By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008
When Washington Redskins linebackers meet to discuss an opponent, H.B. Blades takes charge. Middle linebacker London Fletcher temporarily cedes his leadership role to Blades, a second-year player who in the meeting room makes the play calls Fletcher does during games.
Fletcher does not need help, Washington's coaches said, but with Blades, who plays all three linebacker positions, having significant responsibility, imitating Fletcher is just part of his job. Fortunately for the Redskins, Blades has excelled at juggling things, his teammates said.
"I'm always impressed when you have a linebacker that can play all three positions, and he's a guy that can do it," strong-side linebacker Marcus Washington said. Redskins coaches "put a big load on him, as far as playing all three of those positions every week, and he answers the bell. When you've got a guy like that, especially a young guy, that's impressive to me."
A sixth-round draft pick considered undersize for his position, Blades has had an unexpected impact on the defense, emerging as a key contributor while filling in for injured teammates.
Blades has played often this season in place of Washington, slowed by recurring hamstring problems, displaying an understanding of the game that belies his experience, coaches and teammates said. They attribute that to his family's strong ties to the game. 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.)
H.B. Blades -- H.B. stands for Horatio Benedict -- has responded well while shouldering much for someone with little experience in the league. Washington (4-1) will try to extend its winning streak to five games Sunday against the St. Louis Rams (0-4) at FedEx Field, and even if Blades is not in the starting lineup, he said he would prepare to fill several roles.
"From Wednesday to kickoff, I prepare myself like I'm going to play just because things happen," Blades said. "If I'm not preparing like a starter, then I'm not going to be fully mentally into it. When my opportunities come, I have to take advantage of them."
He has done that daily since the Redskins drafted him out of the University of Pittsburgh, impressing coaches first on special teams and then as the primary backup at middle, strong-side and weak-side linebacker. After weak-side linebacker Rocky McIntosh suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 15 last year, Blades, who had been steady on special teams, played more on defense in Washington's final two games.
Although he did not start, Blades was a key performer in victories over the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys, and his effort contributed to a season-ending four-game winning streak that resulted in a playoff berth. He assisted on two tackles in the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Occasionally relieving McIntosh in Washington's base defense before he was injured and his increased playing time down the stretch in the 2007 season has helped Blades do "what he's doing now," McIntosh said. "He's doing what he's supposed to be doing. The coaches ask him to fill in at certain spots, and he gets the job done."
With McIntosh back in the starting lineup after his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery, Blades has provided a lift in place of Washington. Blades started and was credited with six tackles, including four unassisted, on Sept. 14 in a 29-24 victory over New Orleans. Washington also sat out Sunday's 23-17 win over Philadelphia Eagles, and Blades again played alongside Fletcher and McIntosh when Philadelphia's offense was in its base package.
Blades had three tackles, two unassisted, as the defense had another solid outing. "I'm just trying to do the best I can," he said. "Marcus is a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker; he's shown that, so I'm just trying to go out there and do what I can do. I'm not trying to be Marcus. I'm not trying to be anybody else. I'm just trying to go out and play my game. Hopefully, it's good enough."
The Redskins take a wait-and-see approach each week with Washington, who also missed four full games and parts of others last season because of hamstring problems. After Washington aggravated the injury in the season-opening loss to the New York Giants, defensive coordinator Greg Blache and linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti instructed Blades to take the majority of his practice reps at Washington's position.
Since he rarely has practiced at the other linebacker positions this season, "he's Fletch in our meetings," Olivadotti said. "We make him make the calls in our meetings. Obviously, it's different when you're looking at it [on tape]. It's one thing in air conditioning and another thing when you're out in it in the game, but he's communicating the stuff all the time."
Blades, listed at 5 feet 10 and 250 pounds, was a three-time all-Big East performer for Pittsburgh, where he played strong-side and middle linebacker. The Redskins envisioned Blades being a consistent performer on special teams, but the 179th overall pick in the 2007 draft said he believed he was capable of more. "I had a good career in college, and I was kind of upset when I got drafted" in the later rounds, Blades said. "But my dad, you know, he's funny.
"He knew I was upset, but he just kept telling me I got drafted in a good situation. He said it was a good situation to learn from London, Marcus and the guys here. And he was definitely right about that. These guys are the best group of guys I've ever been around. There are no egos here."
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 practices and games.
But it was Al Blades who had the biggest influence on H.B. When Al Blades played safety for the University of Miami (Bennie and Brian Blades also starred for the Hurricanes), H.B., who was then a teenager, tagged along to workouts. H.B. looked up to other Miami stars such as wide receiver Santana Moss, now Blades's teammate.
Al Blades, a father of two daughters, was 26 when the car in which he was a passenger went off a bridge and into a canal in Miami in March 2003, killing him. Blades attended Pittsburgh, in part, because he did not want to play in the long shadow cast by his father and uncles.
"He has a great pedigree," Washington said. "He comes from a great family that played the game the right way, and H.B. does, too. When you see where a guy like H.B. was drafted, that's one of the things about this league that [causes] teams to miss good players. People have that mentality about a certain way a guy should look.
"A lot of times, the best players aren't those specimens. A lot of times, the best players are those guys that you look at sometimes and go, 'How is he doing that?' But you can't measure somebody's heart. They don't have any type of test at the combine to measure a guy's heart. That's what H.B. has. And he's a hell of a player."