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Rams DE Long confident he will have big season under Spagnuolo

When the St. Louis Rams made Chris Long the second overall pick of last year's draft, they were expecting to get much more than a game-changing defensive end. They were looking for a foundational piece on the side of the ball that presumably needed the most help.

The Rams were an offensive-oriented team, even if their 24th-ranked offense in 2007 didn't reflect as much. Scott Linehan, St. Louis' coach at the time, had impressive credentials as a former offensive coordinator, and quarterback Marc Bulger, wide receiver Torry Holt and running back Steven Jackson were capable of delivering prolific numbers.

But if the Rams wanted to win, they needed their defense to perform much better than it did in '07, when it ranked 21st in the league. Instead, it dropped to 28th, and the offense slid three spots lower to 27th.

Hello, 2-14 record. Goodbye, Linehan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Holt and another Rams icon, offensive tackle Orlando Pace, also were sent packing.

Long wasn't a symbol of failure, but he hardly was a game-changing force. Except for his team-leading 16 quarterback pressures, Long's rookie numbers were ordinary: 40 tackles, which ranked 11th on the team, and four sacks, which ranked third.

With the hiring of former New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to replace Linehan as coach, the Rams once again set out to make their defense stronger. And it's a move that, as much as anything else, is expected to allow the team to receive greater production from Long.

"I knew, before he (Spagnuolo) came, that when you think of defense, you think of the New York Giants -- and defensive-line play at that," Long said. "So, for me, it's really important."

Counting Long's final season at the University of Virginia, this is his third defensive scheme in three years. But through offseason practices and studying, Long has found this one easier to embrace because it offers a great deal of variety.

Between Spagnuolo -- who spent seven seasons as a defensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Giants -- and new defensive coordinator Ken Flajole -- who spent the past five seasons as linebackers coach for the Carolina Panthers and also worked as an assistant for the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers -- the Rams are incorporating multiple concepts that have been successful elsewhere.

"We've watched a ton of teams on tape, and I feel like it's eclectic," Long said. "It's a mixture and it's a lot of fun. It allows me to be versatile. There are a lot of new things for me to learn, and I'm comfortable just jumping right in and trying to learn those things.

"I feel like I'm going to be in a better position to make plays and win because (Spagnuolo's) been around it and he's been around great defensive ends, and I want to be one of those. I'm not (there) yet, but I trust in Coach Spags that if I do everything that he tells me to do and play his scheme, I can get there."

Long's first NFL season was filled with frustration. Losing took its toll on his psyche. So did the fact that he never felt he was contributing as much as he could to make the Rams a better team.

Most of all, Long felt lost. After college, he cut down on the amount of weights he lifted to help maximize his speed and explosiveness for the NFL Scouting Combine, then never got back to a routine that allowed him to build his strength. He also was overwhelmed by the speed of the game in the NFL and the fact that opposing veteran offensive linemen could often get the better of him with their technique.

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"It's everything," Long said. "It's hands, it's your angles, stuff like that, that you hear when you're a rookie, but you can't digest everything at once. I was uncertain my first season. Just coming in, I didn't know the half of what was going on. And now, having watched tape of people and football and just seeing it for a year in the NFL, I know, where Coach Spags has come from, there's a winning culture, and I feel like we're trying to build that on our team just the same way.

"Coach Spags is awesome. We all respect him (and have) since Day 1. And it's about trust. One thing he asked us to do when he came in is be a rookie again. And we're all trying to have that attitude where we just buy into things, and I think we're doing a good job of doing that."

Still, Long is realistic. He understands that he and his teammates are making a transition, that they will need every bit of training-camp practices and preseason games to grasp the new program, and the desired results won't instantly come.

"There are still going to be inconsistencies and ups and downs," Long said. "But I feel great coming into this season. I feel like I've learned a ton, and I feel like I'm ready to step my game up big time."

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