Washington Redskins offensive line remains a question mark

Mike Wise
Columnist August 10, 2011

It’s two weeks into Redskins training camp and in the competitive furor over Rex vs. Becks one salient point has fallen through the cracks:

Because neither guy is headed to Canton any time soon, what might matter more than who starts at quarterback is who is in front of Rex Grossman and John Beck. What matters is whether or not the offensive line is pushed aside like rag dolls by defensive ogres such as Pittsburgh’s James Harrison, who is coming to town Friday night to lay a lick on someone behind center.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Jason Campbell, one of just two Redskins quarterbacks the past 12 seasons to remain upright for 16 games, said it best when I spoke to him last month. “So, you think they found out yet I wasn’t the source of all their problems?” said Campbell, whose 2009 line gave up the same number of sacks (46) as the 2010 line protecting first Donovan McNabb and then Grossman. “It really doesn’t matter who’s back there if you can’t protect him.”

The Redskins allowed their quarterback to be hit an inhumane 110 times last season, tied for the worst in the NFL with Jacksonville. Allowing 92 sacks in two seasons is beyond unacceptable. Transpose those numbers over the same period of time and you incredibly get the figure representing the times Peyton Manning was sacked — a scant 26 — in two years, including just 10 times in 2009.

It doesn’t just take future Hall of Famers to produce behind a good or great line, either; Mark Rypien was sacked just seven times the entire 1991 Super Bowl season in Washington.

So before the non-belief in either Grossman or Beck goes any further, shouldn’t we first ask whether Mike Shanahan’s 2011 offensive line is better than 2010’s cut-and-paste unit?

“We don’t know yet,” said Trevor Matich, the former NFL offensive lineman turned television analyst. “There are too many variables out there right now. I think they are three starters away, or two if Jammal Brown performs well and stays healthy, from being considered a good line.”

Given that Trent Williams has left tackle sewn up and right guard Chris Chester was brought in after starting through attrition for the Ravens in a power-running scheme, that doesn’t sound too good for Will Montgomery, who slid over to center after Casey Rabach was released, and Kory Lichtensteiger at left guard.

“Actually, Montgomery and Lichtensteiger were unfairly excoriated last season because of circumstances,” Matich said. “But at some point during the season they still have to prove they’re more than just a guy.”

The Redskins organization is selling cohesiveness and experience up front as to why this O-line won’t let the quarterback be creamed as often. As Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator, said, “These guys know each other much better and know the zone-blocking scheme much better.”

That’s optimistic, because virtually every position on the offensive side of the ball has a question mark except tight end (Chris Cooley backed up by Fred Davis) and the No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers (Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney).

Williams’s rookie campaign wasn’t Ogdenesque. He doesn’t have to be Jonathan Ogden right away, but it remains to be seen if Williams is Chris Samuels in training.

Montgomery has been a career backup but was forced into a starting role because of injuries last season. Lichtensteiger has been bounced to guard after moving from center, his natural position. Brown once made two Pro Bowls, but he missed all of 2009 and was unhealthy for much of last year before tag-teaming right tackle with Stephon Heyer and playing well late.

Health is huge for this line because it has just two bona fide veteran backups in Artis Hicks and Sean Locklear.

Little of last season was the Shanaclan’s fault, of course, at least when it came to the offensive line. The new coach and offensive coordinator didn’t neglect the foundation before they got here.

Between the Redskins drafting Samuels in 2000 and Williams in 2010, they took a scant two offensive linemen in the first three rounds of the NFL drafts.

Rick “Doc” Walker, a tight end on two Super Bowl teams and therefore a peripheral Hog, actually likes this revamped offensive line — and he’s not just saying that because he earns Snyder bucks.

“They were together for the majority of the season,” Walker said. “Then you’ve got two former starters [Hicks and Locklear] with over 60 starts. This line is infinitely better than last season’s. They’re bigger and more athletic. They’re still nice and young, but you have experience too.”

Here’s the main concern: This team’s most dynamic weapon on offense could be a two tight-end set with Cooley and Davis. But it was invisible last season because when they were both on the field together it was more for pass protection.

If this line has one goal going into the season, it should be as simple as this: Don’t hamper the rest of the offense. Let it breathe.

“Part of the problem the last few years with the offensive line is they haven’t run the ball well enough on first and second down, which lets defenses tee off because they know you’re going to throw on third-and-long,” Matich said. “The key to good pass protection is staying even with chains, second-and-six, third-and-three, so your quarterback can run some play action.”

He added, “What makes an O-line is not necessarily protecting the quarterback at third and nine; it’s getting him to third and three.”

It’s not as titillating a training camp story as Grossman vs. Beck. But whether this offensive line is indeed better than last season is a more important one.

wisem@washpost.com

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