Brian Orakpo is working to truly reach elite status

August 14, 2012

When people think of Brian Orakpo, they think sacks. Not necessarily the ones he gets, but the additional times they wish — or believe — the Washington Redskins’ pass-rushing linebacker should have gotten to the quarterback.

Orakpo’s critics often point out that although he has led the Redskins in sacks in each of the last three seasons, he hasn’t had a season with double-digit sacks since his rookie year in 2009, when he recorded 11. Orakpo tallied 8.5 sacks in 2010 — his first at outside linebacker — and nine last season.

Despite his two Pro Bowl appearances, Orakpo fields similar questions every year: Are you really an elite pass rusher? What are you doing to elevate your game? Why haven’t you had more sacks against division opponents?

Orakpo understands the high expectations. The Redskins drafted him 13th overall out of Texas, and he plays in a division that boasts pass rushers such as Dallas’s DeMarcus Ware (19.5 sacks in 2011), Philadelphia’s Jason Babin (18) and New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5). Orakpo has a simple perspective on all the expectations, however.

“I don’t really care about other people’s expectations,” said the 6-foot-4, 257-pound veteran, one of only five Pro Bowl players from the 2009 draft class. “I’m my own worst critic. I just try to play my game and get better as I get older.”

Orakpo believes the criticism is actually too narrow. He reviewed every game he played last season and saw that he had flaws in many areas, not just pass rushing.

So after recovering from surgery this past winter to repair a partially torn pectoral muscle, Orakpo began working to improve his overall game.

“I’ve been working on everything,” Orakpo says. “I have been working on my hands, working with different techniques, working with different counters. . . . Instead of just working primarily on my pass rush, I want to work on everything — my run defense, pass drops, everything it takes to be an elite player.”

Orakpo fully believes achieving elite status is possible this season. The 2010 season marked his introduction to outside linebacker, when defensive coordinator Jim Haslett implemented the 3-4 defense. Last year represented a step forward for Orakpo and the rest of the Redskins’ defense. The team went from 31st in the NFL’s defensive rankings in 2010 to 13th in 2011.

In 2010 Orakpo compiled 56 tackles, 8.5 sacks, two pass breakups and one forced fumble. His 2011 line: 59 tackles, nine sacks, five pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

Though the numbers are not what they could have been, Haslett said some of the circumstances were beyond Orakpo’s control. “People forget, last year he had no offseason, no minicamp” because of the NFL lockout, Haslett said. “And he got hurt early in camp.”

Other failures were Orakpo’s fault, however.

“Just the little things,” Haslett said. “He’s missed sacks because of bad angles. He’s missed sacks because he gambled a couple of times.”

Orakpo said he missed tackles in the run game for many of the same reasons. He said he missed plays in pass coverage because of technique weaknesses. The linebacker said he often found himself “just running out there blind.”

So, Orakpo spent the offseason trying to gain knowledge from other linebackers. He spent the largest portion of time training with Kansas City Chiefs linebacker and former Texas teammate Derrick Johnson on how to improve his footwork and read quarterbacks while dropping back into coverage.

“My all-around game is coming together. I’m very comfortable, fluent, just moving around,” Orakpo said. “The way I move on film, watching myself on film, especially this last game against Buffalo, things are coming naturally from what I see out there.”

Former Redskins linebacker Ken Harvey has observed improvements in Orakpo’s game, but said it could still take some time for Orakpo to feel completely comfortable.

“In the offseason, he’s put in a lot of time to develop counter moves,” said Harvey, a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker. “But . . . it’s one thing to go through it, and then going through it at full-speed with a 300-pound man hitting you, it’s two different things. So, it’s difficult, but it takes time and it takes practice, and hopefully, you have a team that’s willing to give you the opportunity. That’s why training camp is good, because you have a chance to try some of those different moves without the fear of ‘get on the bench because you tried those moves and you messed up.’

Orakpo noted that “a lot of guys that get all the big sacks around the league also give up a lot of big plays. I’ve never been a person who prides myself on only getting sacks and saying, ‘forget the whole defense.’ ”

Harvey and Haslett believe that Orakpo’s production also will increase as linebacker Ryan Kerrigan develops on the opposite edge.

“Most of those elite pass rushers, they’re elite because it’s somebody else or a group of guys on the team that aren’t getting the publicity, but they’re creating opportunities for that pass rusher to expose his talents,” Harvey said.

Orakpo may dismiss outside opinions of what classifies him as elite, but he definitely wants to rack up double-digit sacks in his fourth NFL season.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Every great pass rusher does that, and if they didn’t, they’d be lying to you. I have a number in my head, and I intend to get that. . . . If I don’t get double-digit sacks, then it’s not a good season.”

Asked to share that target number, Orakpo said: “Absolutely not. The only person who knows that is my wife.”

What Orakpo wants most are wins. Since he entered the NFL, his teams have gone 15-33.

“It still keeps me hungry. . . . We haven’t done anything since I’ve been here yet.”

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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