Long shines in dull year for Rams

BY JIM THOMAS
Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chris Long didn't make the Pro Bowl, but he has made believers out of some doubters.

With only Sunday's season finale against San Francisco remaining, Long has put together one of the best pass-rushing seasons for the Rams in the 17 seasons the franchise has been in St. Louis. Entering the ***** game, Long has 13 sacks, tied with former teammate Leonard Little for third best for a "St. Louis" Ram. Little, now retired, had 13 sacks in 2006.

Only Kevin Carter, with a league-high 17 sacks in 1999, and Little with 14˝ in 2001, have had more sacks for the Rams in St. Louis.

"I think he's blossoming,'' coach Steve Spagnuolo recently said of the defensive end. "The best thing that's happened to him, he's been in the same system for three years. We've been smart enough to keep him at the same spot, and he's gotten comfortable. We're seeing what I think everybody expected to see out of Chris Long when he came in the league."

The No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft out of Virginia, Long has been more productive as a pass rusher each season in the league — from four sacks as a rookie to five in '09 to 8˝ last season, and now 13 this season.

"I've just been trying to improve every year," Long said. "Truly and honestly, just improve my game every year. Last year, I was close. If I fall into two or three (more) sacks last year, people probably would've been calling it a breakout year."

But the magic number for sacks always has been 10 (or more). Reach double figures in sacks and you're recognized as one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL — and Long got there this season. With his current sack total, Long is tied for sixth in the NFL with Baltimore's Terrell Suggs.

Hurting Long's Pro Bowl chances was the fact that all five players ahead of him in sacks this season are from the NFC, and three of those five play defensive end.

Three defensive ends are chosen to both the AFC and NFC rosters every year, and the three ends to make the NFC roster this season are the same ones ahead of Long in sacks: Minnesota's Jared Allen (18˝), Philadelphia's Jason Babin (18) and the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul (15˝).

The other two NFC players ahead of Long in sacks are outside linebackers: Dallas' DeMarcus Ware (18) made the Pro Bowl; San Francisco's Aldon Smith (14), the University of Missouri product, did not.

"I'm very realistic with myself," Long said. "I'm not going to say that I've done everything right this year; I've certainly been a benefactor of a lot of things."

But Long added: "I have improved. That's my goal, to improve. If I can help this team win and be accountable, that's my goal."

Of course, playing for a losing team also hurts a player's Pro Bowl chances, and Long is part of a 2-13 Rams team that is tied for the worst record in the league with Indianapolis. He hasn't been part of as much losing as teammate Steven Jackson, but 2-14 (in '08), 1-15 in ('09) and now this season's 2-13 haven't been picnics.

"You've gotta have a lot of mental fortitude to play in this league," Long said. "It's just something I've learned. And through the adversity and the losing, you can never let that take your passion away for the game and for competition.

"You just have to know that every week you've got another chance, and even if it's not going well, you just keep grinding away. It's easy to play hard when you're winning but I think the measure of this team when things aren't going well — the measure of these guys as men is that they continue to work."

Beginning with a three-sack performance against New Orleans on Oct. 30, Long went through a streak of six consecutive games with at least one sack. But a late-season ankle injury has kept him off the practice field for most of the past few weeks.

"Chris Long is a warrior and is emerging as one of our strongest leaders," Spagnuolo said. "That's probably the two highest compliments I can pay to him. ... He's been a bright spot for us."