Protecting Long a Rams priority

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- At any given point throughout camp, observers watching closely might see one of the Rams’ projected starting offensive linemen standing on the sidelines while the first team offense goes through a team drill.

Left tackle Jake Long is usually one of those guys and with good reason. Aside from quarterback Sam Bradford, there may not be a more irreplaceable player on the offense.

“That’s the coach’s decision,” Long said. “If there’s a day he wants to give me a blow or watch my reps or whatever, I follow it and just try to keep healthy and playing well.”

Keeping Long healthy and playing well will loom as one of the keys to the Rams season. After a long courtship at the outset of free agency, Long finally signed a somewhat complicated four-year, $34 million with the Rams on March 22.

In choosing the Rams, Long left Miami, the only NFL home he’d ever known since the Dolphins used the first overall pick on him in the 2008 NFL draft. For the most part, Long had played well in Miami, earning a Pro Bowl berth in four of his five seasons there.

But many of the good moments were wiped away by an injury-plagued final two seasons. Long missed the final two games of the 2011 season with a back injury and the final four games of last season because of a triceps injury.

Aside from the missed games, Long was unable to play up to the standard he’d previously set in no small part because of the nagging injuries that kept popping up. According to Pro Football Focus, Long allowed nine sacks in the past two seasons after giving up just 12 in the first three years combined.

Those struggles combined with the injury issues were enough to allow Long to hit the free agent market and find himself at the center of a tug of war between the Rams and Dolphins. Long has a fresh start with the Rams, but he is the first to admit he comes to St. Louis with a chip on his shoulder after hearing the whispers that he just might not have it anymore.

Long even seems to relish the chance to prove to people he’s still one of the best blindside protectors in the game.

“Absolutely, I love it, “ Long said. “People have doubted me and talked down about me a lot throughout my career. I am excited for it. I love the challenge to prove to people that I still am an elite tackle and I’ve got a lot more years left in me. I have proved people wrong before and I’m going to do it again.”

In this training camp, Long has looked every bit the part of the shutdown left tackle. After knocking off some rust in the early going, Long has been incrementally getting more reps as camp goes along and appears to be handling those reps just fine.

Even better for Long and his linemates is the chance to face a defensive line that helped the Rams tie for the league lead in sacks in 2012. On a daily basis, Long finds himself matched up with end Robert Quinn in one-on-one pass rush drills.

Quinn is perhaps the team’s best pound-for-pound athlete and gave Long some fits early in camp with his combination of speed and power. Long has made up ground, though, and as recently as Saturday’s practice held up just fine against Quinn in those drills.

Against Cleveland in the preseason opener, Long and the rest of the offensive line faced a defensive coordinator in Ray Horton who clearly believes in working on blitz packages in the preseasons. Horton and the Browns brought repeated blitzes all night and the first-team offense in particular handled the various pressures and kept Bradford from being sacked on any of his eight pass attempts.

In all, the first-team offense played 14 snaps and those repetitions, more than any of the one-on-one pass rush drills, are the most vital to Long and his teammates. Continuity and chemistry can be impossible to measure, but it can also be impossible to find if the group building it doesn’t get to work together.

So while keeping Long and the rest of the veteran linemen healthy is imperative, the Rams must also ensure they’re getting plenty of work together. With projected right tackle Rodger Saffold already out with a dislocated left shoulder, it would be easy to find even more reasons to protect the linemen in practice. Finding that balance can be difficult but Long is clearly a big believer that a line needs that time to come together.

“It’s everything,” Long said. “The more you can get reps, the more you can see the exotic looks, the more you can play with the guy next to you and the more you can feel how he plays and you can switch off twists and you can double team, you just get more comfortable with guys to where you are not making calls and you can just look at them and you can read each other’s’ minds. So the more cohesive we can be, the more reps we can get together, the better off we are going to be.”