Last year, on December 23 at Raymond James Stadium, the St. Louis Rams secured a 28-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sacking quarterback Josh Freeman five times in the process. Surprisingly, not one of those sacks went to Robert Quinn, the Rams' furious pass-rusher at right end.
When the Rams are harassing opposing quarterbacks, something they've done better than any other team in the NFL over the last two years, Quinn is usually in the middle of the action. His 25.5 sacks since the start of the 2012 campaign rank as the third-most in the NFL in that span behind J.J. Watt's 30.0 and Aldon Smith's 28.0. That has powered the Rams to an NFL-high 94 QB takedowns in that same period of time.
But, again, he was shut out in the sack department in Tampa last December, finishing the game with two tackles and one quarterback pressure. Quinn credits some of that to the fine work on that day of his primary opponent on the line, left tackle Donald Penn. However, he has reason to believe he can fare better in his battle with Penn when the two teams meet again on Sunday, almost exactly a year to the date of their last match-up. Given that few teams have found a way to slow Quinn down this season – he's already at 15.0 sacks in 2013 – his confidence is merited, even if Penn remains a top-notch opponent.
"He's a very great athlete for his size, one of the bigger tackles I would say," said Quinn of Penn. "I definitely think he's a pretty solid tackle overall. I didn't do too much against him, but I was kind of still figuring out my groove. So, like I said, he's a solid player, but hopefully I can have a better game this year. We'll see what happens."
Buccaneer players, including Penn, have spent a lot of time this week singing Quinn's praises, as well. They've focused largely on the threat that Quinn poses to quarterback Mike Glennon, but St. Louis Head Coach Jeff Fisher says the former first-round pick out of North Carolina is more than just an edge rusher.
"Well, he's a tremendous athlete," said Fisher. "He's got great quickness, his strength, and he's improving weekly. One of the things people don't realize is what a good run defender he is, he's got a complete game, he's hard to block. He made one of the best defensive plays I've seen last week and a strip of [New Orleans quarterback] Drew Brees, I think that play itself kind of sums up what kind of player he is."
That strip play – a well-timed chop as he's converging on the quarterback's blind side – has become such a weapon for Quinn this season that Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano likened it to a signature Lawrence Taylor move. Quinn, in fact, has forced a whopping eight fumbles this season, which makes it doubly important that Penn and company keep him off Glennon's back.
"When you get an opportunity, especially being on the blind side of a quarterback, being able to tomahawk the ball out, you've got to take advantage of it and get the opportunity to get the ball back for your offense," said Quinn. "That's something I try to do every time I get a clean rush or somewhat, around the corner, just get the ball out. But there's a lot of other guys that do that as well – Alec Ogletree , he has a few on the year – and I'm not sure who else, but guys work on that, just getting the ball out and giving the offense more opportunities to put up points."
Ogletree is Quinn's rookie teammate, a fellow first-round draft pick who has fit seamlessly into St. Louis' defense and racked up a team-high 134 tackles. And, indeed, Ogletree is second on the team with five forced fumbles of his own. Quinn also has a talented bookend on the other side of the line in Chris Long (another former first-round pick), active tackles between them in Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford and a middle linebacker tackling machine in James Laurinaitis backing him up. Sacking the quarterback is what the Rams' defense has done best, and there are a few areas where St. Louis has been vulnerable, but Quinn says all that talent around him is what is freeing him up to go after opposing passers.
"Just having a great defense, basically, around me allows me to make the plays that I have – the rest of the d-line and the back seven guys covering," he said. "It's been a group effort, so it's not just my individual performance. There's a lot more that's not getting credit for what I have done this year."
And now he gets another chance to pit his talents against the Bucs' skilled left tackle. Quinn is chasing Kevin Carter's 1999 mark of 17.0 sacks, the most by a Ram since the team moved to St. Louis in 1995. He has just two more games to get there, so getting around Penn could be the key. Of course, Quinn knows the Bucs' strategists aren't going to make it a simple one-on-one battle all afternoon.
"I think we had our fair share of one-on-ones [last year], but I know that some of the time – I guess half the time – there was a running back sitting out there," said Quinn. "It was kind of back and forth. I guess they just try to split it up to keep you off beat. I'm sure any offense does that. It was back and forth. Sometimes, I think I'm going to get chipped and [the back] bails out of there or vice versa. I'm preparing for both, like we did against the Saints. You've just got to take advantage and make as many plays as you can."