be for their second and third years. I’m just trying to keep it going.”

As talented as he is, Quinn’s progress had gone largely overlooked nationally entering his third NFL season, due in part to the outsized success of other pass rushers in his class.  For Quinn, the key has been establishing his own benchmarks for progress and not catering to outside definitions of success.

“I like to set my bar high, personally,” Quinn said. “For the most part, I don’t listen to the outside things, because somebody can talk negatively about me one week, and the next week they’re positive, on the fence and don’t quite know how to take it. I just try to improve each day and each game, and I don’t ever want to be comfortable and get to the point where I think I’m good enough, because that’s when you start going downhill.”

First-year defensive coordinator Tim Walton marvels at the speed with which Quinn has developed into both a premier pass-rusher in the NFL and an improved defender against the run, a process that has been equal parts natural ability and daily dedication and attention to detail. Gone is a player who relies solely on his upper-tier athleticism to carry the day.

“He’s been able to hold off blocks and close down the edge and tighten down the running lanes outside,” Walton said of Quinn’s progress against the run following the team’s Week 1 win over Arizona. “Obviously, you know he can rush the passer very well, but he plays hard and he works on his craft every day. With his athletic ability, his speed, and the way he practices, he’s just been getting better each day.”

Making An Impact

If there was any lingering wonder throughout the league as to the type of player Quinn is on his way to becoming at the outset of the season, he removed all doubt in the season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. Quinn sacked Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer three times, two of which resulted in forced fumbles. Quinn’s pressure has not let up since, and leads the Rams with five sacks in as many games.

While he didn’t record a sack during last week’s 34-20 win over Jacksonville, Quinn’s presence was felt throughout the game. Quinn tallied five hits and three quarterback pressures among 32 total Jacksonville pass attempts. His ability to create pressure in the pocket led to the game’s most pivotal play. With the Rams trailing 7-0, Quinn hurried a first-quarter pass by Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who overthrew his receiver and saw his pass intercepted and returned 82 yards by safety Matt Giordano for a game-tying touchdown.  Though Quinn has gained notoriety for the havoc he’s wreaked with opposing quarterbacks, his success has not been limited to the passing game in 2013.

Not content to remain a pass-rush specialist, Quinn’s progress in the running game has yielded tangible returns, as he has registered at least one tackle for loss in each of the Rams’ five games this season.

Perhaps no one in the organization has received a more constant reminder of Quinn’s progress as sixth-year defensive end Chris Long, who, while working alongside Quinn on a daily basis, has carved out quite the pass-rushing reputation in his own right. That early-season showing by Quinn may have taken many throughout the league by surprise, but don’t count Long in that camp.

“I’d be the last one to be surprised by Rob’s development,” Long said. “I’ve watched it kind of happen. When he got here, his ability to bend the corner, it’s rare. The length that he has combined with that, it can be scary. He’s also worked very hard on his craft and added little wrinkles to his game, so it’s going to be no surprise to me when he ends up with double-digit sacks and does all the things he’s capable of doing.”

A Lot to Look Forward To

Walton has the good fortune of beginning his tenure as defensive coordinator with not just one, but two elite defensive ends entering the prime of their careers.

Quinn’s emergence, paired with the production of Long, has ushered in a new era of pass-rushing stalwarts for the Rams. With 40 combined sacks over the previous two seasons, Quinn and Long form the most prolific set of pass-rushing bookends drafted in the first round and developed by the Rams since Grant Wistrom and Kevin Carter during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The historical impact of what Quinn and Long have been able to accomplish in a short period of time is not lost either of them.

“I know I have to pick up my end of the bargain this year, but we talk about the great players who have put this uniform on, and a lot of them have been D-ends and D-linemen,” Long said. “We take a lot of pride in being part of a unit that hopefully, some of those guys watching can be proud of. I know they’re definitely happy when they look at Rob running around the edge. It’s impressive to watch. Just being mentioned with those guys is an honor.”

Perhaps most importantly, Carter and Wistrom were key members of one of the most successful eras in franchise history. It’s that measure of success and not the one that tallies sack totals and other personal achievements that motivate Quinn, Long, and the rest of the Rams’ locker room.

A glance at those personal achievements will tell you that Quinn and Long collaborated for 22 of the Rams’ league-most 52 sacks in 2012. Those numbers helped the Rams to their best regular-season finish since 2006. Given the relative youth of the Rams’ defense as a whole in 2013, the team hopes to be in the midst of a prolonged period of success, with the 23-year-old Quinn representing no small part of that development.

Quinn doesn’t do projections. The same grounded approach that Robbins and Hall emphasized his rookie year is the one that prevents him from taking stock of recent successes and drawing conclusions on where his career path is headed.

Others elect not to hesitate.

“He has really taken a big step forward, but he does it every day at practice,” Walton said. “He plays with a great motor, which all of those guys do. But the technique part of it and the details of the game is where he’s starting to be able to hone in on, and he already has the athletic ability. So, once he cleans that part up, he can run with the best of them. He has a very athletic skill set, so when you add in that other part and playing with a lot of strength, that makes him hard to stop.”