By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008
With the Washington Redskins needing 13 yards on third down late in the third quarter Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, quarterback Jason Campbell took the snap from center Casey Rabach and dropped back. But before Campbell could set and read the defense, Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff slammed him to the ground.
Ratliff beat right guard Randy Thomas for a sack that resulted in an eight-yard loss and a 46-yard field goal attempt for place kicker Shaun Suisham. The ball fell a few yards short of the uprights as the Redskins failed to extend their 10-7 lead, and the Cowboys rallied in the fourth quarter for a 14-10 victory at FedEx Field.
"If I don't give up that sack, it's a totally different game," Thomas said. "If I don't let him get to Jason, then we probably make that kick and we don't need a touchdown. It would have been a one-point game, but I gave up that sack. Jason's not going to last if we keep letting people get in his face like that."
After performing well in pass protection during Washington's first eight games, the offensive line gave up 10 sacks in consecutive losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cowboys. In addition to the high sack total, Campbell has been under constant pressure and hit often in the previous two games, disrupting the timing of the passing game and contributing to problems on offense.
Washington's offensive linemen attribute the recent breakdowns mostly to their mistakes in technique against outstanding pass rushers, and the veteran unit expects to revert to form in the team's final six games. Washington (6-4) faces the Seattle Seahawks (2-8) on Sunday at Qwest Field, and the line is determined to provide Campbell with the time he needs to work.
"No doubt about it, we've got to do a better job of helping Jason right now," said Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels, the Redskins' top offensive lineman. "I mean, it is what it is. Dallas played great, we didn't, and they got it done. Pittsburgh, those guys do a great job of getting after the quarterback. We've just got to do a better job."
In a 23-6 loss to the Steelers on Nov. 3, the Redskins gave up a season-high seven sacks. Ratliff had two of Dallas's three sacks, and Campbell rarely was able to get comfortable in the pocket in either game. The Steelers rank first in the NFL in total defense and are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the league lead with 36 sacks. The Cowboys are fifth with 29 sacks. Washington has games remaining against the Eagles and New York Giants, who have the fourth-highest total at 31.
"Pittsburgh and Dallas, you're talking about two of the top defenses right there," Campbell said. "It's always going to be tough when you're going against teams like that, but our line has done a good job. Those guys have a lot of pride in what they do, and you know they're always working to get better."
After experiencing protection problems in the preseason, the Redskins allowed only 16 sacks in their first eight games. Samuels has continued to anchor the line despite playing in pain because of inflammation of the cartilage behind his right knee. Left guard Pete Kendall has been arguably the Redskins' most consistent lineman despite his knee problems, and Rabach is the group's linchpin.
The right side of the line, however, has been an area of concern. Coach Jim Zorn demoted longtime right tackle Jon Jansen to second string before the season opener against the Giants, in large part because he struggled in protection during the preseason. Jansen rejoined the first team early in the season after Stephon Heyer suffered a shoulder injury and Jansen excelled in run blocking as the Redskins developed one of the league's most productive rushing attacks.
Zorn has praised Jansen for his aggressive blocking that has helped top running back Clinton Portis rush for 1,063 yards -- the league's second-highest total -- but Heyer is considered more athletic and better in pass protection. Defensive ends have frequently pushed back Jansen close to Campbell.
Thomas, who acknowledged he failed at key times in protection against the Cowboys, also has been a major contributor in the running game. Jansen and Thomas, whose 2007 seasons were cut short because of injuries, each are in their 10th season. The Redskins selected guard-tackle Chad Rinehart in the third round of the draft, but he has been inactive in every game. Journeyman guard-tackle Jason Fabini has been inactive in six of 10 games.
The Redskins have leaned heavily on their starting offensive linemen, and "at the end of the play, if the quarterback is getting hit, it's a problem," Kendall said. "Whether it's scheme, whether it's assignments or whether it's just execution, people losing battles, whatever the problem is, it's got to get fixed.
"There's a lot that goes into pass protection, and we've had our share of breakdowns, but there have been other things that have been beyond our control. We all understand, in this business, the quick and easy thing to say is, 'If the quarterback gets hit it's the offensive line's fault.' But football is a little more subtle than that."
Footwork, use of hands and an understanding of a pass rusher's strengths are factors in how an offensive line fares in protection, several players said. And even if the line blocked well, a play still could end in a sack if the blocking scheme did not account for extra pass rushers on blitzes, quarterbacks held the ball too long, running backs failed in their blocking assignments or other factors.
Blocking technique increases in importance "when you have the quality of pass rusher" the Redskins faced against the Steelers and Cowboys, Zorn said. "You have to be perfect. You have to play with technique for 70 plays, if you have the privilege of having 70 plays. You have to play that play just like it is a perfect play for you."
The Redskins scored one touchdown on offense in the last two games and averaged 224.5 total net yards. Campbell -- who had a season-low 49.2 passer rating against Pittsburgh -- and top wide receiver Santana Moss connected seven times for 43 yards in those games.
"One thing about this business is that you have to face reality," Thomas said. "You've got to criticize yourself and you have to face criticism. Those guys [the Steelers and Cowboys] get paid to rush the passer, but we get paid to block 'em, and they made too many plays. We've got to do better."