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In Middle, Rabach Is the Nerve Center

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

When Casey Rabach breaks from a huddle, he has perhaps five seconds to process and convey a play's essential information. In an instant, the Washington Redskins center has determined how many down linemen are in the game, as well as if any linebackers are stationed on the edge, and relayed it to the quarterback and the backfield.

He'll bark out, "Nickel, nickel, nickel," or, "Three down, three down, three down," to indicate the defensive alignment, then point out the location of the opposing middle linebacker, or, more specifically, the person filling that role in a given formation, which could be a defensive back, outside linebacker or someone else. Before Rabach snaps the ball, he will also announce where the defensive pressure will be coming from, watching for tells and cues, then yelling, "Ray," "Ram," "Rocco" or "Ralph," to signal which blocking scheme to use for a blitz from the right, or "Lenny," "Lion," "Leo" or "Lester" to set the technique if pressure will be coming from the left.

The mental part of his job now over -- for one play, at least -- Rabach's brawn takes over. After the snap, he is asked to do as much as any center in the game, like shed a 325-pound lineman immediately after the snap, then pull wide to pummel linebackers as a lead blocker, and in 2006 few did it better. Rabach, 29, keyed Washington's fourth-ranked rushing attack and was strong in pass protection.

"To be truthful, he's one of the most valuable people on our team," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Casey means a lot to us, and he makes every call in there. He's extremely bright and last year I mean the guy plays with a broken hand with a big cast on. He's one of our leaders. When people talk about free agency sometimes, you know, 'Why do you do it?' That's why, because you can get a Casey Rabach."

Rabach broke his hand in Week 14, had two screws surgically put in on a Monday and never missed a snap of game action.

Although he now is universally respected in Washington's locker room, he arrived as something of an unknown. Rabach spent four seasons in Baltimore but did not start regularly until his final year (2004). The Redskins made him an immediate free agent target after centers Cory Raymer and Lennie Friedman faltered, and the five-year, $13.75 million signing is one of Gibbs's smartest personnel maneuvers since his return.

"That's one we'd want back," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. "That's a very good player we let get away."

Rabach provided stability in his first year here, but suffered serious leg lacerations in an all-terrain vehicle accident in April 2006, required a skin graft in June and was not fully cleared for all physical activities until training camp. Yet he was one of the few players to clearly master associate coach Al Saunders's complex offense. By the second half of the season, when the Redskins returned to their smash-mouth approach, Rabach was a wrecking ball. The Redskins allowed just 19 sacks -- fourth best in franchise history (only 12 were considered the result offensive-line errors) -- and Rabach set a physical tone with his pulling on outside running plays.

"I think my first year here they were feeling me out, finding exactly what I could do," Rabach said. "And last year I started to do a lot more things -- some athletic, different things -- which I really enjoyed."

"You can do a lot with a guy who can snap and pull," said tackle Jon Jansen, Rabach's close friend. "We got him out on some of the sweeps and it just really opened up the whole offense as to what can we do."

Rabach seeks no accolades, and widespread acclaim eludes him.

"I'm really disappointed that a lot of people don't recognize how good this guy is," said Joe Bugel, offensive line coach. "I think he is one of the top centers in the NFL, he's a great signal caller, he makes great preparation, he's an iron man who can take 100 snaps in a row, he has great leverage."

Ray Brown, who set a modern record by playing on Washington's offensive line at age 43, marveled at Rabach's technical proficiency. Brown reviewed film each week as part of the staff, assessing a position that lacks statistical quantification.

"I think his awareness of when guys need help and where he needs to lean the protection is really key," Brown said. "I thought he was a Pro Bowl player last year. He came on like gangbusters and was locking guys up. Very few better than him come to mind. Immediately at center I think of Olin Kreutz [who has been to six straight Pro Bowls with Chicago], but Casey is actually a bigger guy, he runs just as well, he's great out in space and he could probably be a heck of a guard if he had to."

Rabach projects a carefree attitude -- playing the role of a country bumpkin from Wisconsin who revels solely in the simple pleasures of brats and beers -- that belies a heady core. Intellect is part of the job description, and Rabach reviews film at home and at Redskins Park. "Studying? Me?" he says, before relenting. "No, it's amazing what you can pick up from film study."

On game day, Rabach must sort through stunts and pre-snap motion with NFL defenses that are more wily than ever. In college at Wisconsin, Rabach would yell "Ringo" if pressure was coming from the right and "Lucky" for the left -- that was it. Now, facing hyper-fast hybrid defenses, each decision of whether to call say "Ram" or "Rocco" carries distinct variations that dictate who is blocked, how teammates slide and adjust, which gaps are filled.

Bugel allows Rabach the freedom to direct the blocking from the trenches based on his observations -- "Not every team lets you do that," the center said -- and on those occasions when the physical and mental aspects of Rabach's job mesh, the satisfaction is enormous.

"What I really like is third down, and you know the defensive coordinator has dialed up his best blitz, his best coverage scheme," Rabach said. "If I can find a way to snub it, there's no greater feeling. You know they're trying to rock you and get you to call it one way when there's really going to be pressure coming the other way. But from film study and practice you know where the pressure is really coming from, and you make the right call and you put everybody in the right position and you knock them in the teeth. That's a pretty awesome feeling."

Redskins Notes: Gibbs continues to adjust practices to account for the heat. Early in camp, sessions were cut short several times, limiting important 11-on-11 drills that usually come at the end of practice. Now, when the heat forces shorter sessions, the team plans to adjust its schedule to get in its hardest full-squad drills early, then curtail individual drills, which would be moved to later in practice. . . .

Despite another summer of oppressive conditions, Gibbs vows to never practice in a bubble. "I will not see the bubble, that's my prediction," Gibbs joked. . . .

Fullback Mike Sellers (knee) returned to practice. . . .

The duration of training camp is closed to the public after last night's Fan Appreciation festivities. There is one practice this afternoon, and no sessions tomorrow, as the Redskins will travel to Tennessee for Saturday's game. The players are off Sunday.

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