By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
As he watched linebacker Rocky McIntosh walk off the field after injuring his knee early in the Washington Redskins' 22-10 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday night at Giants Stadium, rookie linebacker H.B. Blades sensed his role might change for the remainder of the season. Blades reminded himself to remain focused, then took McIntosh's place.
With another key member of the injury-weakened unit out and Washington struggling to remain in playoff contention down the stretch, Blades showed his teammates and coaches they could rely on him under pressure, making many correct decisions on a cold and windy night. Blades performed well, the Redskins said, while playing on most downs in place of McIntosh, who won't play again this season after tearing two knee ligaments. Blades's steady outing was not surprising.
A sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Pittsburgh, Blades, 23, has made a positive impact on special teams and impressed coaches with his strong work ethic. He often displays an understanding of the game that belies his experience, the Redskins said, which they expected because of his family's strong ties to football. Blades's father, Bennie Blades, and uncle, Brian Blades, were NFL standouts, and another uncle, Al Blades, also played in the league. (Al Blades died in an automobile accident after his second season.)
Washington faces the Minnesota Vikings in a must-win game Sunday in Minneapolis, and H.B. Blades -- H.B. stands for Horatio Benedict -- has earned the Redskins' trust as they prepare to play their most meaningful game in a while.
"I have to step up a little bit more now," Blades said yesterday at Redskins Park. "I'm so used to being a backup, and now I have to play a more significant role, so I have to come in and do the extra things to not let this team down and to not let these veterans down. . . . When Rocky went down, I just said to myself, 'Well, it's time to step in and play and show everybody I can play football.' Now, I'm looking forward to going in [against Minnesota] and contributing and playing the best football I've ever played."
Against the Giants, Blades entered the game with about 12 minutes to play in the first quarter after McIntosh bent his knee awkwardly in a pile. An MRI exam Monday revealed the extent of the damage. In October, Washington lost starting cornerback Carlos Rogers for the season because of a knee injury and the team is coping with the death of safety Sean Taylor.
Although he played on special teams in every game this season and had occasionally spelled McIntosh in Washington's base defense, Blades's relief appearance against the Giants was different. As the game progressed and McIntosh did not return, Blades "had to grow up fast," he said. "When you're expected to do the job, you don't have time to sit there and make excuses about why you make mistakes. If somebody happens to go down, you've got to be ready to step in there on any situation in the game. So I never want to use that as an excuse for not being successful and not knowing something. I never want to say, 'Oh well, I wasn't sure what was going on.' You've got to be prepared for the worst. You've always got to be prepared for every situation when you're out there."
Blades was credited with only two solo tackles, but he usually was in the right spots in the defensive alignments that Gregg Williams, the team's assistant head coach-defense, designed to slow the Giants. Blades's commitment to preparation helped him, Washington linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said.
"H.B. has done a nice job coming to work every day," Olivadotti said. "He understands how to work."
Blades's professional approach is in keeping with his family's history in the game. Bennie Blades was a safety with the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, making the Pro Bowl for the Lions after the 1991 season. For most of H.B. Blades's life, his grandparents raised him in Florida, but he spent a few years with his father in Detroit and has fond memories of attending practices and games.
Al Blades, however, had the biggest influence on H.B. Blades. When Al Blades played for safety for the University of Miami (Bennie and Brian Blades also starred for the Hurricanes), H.B. Blades, who was then a teenager, tagged along to workouts. H.B. Blades looked up to other Hurricanes stars such as wide receiver Santana Moss, now Blades's teammate with the Redskins.
Al Blades was 26 when a car in which he was a passenger went off a bridge and into a canal in Miami in March 2003, killing him and leaving twin daughters behind. Taylor, who was killed last month in an apparent bungled burglary attempt at his Miami area home, was an all-American for the Hurricanes.
"Playing with Sean, knowing Sean for the short amount of time since I've been here, was amazing," Blades said. "He was an amazing person and an amazing player. But also, with that UM connection, the first person I talked to about it was my father. My dad being a safety, and my Uncle Al being a safety down there, my heart dropped. It was the same thing, the same feeling I felt when my Uncle Al died. It was kind of like two great, beautiful people dying so young. It's very unfortunate. I just hope everybody remembers Sean for all the great things that he's done in his life and also as a great football player."
H.B. Blades learned well from his father and uncles, Moss said.
"For any player in their first year, regardless of how high they got picked, they want to come out and make an impact, and I feel that he's that kind of player," Moss said. "It's in his bloodline from his daddy to his uncles. He's that kind of guy. He's not as vocal as his dad and uncles was when they played, but when you see how he attacks the game and plays the game, it's not like it's new to him. He don't play as if he's a first-year guy. He comes out there and he's going to hit you in your mouth. He's not holding nothing back."
With his strong connection to the Hurricanes, H.B. Blades seemed destined to attend Miami. But the death of Al Blades had a deep effect on H.B. Blades, who said he needed to leave the state to attend college.
"I had to get out of the state of Florida," he said. "My family was going through a lot during that time, a lot of adversity with the passing of my uncle, so I thought it was a good idea to get out of the state and just focus on school and football. Staying down in Florida would have been hard because of everything that was going on, it was just hard on my family as a whole, so I never really thought about going to the 'U.' It never occurred to me.
"The 'U' is a great program. I'm very proud of the University of Miami and what they've done for my family. At the same time, I wanted to do something that was unique. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something somewhere where I could leave a stamp on a program."
Despite being considered undersized for his position, Blades, listed at 5 feet 11 and 236 pounds, was a three-time all-Big East performer for Pittsburgh. The Redskins envisioned Blades being a consistent performer on special teams.
"He's doing a great job," backup linebacker Khary Campbell said. "As a rookie, if you're not a starter, they're really on you to make an impact on special teams. He's done a solid job on special teams."
The Redskins must defeat the Vikings on Sunday to remain in playoff contention. They last made the postseason in 2005.
Minnesota leads the NFL in rushing, and veteran linebacker Randall Godfrey is an experienced run-stopper. The Redskins do not comment on lineups and strategy, but Blades's responsibilities are expected to increase, even if he does not start.
"H.B. will be prepared for whatever opportunities present themselves to him because of his work ethic," Olivadotti said. "His role is constantly evolving."