By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Wearing a cumbersome brace to protect his left arm after surgery, right guard Randy Thomas was in no condition to help the Washington Redskins last Sunday in a 17-14 loss at Green Bay. But as he stood on the sideline and watched another three offensive linemen leave the game, Thomas figured coaches eventually would turn to him out of necessity.
"Man, all these injuries on our line, this is getting freaky," Thomas said. "I mean, you've got fill-in guys getting hurt now. It's like every play we go out there, we're losing another guy. It makes you kind of start to wonder, 'Who's next?' "
Already shaken by the losses of Thomas and right tackle Jon Jansen in the first two games, the Redskins' offensive line had another unsettling week after center Casey Rabach, right tackle Todd Wade and backup tackle Stephon Heyer were all injured in the Packers loss. Yesterday, Rabach was downgraded from probable to questionable and Kevin Sampson was signed from the practice squad for today's game against Arizona.
Also yesterday, cornerback Shawn Springs reported to Redskins Park and was upgraded from questionable to probable. He had been in Dallas with his ailing father, Ron Springs. Shawn Springs is expected to play today.
After making adjustments in play selection when the Redskins lost the starting right side of the line, Al Saunders, associate head coach-offense, acknowledged he might have to tweak things more against Arizona, especially in the struggling running game, because the offensive line is in flux.
"First time in 30 years to lose so many linemen," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense, who has worked closely with offensive lines in his 13 seasons with the Redskins and three decades in the NFL. "To lose so many as we did, especially the first two, Randy Thomas and Jon Jansen, was devastating. That ripped our right side apart. We had to start from scratch."
Jansen broke his leg in the opener and was lost for the season. Thomas tore his triceps in the second game and is out until at least early December.
Then while the Redskins still were adjusting to a new right side of Wade and right guard Jason Fabini, a converted tackle, Wade and Rabach suffered groin injuries and Heyer injured a hamstring against Green Bay. When Heyer limped off the field late in the fourth quarter, Wade, who could barely move laterally, reentered the game on the Redskins' final possession.
"I almost had to play against Green Bay," Bugel said. "It was an ugly situation when guys start falling like that."
Said backup center Mike Pucillo, "It was almost to where you'd look around, and you didn't even know who was filling in for who."
Wade participated in full drills Friday in preparation for the Cardinals. He is listed as probable. Rabach, the linchpin of the offense, struggled in his workout yesterday, leading to the change in his status, and Pucillo will likely replace him today. Heyer, who also did not practice all week, is listed as questionable.
"If you have a lot of experience, you can miss practice and play, because certain guys have done it," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux, in his 17th season with the Redskins and 27th in the league. "Now, it's a little bit tougher when you have more than one guy. And if you're trying to integrate a bunch of totally new guys in there, well, that's even tougher."
Pucillo filled in well for Rabach at Lambeau Field, coaches said, and worked with the first unit in practice in Rabach's absence. Guard Rick DeMulling, signed Sept. 20, is up to speed on the offense, Bugel said, enabling Fabini, who has started the last three games at right guard, to move back to his natural tackle position if needed. Moreover, defensive lineman Lorenzo Alexander is on standby duty at guard.
On Tuesday, the Redskins signed offensive linemen Calvin Armstrong and Sampson, who played for Kansas City under Saunders, to the practice squad.
"Sampson looked very good" in practice, Bugel said. "He came out of that Kansas City system, so the [offensive terminology] is real easy for him. Rick DeMulling is doing a heck of a job for us, so we've got some guys.
"And I told 'em, 'Nobody feels sorry for us.' Everybody's laughing in the NFL. You think the Cardinals are saying, 'Oh, gosh, that's terrible they're all hurt.' They're licking their chops. They can't wait to get here."
All the shuffling on the line has made Saunders's job more difficult.
Thomas, a team leader who plays with a mean streak, excels on pulling plays. Without Thomas, the Redskins are unable to do some of the things they did at the start of the season "because of his athletic skills," Saunders said. "We've made a number of changes based on the people that we have available.
"We've just gone in a different direction in some areas. And now we have some new guys that might be involved, so we have to make adjustments to take advantage of their skills and their experience."
The changes have not produced the results Gibbs would prefer.
The Redskins rushed for a season-high 191 yards in the opener against Miami. Since then, however, Washington is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. The coaching staff's goal is a 4.8-yard average, Saunders said, and the NFL average is 4.1.
Washington is 21st in the league, with an average of 3.7 yards per rush. In the second half against the Packers, the Redskins had 33 yards on 12 carries, and quarterback Jason Campbell was sacked three times amid constant pressure.
"It's hurt us," Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels said of the line's lack of continuity. "You've got to know your guys that you're working with. Definitely, with new faces in there, here and there, it's going to be tough to run the ball."
Since Thomas was injured in the first half of a 20-12 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 17, the coaching staff seems to be more comfortable running to the left side, calling the majority of plays to start behind Samuels and left guard Pete Kendall, who sat out practice Wednesday to rest his knees and is listed as probable.
The Redskins' first six running plays went to the left side in a 24-17 loss to the New York Giants on Sept. 23. Running back Clinton Portis leads the Redskins with 363 yards on 86 carries for a 4.2-yard average. Portis has run left 42 times for 213 yards (a 5.1-yard average), and scored all three of his touchdowns to that side of the field. On the right side, Portis has gained 114 yards in 32 carries for 3.6 yards per carry.
But Washington's distribution of running plays is more balanced than perceived, the Redskins said.
"In the running game, particularly in the zone-blocking game, you have to understand that plays that start to one side almost always go back to the other side," Kendall said. "A lot of the most important blocks are the ones on the back side of a play, not on the front side. So when the ball starts on the left, most times, the really important blocks are actually going to be the ones on the right side. That's why it's just not as simple as to say that we're always trying to favor one side over the other.
"I know with all the injuries we've had, it's probably easy for people to say, 'Well, Pete and Chris have been around awhile, and Chris has been to the Pro Bowl, so they're trying to run over there.' I know all that stuff, but I don't buy that. And the other thing is, very rarely will you see a team say that they're going to set their defense on one side of the field, the hell with whatever's happening on the other side. They're going to set their defense to the strength of the offense" based on the side where the tight end is positioned.
And field position is a factor in play-calling, Saunders said.
"Sometimes a game could end up becoming skewed, one way more than the other, simply because of the way the ball was placed," he said. "Whether you're on the right or left hash, where you are on the field, plays a big part in it."
Regardless, the Redskins' rushing production must improve to ease the load on Campbell and provide the type of offensive balance Gibbs espouses.
"We know what's at stake," Samuels said. "We have to win week to week, and we have to play good upfront to win. We've got to get it done and we've got to get it done fast. Whatever is broken, we've got to fix it."
Redskins Note: The team released tight end Cody Boyd to make room for Sampson.