Redskins aim to tackle better on running plays

August 9, 2013

Brian Orakpo had just played in his first game in nearly a year, and during a first-quarter appearance that consisted of three series, he provided the pass-rushing threat the Washington Redskins badly missed last season.

But after the game, neither the quarterback pressure Orakpo provided to set up Ryan Kerrigan for a sack nor the sack Orakpo registered himself stood out in the two-time Pro Bowl player’s mind.

Instead, blown tackles — both his own and those of his teammates — ate at Orakpo. The Redskins’ starters combined for two sacks and four hits on Titans starter Jake Locker, who had just one pass longer than 15 yards and didn’t throw for a touchdown.

But Washington surrendered 103 rushing yards on 13 carries in the first half. That was out of character for a Redskins defense that last season held teams to 95.8 rushing yards per game.

“The potential’s very strong. We just have to keep it up,” Orakpo said when asked about the unit’s pass-rushing ability. But then he changed the subject. “Most importantly, we’ve got to stop the run game like we’ve been doing. We had some mistakes out there, partly on my fault as well. Trying to get after the quarterback so much, you can lose footing in the run game, so we have to be fundamentally sound. So once we stop the run game like we normally do around here, we’ll be just fine getting after the quarterback.”

The biggest run of the night was Chris Johnson’s 58-yard score. On that play, the Titans’ offensive line blocked down, and Washington’s front seven got sucked to the right. Johnson found a cutback lane, and Orakpo dove but missed as the back sped through the hole. Strong safety Phillip Thomas got caught out of position, and free safety Bacarri Rambo got juked badly downfield.

Later, Shonn Green scored on a 19-yard run, also untouched. On that play, defensive end Kedric Golston got pinned inside, Green cut to his left, linebacker London Fletcher got swallowed up by a blocker at the line and Rambo couldn’t catch the back.

Redskins players believe a degree of rust mixed in with some inexperience were to blame for the poor tackling performance. Although they practiced two weeks leading up to camp, the action consists of only partial contact drills. Defensive players grab runners up high or tag them with two hands, and a whistle promptly blows to prevent injury.

Practice speed and game speed differ rather significantly, and the only way to sharpen full-speed tackling techniques is to play games, Orakpo said.

“You’ve just got to get the kinks out,” Orakpo said. “You feel rusty. . . . You’re going live, and there’s no head coach blowing the whistle and telling you, ‘Don’t take anyone to the ground.’ It’s live bullets, and it’s a different feel from practice, obviously.”

Younger players such as Rambo, who played and started in his first NFL game, chalked the struggles up to a learning experience. Despite hailing from the SEC, touted as the college conference with the greatest speed, Rambo admitted NFL speed is even more impressive.

“That thing was unbelievable,” Rambo said of Johnson’s run. “My first time attempting a tackle, and it was on him. That’s something I wasn’t expecting. But I’m glad I got it under my belt now. But only thing I can do is learn from it, just get in the film room, talk to the coaches and the vets and try to learn things: how to take better angles and stuff like that.”

Despite the frustration, the Redskins aren’t overly concerned at this early point in the preseason. The belief inside the locker room after the game was that more reps and preseason action would help cure the ills. The addition of veterans such as nose tackle Barry Cofield, strong safety Brandon Meriweather and backup Reed Doughty — all of whom missed Thursday’s game — also could bolster the run defense.

“We’ll be good. But like I said before, we’ve got to make sure we stop the run,” Orakpo said. “If we can’t stop the run, we’re not going to be able to get after the quarterback. We have to be all sound on all cylinders.”

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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