Even after just four games, the evidence is overwhelming. On Sunday, the St. Louis Rams experienced what the fast-rising tandem can do, as they dominated during a 17-10 victory at Edward Jones Dome.
Orakpo and Kerrigan made big plays throughout. Again, they provided momentum-changing moments. From start to finish, they tormented St. Louis, defeating whomever Rams coaches hoped would slow their path to quarterback Sam Bradford. Orakpo had a team-high 2½ sacks. His inexperienced partner contributed a sack and forced a fumble.
All of that only told part of the story. Their biggest contribution was in helping Washington’s defense overcome Rex Grossman’s bad closing act.
Aided by the quarterback’s shoddy overall performance (48.5 passer rating), the inept Rams were still in the game in the fourth quarter despite Washington’s heavily one-sided statistical advantage. Grossman’s second interception could have proved disastrous — but Orakpo finished strong.
With less than five minutes remaining, Orakpo had an important third-down sack to slow suddenly charging St. Louis. The Rams got the ball back with plenty of time, but Bradford — sacked seven times and battered relentlessly behind a joke of an offensive line — had nothing left.
“The sack, man, yeah, it was huge,” Orakpo said. “You could have easily given them the momentum. You could see it coming.
“Obviously, they scored [a touchdown on their previous possession]. Then they got the interception. Things were just going bad for us. We held and anchored our D. Guys made big plays.”
Dejected after their late letdown in the Monday night loss at Dallas, the Redskins got the bounce-back performance they needed, improving to 3-1 entering their bye week. Surprisingly, the Redskins are atop the NFC East. Their new duo has helped them get there.
“Man, the sky’s the limit for those guys,” strong safety LaRon Landry said. “They can be as great as they wanna be.”
Through the first quarter of Washington’s schedule, its 3-4 defense is much more effective than last season. Nose tackle is the most important position in the scheme, and Barry Cofield has been good. The Redskins upgraded at that spot. Kerrigan also is essential in the improvement.
Outside linebacker is No. 2 in 3-4 importance. The powerful rookie from Purdue provides rushing balance opposite Orakpo, and “that’s the whole premise of the 3-4 defense: get pressure on the quarterback, especially at your outside linebacker positions,” inside linebacker London Fletcher said. “What you’re seeing is that we have two very talented, young edge rushers.”
Beginning with his improbable touchdown in the season opener against the New York Giants, Kerrigan has displayed a knack for being in the correct spot. He puts himself in position to make good stuff happen.
Of course, Kerrigan still must prove he’s capable of playing at Orakpo’s level over the long haul. Consistency, as always, is the key. Orakpo is a two-time Pro Bowler. Kerrigan has to hold up his end.
Midway through the second quarter Sunday, Bradford fumbled on Kerrigan’s sack, and Cofield recovered the ball at the Rams 47-yard line. Three plays later, Ryan Torain scored Washington’s second touchdown. The Redskins had a 14-0 halftime lead.
“I have to credit to the secondary,” Kerrigan said. “That definitely was a coverage sack. They made Bradford hold on to the ball long enough for me to get there.”
Veterans appreciate Kerrigan’s wide-eyed humility. His work ethic has been just as important. The smarts he has displayed since player-only offseason workouts, though, provided the first indication the Redskins chose wisely in the draft.
“He picked up everything pretty quickly in training camp,” Fletcher said. “He doesn’t make the same mistakes twice.”
Simply watching Orakpo has taught him a lot, Kerrigan says. “Every time [Bradford] dropped back,” he said, “it seemed like ’Rak was back there tackling him.”
Orakpo, who is in his third year, performed at a high level last season during the difficult transition from Washington’s long-standing 4-3 to 3-4. For years, Washington had top-10 defenses. Statistically, the Redskins ranked among the NFL’s leaders. But they weren’t a big-play bunch. Knockout blows weren’t the Redskins’ thing.
Under former defensive coordinator Greg Blache, the Redskins jabbed, countered and focused on winning decisions.
Orakpo and Kerrigan are part of a new big-play foundation. Coach Mike Shanahan told coordinator Jim Haslett to give him a championship-caliber defense. With a clear mandate, Haslett needs everything Orakpo and Kerrigan have to offer.
“Man, I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Orakpo said. “We’ve been saying all along that pressure is the key. That just getting the right guys to help us get to the quarterback . . . would make the difference.
“If we just got a guy on the opposite side of me like him [Kerrigan], a big nose in Cofield and added some other key elements, you’d see it arrive on the field. You see it now. We’re something to deal with.”
With their talented bookend linebackers, Washington’s defense is getting closer. The group’s expectations are higher. Who knows where it will all go? But it sure seems Orakpo and Kerrigan are beginning a long ride.