By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Undrafted rookie tackle Stephon Heyer and journeyman guard Mike Pucillo will remain with the Washington Redskins' first-team offense to start practice this week despite allowing a hit that nearly knocked quarterback Jason Campbell out for the season during a preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night, offensive line coach Joe Bugel said yesterday.
Executives from other NFL teams who have watched the Redskins expressed serious reservations about that side of the line, and some Redskins players and staff members have echoed those thoughts privately, but Heyer and Pucillo received praise for their efforts from the coaches.
Pittsburgh end Brett Keisel came in free across the left side of the line Saturday, with a mishap between Pucillo and Heyer creating the lane. Neither picked him up or slowed him sufficiently, and Campbell never saw Keisel as he collapsed the quarterback's left leg, nearly causing extensive ligament or tendon damage. Campbell was moving well yesterday, with minimal swelling around his bruised left knee. Campbell doubts he will play Saturday against Baltimore but thinks he will be fully recovered soon.
"I think by next week I'll be back out there running around doing everything I normally do," Campbell said. "We just have to be careful this week. It still hurts when I plant my foot--I tried to plant it once walking down the steps, and that wasn't a good idea--but as far as walking and moving in a straight line I don't feel any pain at all."
Bugel and Gibbs have praised Heyer since Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels suffered a knee injury early in camp that could keep him out until the regular season opener Sept. 9. Heyer has started two games in his absence, and is being asked to do a massive chore often with little help from the backs and tight ends. It was also his first time playing with Pucillo on Saturday, and lack of chemistry played a part in the big hit on Campbell.
"Full blame [for Campbell's injury] does not go on Stephon," Bugel said. "Pittsburgh ran a good stunt and the guard [Pucillo] didn't deliver him enough to Stephon. You can't blame either of them for that. That happens. But Stephon's improving in leaps and bounds since OTAs.
"Those two kids work extremely hard for us, and they're doing a yeoman's job. Now, do we like to give up sacks? No. And nobody likes to get the quarterback injured, but we have all the faith in the world in those kids. If we didn't think they could play there, we would replace them."
Others who have watched Heyer believe the 23-year old has some promise, but is not ready to be entrusted with protecting the blindside of a potential franchise quarterback who is just learning how to cope with the blitz. The Redskins face last year's top-ranked defense Saturday, and Baltimore will be playing its third preseason game, with its star defenders seeing abundant action and taking aim at the quarterback.
"He's not ready," said one longtime NFL executive who paid particular attention to Heyer when watching Saturday's game. "He plays too tall, his [backside] is always sticking up in the air. It's too easy to get inside of him. There's a reason 32 teams, including the one he plays for now, didn't draft him. He might be a player down the line, but I wouldn't be starting him now. I can't figure that out."
Some coaches and players were surprised when Heyer was given the chance to start and though he has held up well for the most part, expected there to be consequences for the quarterbacks. "It's a lot to ask of that kid," one veteran said. "I could kind of see this coming three weeks ago." It takes only a split-second misstep for a left tackle to surrender a season-altering sack. That's why left tackles are generally among the highest paid players in the game.
Heyer received more blocking help from tight ends in his first game at Tennessee, but last Saturday he was often alone. Rarely did he even get help from a chip block from a running back, which shocked one talent evaluator who saw the game. "They left him on an island like he was Chris Samuels," he said. "I was stunned by some of the protections."
Heyer said that, the hit on Campbell aside, he fared pretty well.
"I think I did a pretty good job," Heyer said. "It gave me more confidence to know that I had to do more on my own. I was up for the challenge. I think they wanted to see how well I could do."
Bugel is committed to Heyer starting for as long as Samuels is out. He was pleased with Pucillo's work as well. Veteran Todd Wade, a natural tackle, says he will practice today after overcoming a shoulder problem and continues what has been a long and slow transition to guard. Bugel said Wade will be evaluated daily and he will not decide on a starting left guard for Saturday's game until late in the week.
"Pucillo did well for us, and we'll keep working him with the [starters] for now," Bugel said.
Several personnel executives believe the Redskins lack a starting-caliber left guard to replace departed free agent Derrick Dockery. Samuels's presence elevates those around him, and he could help bring Pucillo or Wade along, but neither is a known entity. Pucillo was signed with a reserve role in mind, and two league scouts said Wade struggles to keep his body low while blocking even at tackle and question whether he will adequately adjust to guard with just three weeks left in the preseason.
"They've got a gaping hole at left guard," one personnel executive said. "They have major depth problems on the offensive line, and they're running out of time."