The Rams’ Robert Quinn is part of a new wave of NFL defensive ends – quick and agile 265-pounders who can bend their bodies at impossible angles to get around offensive tackles on their way to the quarterback.
Quinn is second in the NFL with 13 sacks, leads with six forced fumbles and is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Quinn has had only one ho-hum outing this season, on Sept. 26 against the player he’ll face today, left tackle Joe Staley, when the 49ers host the Rams at Candlestick Park.
That’s because Staley is part of a new generation, too, pass protectors who are light and athletic enough to mirror edge rushers like Quinn. According to Pro Football Focus, Staley has allowed two sacks this season, none in the last six games.
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“Joe’s phenomenal,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “He’s someone you never have to worry about him doing his job. He’s going to do it every time and he’s going to excel at it.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh called Staley – the rare NFL player who sings Adele tunes at full voice in the locker room – a “great leader.”
“And he’s got a great ability to be loose and focused at the same time – a real good example of what that combination is,” Harbaugh said. “And (Quinn) is a great test to him this week. I’m sure he’s challenged by it, and his competitive nature. We’ll be looking forward to it.”
Early in his career, Staley dreaded games against the Rams.
That’s because St. Louis’ right defensive end was a powerful, 281-pound veteran named James Hall. While Staley could keep pace with speedy pass rushers, Hall usually attacked Staley with brute strength. Early on in their battles, the veteran got the better of the 49ers’ young left tackle.
“He’s just a big bull rusher, he has a lot of size, he’s kind of a shorter guy so he has great leverage,” Staley said of Hall in 2010. “He’s a veteran dude, he’s been in the NFL for 11 years and he knows all the tricks of the trade. He knows how to set you up.”
Big, physical 4-3 defensive ends like Hall, however, were becoming rare at that time. And Hall even dropped into the 260-pound range by the end of his career.
Hall retired in 2012, and during last offseason general manager Trent Baalke hired him for the 49ers’ scouting department.
Hall said that when he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2000, the NFL was full of mammoth, 340-pound offensive tackles like Flozell Adams, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden.
“Then you started seeing the evolution of the guys that probably were tight ends in college and were asked to put on some weight,” Hall said. “The league has transitioned to more of a pass-dominated league. It’s all part of the changes, the evolution, of the NFL.”
He said when Staley was a rookie in 2007, it was clear that pass rushers weren’t going to get around him. “He was too athletic, his arms were too long,” Hall said.
During the offseasons, Staley added the strength to complement his speed. Mostly, Hall said, Staley had the toughness that not every tight end-turned-tackle possesses.
Hall discovered that in November 2010 when, early in the fourth quarter of a game at Candlestick Park, his leg collided with Staley’s, sending the left tackle into the locker room for a few plays.
Staley returned and was on the field as the 49ers drove five plays in overtime and eventually won the game on Joe Nedney’s 29-yard field goal. Afterward, Staley was diagnosed with a fractured leg and missed the rest of the season.
“He was in a great amount of pain and came back out and played and played just as hard as he was playing before,” Hall said. “That’s a real football player in my book. Because you’re in the trenches pushing up against 300-pound guys, 275-pound guys. That says a lot about a guy.”
Staley has joked – perhaps with a healthy dose of truth – that he couldn’t be happier now that Hall has taken off his shoulder pads and become a scout.
Hall said he doesn’t miss Staley, either.
“My back is hurting right now,” he said. “And 95 percent of that is because of Joe.”