Thursday, June 14, 2012

As an NFL neophyte, Robert Quinn was part of a time-share at right defensive end with veteran James Hall last season. Strangely, coach Steve Spagnuolo didn't even dress Quinn — the No. 14 overall pick in the 2011 draft — in the season opener. He was a healthy scratch, and a pregame inactive.

When all was said and done, Quinn played about half the snaps last season and had modest success, with five sacks, 14 quarterback hits and three blocked or partially blocked punts.

His sack total was the third-highest in franchise history for a Rams rookie, and in a vote by the players Quinn earned the Carroll Rosenbloom Memorial Award as the team's rookie of the year.

Nonetheless, there was plenty of room for improvement. Twelve rookies had more sacks than Quinn last season, and he wasn't always stout against the run.

With Jeff Fisher now on board as head coach, Hall no longer on the team and a new defensive scheme in place, there will be no easing Quinn into action in 2012. He is the team's starting right end, and a full-time player. To say expectations are sky-high for him at Rams Park almost is an understatement.

"There's nothing but upside with Robert," said Mike Waufle, the Rams' new defensive line coach. "When you're a student of the game, you've got a chance to be able to progress faster. The second thing is that he has speed. He's 'God-gifted' like crazy from top to bottom, and this is a speed game."

A highly-respected line coach, Waufle spent the past two seasons with the Oakland Raiders but is best known for his work with the New York Giants from 2004-09. With the Giants, he coached the likes of Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiori. With Oakland, he coached Richard Seymour. So Waufle knows what a top-flight defensive lineman looks like.

Quinn has that kind of potential.

"I'm very pleased at his ability to rush the passer because he's working on a number of different moves, a number of different techniques, and he's had success—at times — with each and every one of them," Waufle said. "So we can see that progression. And through spaced repetitions, hopefully they're going to develop into habits."

But you can't play defense for Fisher if you can't play the run, and Quinn is making strides in that area as well.

"That's been an area of emphasis up front on the defensive line this offseason — run techniques," Fisher said. "It's hard to do it without pads on. But he's really come on. His strength has really improved significantly and he's going to be what they (the prior regime) drafted him to be. We're very fortunate to have him."

Waufle also sees the improvement in Quinn's run defense, albeit in the controlled spring environment without pads and with much less than full contact.

"I'm real excited about how he's playing the run," Waufle said. "Most pass rushers are tagged as not wanting to be run defenders. And he's taking the running game as being a serious issue. He's working really well with his hands. He's working to control blockers."

The Rams finished 31st in run defense a year ago, yielding 151.7 yards a game. The season total of 2,427 rushing yards allowed was third-worst in franchise history. Many of the big runs came on the perimeter. Sometimes it was a case of cornerbacks missing tackles, or outside linebackers getting wiped out by blockers.

But the ends — Quinn included — had their share of run defense snafus, whether it was getting pinned inside by blockers or getting deked by counter-action or misdirection. Interestingly, Quinn has lost about five pounds in the offseason in an effort to get even quicker. He's down to 260 pounds, which is on the light side for a defensive end.

"I don't want to get too skinny — they might move me to linebacker or something," he joked.

But Quinn doesn't think that will prevent him from being an effective run defender.

"I'd say it's your mentality," Quinn said. "If you're thinking you're small and allowing (blockers) to come off on you, definitely it'll happen. But I have the mentality to just attack 'em, and if you're lower than your opponent, they can't do too much. Leverage wins."

As Waufle points out, leverage won for the Giants in a 2007 season capped by a stunning upset of previously unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII.

"People don't realize that when I coached Michael Strahan, and Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck in the Super Bowl, Tuck was playing inside at 263, Michael weighed 251, and Osi was 254," Waufle said. "So, if you learn how to be a leverage player, which (Quinn's) studying and learning how to do, you can play against a lot of players."

Lastly, Waufle has been pleasantly surprised by Quinn's work habits and approach in the classroom.

"He's very quiet, but he's a great listener," Waufle said. "And he's able to feed back an awful lot of information. ... He's able to almost teach the class."

The exams began Sept. 9 with the regular season opener in Detroit. And several teammates can't wait to see how Quinn fares.

"I'm really looking forward for him to have a breakout season," running back Steven Jackson said. "If there's anybody I'd tell our fans to look for, it'd be Robert."

"Robert's taken some big strides," defensive end Chris Long added. "He's going to be the guy. He really will be.

"I'm dead serious. If he takes the steps I think he's going to take this year, I think he's going to be the guy."