While reporters questioned Ryan Kerrigan last week about his big plays in the preseason, Brian Orakpo stood nearby and laughed. Kerrigan didn’t say anything particularly funny, but for Orakpo, the media’s increased interest in Kerrigan was something to chuckle about.
“Oh, man, where you guys been?” Orakpo asked recently, in a playful tone. “It’s like a lot of you guys [are] finally opening up your eyes. This is who he is, man. Ryan gets it done — and he’s getting better.”
That’s becoming clear. Good in his first two seasons, Kerrigan is ready to take the leap to great. The outside linebacker is strong, smart and focused on helping the Washington Redskins become a perennial winner again. Together with Orakpo, Kerrigan forms an edge-rushing tandem expected to accomplish a lot this season. As Kerrigan has shown in the preseason, he’s up to the challenge.
Kerrigan played about as well as a 3-4 outside linebacker could during the first half of Washington’s 24-13 victory over Pittsburgh in Week 2 of the preseason. He dominated Steelers starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert in a performance that included an interception returned for a touchdown, a sack and a forced fumble. It seemed Kerrigan was everywhere for the Redskins, whose retooled pass rush has impressed throughout the tuneup for the regular season.
Sure, it’s only the preseason. But Kerrigan’s big night occurred against the Steelers’ first-string line. And he has been moving in a star-is-emerging direction for some time.
A hand-down 4-3 end in college, Kerrigan made an even smoother transition than the Redskins could have hoped to a position in which he often has coverage responsibilities. Kerrigan’s touchdowns indicate he didn’t need long to find his groove in coverage.
In each of his first two seasons, Kerrigan, who gets better each day in covering tight ends and running backs, returned an interception for a touchdown while rushing the quarterback. He produced a similar highlight-tape turnover against the Steelers, returning a Ben Roethlisberger pass 22 yards for a score.
Listed at 6 feet 4 and 260 pounds, Kerrigan is a big man who had to learn to become a cover guy. Fortunately for Kerrigan and the Redskins, he’s a quick study.
From the moment the team’s No. 1 draft choice in 2011 arrived at Redskins Park, Kerrigan has been known for three things: work ethic, intelligence and inquisitiveness. Former Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander once told me that Kerrigan asks more astute questions in a day than some players come up with in a season. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett expects Kerrigan to contribute good ideas to whatever topic is being discussed.
Kerrigan is always thinking about what comes next. Combined with his interest in film study, Kerrigan is an outstanding student who has learned well from his teachers.
“I’ve had a lot of good people around me,” Kerrigan said the other day. “Lorenzo was a big help. Just being able to ask him about different situations was important for me. ’Rak is always helping me out. Then when you have good coaching along the way, too, it makes everything a lot easier. But I’ve also worked really hard.”
Kerrigan brings a hard-hat-and-lunch-pail mentality to whatever he does. He applies himself as much in film study as he does in the weight room. It shows in Kerrigan’s ability to identify plays as they develop.
On his interception against Pittsburgh, Kerrigan noticed Roethlisberger locked in on running back Jonathan Dwyer, who ran a swing route out of the backfield. After he recognized the pattern, Kerrigan broke off his rush on Roethlisberger and moved into position in coverage. Right place, right time — touchdown.
“I do recognize plays,” Kerrigan said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to recognize situations and be in the right spot. So, yes, it’s a little bit of luck. But a lot of it is preparation.”
Same goes for when Kerrigan rushes the passer. He had 16 sacks the past two seasons — the Redskins’ highest total during that span — and played in his first Pro Bowl after the 2012 season. Boosted by the return of Orakpo, who played in only two games last season because of injury, high-energy rookie Brandon Jenkins and veteran newcomer Darryl Tapp, Washington seems much improved at outside linebacker. The Redskins finished tied for 23rd in the NFL with only 32 sacks last season. They should be more productive in that area in 2013.
Although Kerrigan is best at overpowering opponents, he also possesses quickness, is improving at using his hands and is so versatile that Haslett uses him as an interior lineman to rush in some defensive alignments. The forced fumble in the victory over Pittsburgh occurred on a speed move.
Kerrigan raced past Gilbert, slapped the ball out of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski’s hand, and the Redskins recovered the fumble. Kerrigan’s teammates are enjoying the show.
“He’s such a physical specimen,” defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “People just don’t realize how strong he is. He’s strong as hell and he’s also really smart. He understands how they’re going to try to block him. . . . He just knows what he’s doing.”
He’s also much more polished than he was at this stage last season. The angles he takes on the pass rush, his approach against blockers in the running game, his confidence in coverage — Kerrigan has it all working.
“He had to learn a whole different way to play [as a stand-up linebacker],” said Orakpo, who also made the transition. “Not everyone can do it, but he did it in his first year and came in and made plays. His second year, he made plays. Now, the guy is playing phenomenal.”
Kerrigan is making big things happen. And there’s no reason to laugh about that.