Can Robert Quinn replicate his 2013 performance?

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In keeping up with my recent attempts at setting expectation levels for the Rams’ upcoming season, I thought I’d try to focus today’s column on the team’s brightest star at the moment, defensive end Robert Quinn.

Quinn, as you’re well aware, was masterful in 2013. His third season as a pro saw him rack up 19.0 sacks (just 0.5 behind Deacon Jones Award winner Robert Mathis of Indianapolis for the league lead), make a trip to Hawai’i as one of the Rams’ two Pro Bowlers, and earn the distinction of Defensive Player of the Year from the Pro Football Writers of America. Quinn has ripped, swam, and edge-rushed his way into the forefront of the league’s pool of elite defenders. His monster 2013 campaign has become the basis for the wide-ranging opinion that the Rams’ defensive line, with the additions of Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington, has the talent and depth to become one of the league’s best.

And there is validity to that thought. Quinn is just now entering his peak years as a professional, and there is every reason to believe that, despite his jaw-dropping 2013, we still haven’t seen his true capabilities. What was most impressive about his performance last season was that the majority of his sacks came while the team was either tied or playing from behind, which are situations that don’t generally favor pure pass rushers.

On top of that, his ability to set the tone of games and get after opposing quarterbacks early was equally impressive. Six of Quinn’s sacks came in the first quarter of the Rams’ games, five of which were on the opponent’s very first drive, and one of which forced a fumble on Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck that fellow defensive end Chris Long picked up and returned for a touchdown. And just for good measure, Quinn’s pressure on Drew Brees on the Saints’ opening drive in their Week 14 matchup forced an errant pass that was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald and set up a touchdown. For a team that needed early leads to have a shot at winning games last season, that early pressure was crucial.

The point I’m getting at with all of the above is that Quinn’s success as more than just a situational pass rusher bodes well in discussions of a continued upward trend. So with that said, how reasonable is it to expect him to turn in a similar season in 2014? Obviously there is no such thing as a credible prediction this early in the year, but I’ll try to make it as logic-based as possible.

Last season, Quinn’s three strongest games came in a three-sack outings against Arizona in Week 1, Seattle in Week 8, and Tampa Bay in Week 15.

Against the Cardinals, Quinn shot out of the gate and sacked quarterback Carson Palmer twice on the team’s opening drive from scrimmage, and also produced a sack/fumble that was recovered by Long and helped set up a game-tying field goal for the Rams. Quinn did his damage against tackle Levi Brown in that game, who would end up being traded to the Steelers after Week 4 and wouldn’t see game action the rest of the season. Quinn was held sackless in the return leg against the Cardinals later in the season, but he’ll have a new matchup to study in 2014 in the form of newly-signed tackle Jared Veldheer. Last week I noted Quinn-Veldheer as one of my top individual matchups to watch out for this season, as they’ll both look to set a lasting tone against one another in the teams’ Week 10 matchup. Since their first matchup is so late into the season, it’s impossible to predict the status of both players at that point in time. Tough not to give the early nod to Quinn, though.

Quinn also picked up three sacks against the Seahawks and tackle Paul McQuistan in Week 8, but when first choice left tackle Russell Okung returned for their Week 16 game, Quinn was held more in check. He still picked up a sack, but the defensive line as a whole was much quieter than their seven-sack performance two months prior. Quinn and Okung will go head-to-head again this season (barring health), in what has been a back-and-forth individual matchup since Quinn entered the league in 2011. The Rams face the Raiders in Week 13 this season, who now feature Donald Penn among their offensive line. Quinn burned Penn during his other three-sack performance while Penn plied his trade with the Buccaneers last season.

Looking ahead, Quinn will certainly have his work cut out for him. The Rams face one of the league’s most difficult schedules in 2014, with an early bye week and a daunting midseason stretch.

Among the very talented left tackles that Quinn figures to line up against are Washington’s Trent Williams, San Francisco’s Joe Staley, Philadelphia’s Jason Peters, Denver’s Ryan Clady and to a lesser extent Kansas City’s Branden Albert, and San Diego’s King Dunlap, among the aforementioned others. Opposing offensive coordinators will try to key in on Quinn, something which stands to benefit the rest of the team’s defensive front seven. If his presence alone can force teams to disregard to the stable of playmakers the Rams boast along the rest of their defensive line, then that’s a major contribution in itself. It just won’t show up on the stat sheet.

With Gregg Williams now at the helm of the defense, an aggressive and pressure-packed approach is what’s being promised. While Quinn will command a fair share of attention, look for Williams to find creative ways to free him up and get him into one-on-one situations. Again, the young talent lined up next to Quinn should make that a fairly easy thing to do in theory. Also, even though Quinn’s proven he can perform in most any situation, the team will hope to play from behind less with quarterback Sam Bradford returning to guide the offense. Getting early leads and forcing opponents into passing situations will obviously help Quinn’s cause.

While I think it’s a little unreasonable to ask Quinn to deliver 19 sacks or more for a second straight season, I do believe he’s capable of reaching that outer limit. However, in the interest of setting expectations and given the tough road this team faces, I think anything more than 12 is perfectly acceptable. Here’s hoping for the former.

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