Not only is Orakpo the Redskins’ best pass rusher, he’s arguably the team’s fiercest competitor. From the start of his rookie season, the fourth-year Pro Bowler established himself as a leader in the locker room while playing through pain that would sideline other players, teammates say.
Before the 2010 season, the Redskins scrapped their long-standing 4-3 defense, in part, because of Orakpo’s ability to pressure quarterbacks. Orakpo has proven he’s “a guy that can do it all,” Coach Mike Shanahan said Monday while announcing that Orakpo suffered a torn pectoral muscle. “He’s very physical, very smart; team player. . . . Obviously, we’ll miss him.”
Shanahan didn’t want to acknowledge anything more publicly.
Despite Sunday’s loss to the St. Louis Rams and the Orakpo-Carriker injuries, the Redskins and their fans have maintained Robert Griffin III-inspired hope for the season. The rookie quarterback’s dynamic two-game start inspired hopeful, best-case thoughts of what might be possible.
Given how awful things were during Shanahan’s first two seasons (they were 11-21 bad), he’s not interested in throwing cold water on a season that’s just two games old. No coach would be. They’re supposed to inspire players and the fans, not ruin their fun.
Shanahan is great at projecting confidence in the toughest of times. He has had a lot of experience at it since taking on the Redskins’ rebuilding project. Not surprisingly, Shanahan led the charge again Monday, stressing the need for other players to “step up and play at a very high level.”
That’s the NFL’s next-man-up philosophy. In a league in which career-threatening injuries are commonplace, the expectation is that anyone on a roster could have to be replaced at the drop of a football.
The Redskins, though, just don’t have backups capable of reaching the level of Orakpo and Carriker. Not even close.
Nose tackle and outside linebacker are the two most important positions in the 3-4. Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield is a productive run-clogger. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who plays opposite Orakpo, is also an effective edge rusher.
But the main reason the Redskins made such a big jump last season in total yards per game (they went from 31st in 2010 to 13th in 2011) was that Kerrigan, who was a rookie, provided pass-rushing balance on the end of the line opposite Orakpo. That’s gone now.
During brief stretches, backup Rob Jackson has filled in well for Orakpo. Jackson possesses pass-rushing skills — but Orakpo is far superior to Jackson in coverage and against the run. Orakpo is just much more athletic than Jackson and Chris Wilson, who will compete with each other for the first-string job.
Although the Redskins are confident that Jackson and Wilson will do whatever they can to help, “losing ’Rak . . . it’s definitely devastating to our defense,” inside linebacker London Fletcher, the Redskins’ defensive leader, said in a phone interview Monday evening.
“Because of his ability to rush the passer, play the run, just all the things he brings to the table . . . we’re going to miss that. There’s no doubt we’re going to miss that.”
Likewise with Carriker, who tore a muscle at the base of his right knee. Carriker has a great story.
Miscast as a 4-3 tackle in St. Louis (he struggled to make plays as an interior lineman), Carriker was labeled as a first-round bust. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who formerly worked for the Rams, thought the hard-working, intelligent Carriker would be a good fit for the Redskins as they transitioned from the 4-3 to 3-4.
On Haslett’s recommendation, Washington traded for Carriker, who started all 16 games in 2010. Last season, Carriker had a personal-best year, totaling 5.5 sacks while playing well against the run from start to finish.
The main responsibility for ends in the 3-4 is to engage offensive linemen on running plays to prevent them from blocking linebackers, which could lead to long runs.
“He’s a perfect 3-4 end,” Fletcher said. “He provides a great presence in the run game, and he provided us with some pass rush last year. That’s just another big blow for our defense. It also really affects our depth.”
With Carriker out, the Redskins will turn to second-year lineman Jarvis Jenkins to do more. The talented Jenkins has a bright future, Redskins coaches say, but he missed last season after suffering a knee injury during the preseason.
It usually takes players a full season to regain their pre-surgery form, so the Redskins have been handling Jenkins carefully. Even if Jenkins, who was a key part of the line rotation in the first two games, doesn’t start every week (veteran backup Kedric Golston also played a lot in Carriker’s spot against the Rams), he’ll have to play a bigger role — one he might not be ready for physically or mentally.
After the Redskins’ poor defensive performance against the Rams, it seems several healthy players in the secondary may not be suited for their roles with the inevitable pass-rush drop-off.
With Orakpo and Carriker sidelined for most of Sunday’s loss, the Rams totaled 452 yards. Orakpo and Carriker had strong performances as the Redskins gave up 358 yards in the season-opening victory over the Saints.
The pressure on Saints quarterbacks Drew Brees was key in the opening win. On Sunday, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford had time to pick apart the defense. He repeatedly found openings while passing for 301 yards and three touchdowns. It’s clear what was missing.
“It’s the NFL. You can’t make excuses and you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” Fletcher said. “There’ll be a game Sunday. We don’t have any choice but to move on and play football.”
They’ll do just that, but without Orakpo and Carriker, they’ll probably will do so much less effectively.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.