In retrospect, inside linebacker Bryan Kehl would take back only a few plays from the Redskins’ preseason opener at Buffalo last week, and, strange as it sounds, those plays involved him being “too fast and too quick,” he said Wednesday.
Kehl tallied a team-high six tackles and a sack, and he let an interception slip through his fingers. It was a solid debut for the fifth-year free agent pick-up, a performance he hopes to repeat Saturday when Washington plays at Chicago. Kehl is battling rookie Keenan Robinson for the backup inside linebacker spot opposite veteran Lorenzo Alexander. Kehl’s objective of getting the coaches to want him on the field is far from met.
Kehl’s primary adjustment since he signed with the team in April hasn’t centered as much on his position change as on defensive philosophy. Before joining the Redskins, Kehl played outside linebacker in 4-3 schemes for the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams. The Redskins run a 3-4 base scheme.
“In the defense that I’d been in, the coaches want the linebackers to come downhill right now,” Kehl said. “So on a running play, they want you to come downhill to your gap, one gap, right now. It’s black and white. You’re here, you’re here and you’re here. Right now. They want you to get there as soon as you can. And they would be really mad at you if you didn’t. So over the last four years I’ve had that pounded into my brain.
“Then I come here, and in the 3-4, the run game is totally different. For the inside linebackers, they don’t want you to come downhill. They want you to back up about five and a half, six yards, and they want you to shuffle and read. They want you to wait for the play to develop. And then once the ball declares, then go make a play on the ball. So that’s been the biggest thing for me is just that complete different mindset.”
Kehl’s teammates aren’t concerned about his ability to adapt. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan described Kehl as a “very smart, very analytical guy.”
Still, Kehl said, he hasn’t yet become familiar enough with the new approach that it is second nature. He said he now has to focus more before the snap on his specific responsibilities for a play than in the past. Occasionally, he still catches himself leaning a little too far forward.
“The thing is, it’s not that I don’t know to do it,” Kehl said of staying back once the ball is snapped. “It’s just that the other way has been built in. So unless I actively think to hold back or to slow down and keep my depth, then my body, because I’ve done it that way for four years, is going to naturally come downhill fast. . .
“It’s something that you just have to re-route and re-boot.”