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'Pitch count' has Jake Long fresh, healthy for opener ..
By Jim Thomas
Nearly five months after he arrived in St. Louis with more than a little fanfare, the big fellow is rested, healthy and ready to roll.
“I’m feeling great,” offensive tackle Jake Long said. “I feel healthy. It’s the healthiest I’ve felt going into a season in probably three years.”
Others have taken notice, too. When NFL.com analyst and longtime Dallas personnel guru Gil Brandt rolled through town three weeks ago on his annual camp tour, he volunteered this succinct observation: “Jake Long, I’ve never seen him look better. This offensive line could be better than most people think.”
Quarterback Sam Bradford certainly hopes so. Battered in years past, particularly during his injury-plagued 2011 season, Bradford can’t help smiling whenever Long’s name comes up.
After the Denver preseason game, he was asked by a Denver-area writer what it’s been like having Long at left tackle.
“Really good,” Bradford said, chuckling. “Yeah, it’s been really good. Obviously, everyone knows the type of player that Jake is. He’s one of the best left tackles in the game. Any time you make an addition like that to your team, to your offensive line, it gives me a lot of comfort.”
And comfort is good for any quarterback in the pocket.
The Rams didn’t want Long to leave any football on the practice fields of Rams Park in August. One of the reasons coach Jeff Fisher is popular with players is because he takes care of his players, knowing when to back off and not grinding them just to ... grind them. And that was especially true with how the team has handled Long to this point.
“I’ve got a pitch count on him,” offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said during camp. “I’m not having him have every single rep along the way. He knows how to run ‘power.’ Why does he need to run ‘power’ again?
“So I get him in there in situations where it’s a blitz period and there’s communication that has to be done — verbal and non-verbal. Making calls.”
Some days Long would get all the reps; the next day maybe 70 percent, and maybe even less the next day, before going back to full participation. To some extent Boudreau did the same with a pair of other veterans on the line — center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl.
“So they’re never really going full for two days in a row,” Boudreau said.
In the case of Long, who had injury issues his past two seasons at Miami, the idea was to keep him as fresh as possible entering the regular season. Long appreciates the difference between his first Rams training camp and the way things were done during his five seasons with the Dolphins.
“I think, we definitely take care of our bodies a little bit more (in St. Louis),” Long said.
The so-called pitch count, Long added, “was all the coaches’ decision. Some days I’d have some more reps. Some days they cut back and let me rest a little bit. Whatever they wanted me to do, I did, and my body feels good.”
Even if Long didn’t need a ton of work on power run-blocking, he still needed to get accustomed to working with his new teammates and his new playbook.
“Definitely, you’ve got to get in there and knock the rust off and get the reps, just to feel more comfortable,” Long said. “And I feel like I got enough reps, and am feeling strong and just ready for the real stuff to start.”
The chemistry is building among the offensive linemen, Long says, a group that has included two left guards playing next to him throughout camp and preseason in Chris Williams and Shelley Smith. It looks like Williams is getting the nod as the starter there, although there has been no announcement by the team.
You could make the case that chemistry is more important on the offensive line than any other position in football because of all the co-op blocking — co-op, as in cooperation — that takes place during a normal game. Blockers need to handle stunts, loops and blitzes by opposing defenders, and often must decide within a split-second who to block and who to pass off.
“We’ve got a great group of guys on ‘O-line,’ ” Long said. “You’ve got a group that all gets along, respects each other, plays for one another. That’s when you can have a special group, and we have that.”
The chemistry building takes place on and off the field, be it hanging out in the lunch room at Rams Park, going to dinner together or going to a concert or two together.
Since Long is the wealthiest of the Rams’ offensive linemen, thanks to that four-year, $34 million free agent contract, does he pick up the tab on those dinner outings?
“Oh, geez,” Long replied. He added without much enthusiasm: “Yeah, if they want me to I will. But I didn’t get stuck with it the last time. So that’s good.”
Long may not want to pick up any tabs; he certainly doesn’t want to spend any time picking up Bradford off the ground as protector of his blind side.
“I think he’s a special quarterback,” Long said. “He’s a leader on this team. And it’s fun watching him because when we give him time we’ve got some fast receivers, guys that can catch the ball. So it’ll be a fun time.”
The fun begins Sunday against Arizona in the Edward Jones Dome.
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