Dolphins’ Long Jr. thriving, ready for ex-team after coach’s ‘repeat offender’ remark

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When your head coach calls you a “repeat offender,” you know your days with that team might be numbered.

So it was somewhat startling when Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel said, in January, that linebacker David Long Jr. (and then-Titans teammate Kristian Fulton) were “repeat offenders” with soft tissue injuries that kept them from playing multiple games last season.

Two months later, Long signed with the Dolphins, beginning a relationship that has been mutually beneficial.

Long -- signed as a replacement for Elandon Roberts — has distinguished himself as one of the run-stuffing anchors of the league’s sixth-rated defense, on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

He leads the Dolphins (and ranks 47th in the league) with 78 tackles, a pace that would surpass his career high of 86.

Pro Football Focus rates Long the league’s best linebacker against the run this season.

In light of Vrabel’s comments, is there any extra motivation going against the Titans on Monday at Hard Rock Stadium (8:15 p.m., ESPN, CW-39)?

“Yeah, a little bit, a little bit,” Long said Thursday. “But he knows the type of player I am. He knows what he’s going to get and I plan to deliver that.”

At the time of Vrabel’s comments, Long said it was “unfortunate [those remarks] created a narrative about how” he takes care of his body and that it would only add to the chip on his shoulder this season.

After missing a combined 12 games the past two years, Long hasn’t missed a game this season.

He said coming to Miami (on a two-year, $12 million deal) has been a good marriage because “the type of players we have, especially on the D-line, we have a lot of aggressive players. I just fit right in. We have a lot of playmakers. Not too many robots on this team. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

What impresses his teammates is the ferocity to Long’s game.

“In 2 yards he can bring all his power into you,” linebacker Jerome Baker said before his knee injury on Sunday. “If you see him in a hole, and a lot of people don’t see it, but you can hear it, you can feel it. It can be a quick hole open and a back is about to hit it. He’s not just stuffing [you], he’s ‘Boom!’ He’s an explosive guy.”

Long’s instinct is “he wants to get in on every tackle,” Baker said. “And he just plays hard, bro. Plays how a linebacker should play. It’s definitely fun playing next to him.”

Teammates on the other side of the ball notice, too. Hard contact with Long is best avoided.

“He’s very intense on the field,” offensive tackle Austin Jackson said. “Chasing him, he’s fast too. I’m like 6-5 and he’s probably like 6-0, 5-10. If I’m not bracing myself to make contact with him with my knees bent, that’s tough for me. He executes on those type of things all the time. Every time I’ve talked to him in the locker room, he’s always got a smile on his face. Cool dude, but on the field he’s a monster.”

Long said he developed that physical tackling mentality in fifth grade, after his mother moved him from one little league team to another in Dayton, Ohio, so that he could play with his cousin.

The upshot was that he ended up having to grow up quickly playing tight end and linebacker against bigger players, in a little league that permitted tackling.

“My momma took me to a different football team, the Dayton Flames, and we were national champions,” Long said. “They put me against the biggest dude. For me, it was you are either going to put up or shut up.”

He said his coach “put me up against the biggest guys and develop that mental state where [a bigger player] might hit you and you might go down, but it’s about how you adapt and react to circumstances. We played against older kids. It was the environment where it made me grow sooner. You know the kids that go to the back of line? We were the ones in the front.”

Years later, the seeds sown in little league in Dayton are felt by teammates and opponents.

“He’s one of those dudes that will hit anything and get up screaming,” Dolphins linebacker Bradley Chubb said. “He has that contagious energy that you need as a defense. It’s been helping us out a lot.”

PFF has a metric called run stop that uses a complicated formula to determine a negative play for an offense, based on down and distance and yardage gained. In the run game, Long has 22 such stops in 194 snaps where the opponent runs the ball. Nobody with fewer than 200 of those snaps has more run stops except, coincidentally, Pittsburgh’s Roberts.

“Throughout training camp, if I saw No. 51 and it was an inside zone and I had to go block that dude, I wasn’t exactly too fired up about it,” fullback Alec Ingold said.

When Long sees his former team Monday, “of course there will a little more fire on me. [But] to say I’m going to try to bring anything extra, it would be like I wasn’t giving it the week before. I attack every week the same.”