By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
The Washington Redskins' morning practice had finished more than 20 minutes earlier. Most of the players were in the locker room, and fans were heading to their cars. The only man remaining on the field was propped atop a riding lawn mower.
Not far away in the searing heat, veteran coach Joe Bugel, as he sometimes does, sat alone on a chair between the practice fields, legs outstretched and eyes cast toward the sky where jets were landing at nearby Dulles International Airport. On Tuesday morning, for the offensive line coach, there was a lot to ponder.
Not even one week into training camp, Bugel's linemen are struggling on the field and grappling with minor injuries off it. The line's injury report is already in midseason form.
Tackle Stephon Heyer suffered a bruised left knee during practice Tuesday morning. The team indicated that results looked encouraging, although it's unclear when Heyer will return.
Also, Randy Thomas had a light practice because of an ailing knee, Mike Williams injured his groin, Casey Rabach had calf pain and Rueben Riley sprained his ankle.
So yes, watching some airplanes land might have been the highlight of practice.
The early days of camp have not been kind to the offensive line. For example, coaches and team executives have been raving about the performance of rookie defensive end-linebacker Brian Orakpo. But several times, his successes have come at the expense of six-time Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels.
From individual matchup drills to 11-on-11 team drills, the linemen have been noticeably overmatched by their defensive counterparts, and through 10 practices, they've struggled to find a rhythm.
"It's a work in progress," guard Derrick Dockery said. "You just don't come together overnight."
The question fans at training camp have been asking: Does the mismatch between the units reflect more on the offensive or defensive lines? The most likely answer, at least for now: a bit of both.
"I don't expect them to come out here and look like the number one offense against us," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "Who does?"
Daniels said that in the early days of camp the defense's advantage is all about timing. Put simply, the offense has to worry about it; the defense doesn't.
"We just go," Daniels said. "We know where we're going, they don't. Offense has got to work to get everything down. They've got to build their chemistry. You know, know the guy next to you. It takes some time for the offense because you've got certain block schemes, certain things, and your offensive linemen have to work together on a certain block."
Despite the offensive line's struggles the last half of last season, the Redskins focused on shoring up their defense during the offseason, signing free agent defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, re-signing cornerback DeAngelo Hall and using the first-round pick on Orakpo.
On offense, the team brought back Dockery but parted ways with veterans Jon Jansen and Pete Kendall, making a leap of faith. Heyer might be ready to take over at right tackle. Facing most of the same players again this year seems to provide another advantage for a tough defensive unit.
"When you go up against a guy so many times, he knows your moves, you know his moves," defensive end Andre Carter said. "It's like having a little brother and a big brother."
On Tuesday, Coach Jim Zorn often used the second-string defense against the first-team offense, thinking less disruption would help the offense find its rhythm. But the linemen have to stay healthy to truly take advantage of the practice time.
The team concluded Tuesday's practice with two reserve linemen practicing with the first team, and coaches weren't sure exactly who would be available when the team reconvened Wednesday morning.
"We're just taking it day by day and continuing to get better," Thomas told a reporter. "We'll let you guys continue writing stories, and we'll play ball."
After Heyer went down early in team drills, Jeremy Bridges replaced him at right tackle, and Chad Rinehart, a 2008 third-round pick, took over for Thomas on the interior.
"Some days the defense is going to get us," Rinehart said. "They're good. But every day that we're out here, we know we have to give it our all."
Quarterback Jason Campbell tried to derive something positive from the nicks and bumps that ail the line. At some point, he figures, the Redskins will have to dip into their well of linemen.
"These are quality reps for them," Campbell said. "During the season, they don't get a lot of them. So they need to take advantage of this opportunity, so they're ready for whenever their number is called someday."
Asked whether he is concerned about minor injuries on the line, Zorn was careful with his words. He spends most of his practice time observing the offense and knows as well as anyone the line's struggles and its flashes of potential thus far.
"I think head coaches are concerned about everything," he said. "But what I like is the effort and the shape that these guys have come in. I mean, it's hard. They're battling through muscle strains and things like that. They have come in pretty good shape."
It's a sentiment echoed by many around the practice field, who noted several linemen reported to camp slimmer and stronger than years past. The challenge now is to translate that to some semblance of success on the field.
"Coach Bugel expects a lot of intensity," Rinehart said, "and we have to give it to him."
On Tuesday, a half-hour after practice had ended, Bugel finally rose from his seat. He took a few steps and dropped to the ground for 60 quick push-ups. Then he walked around the end zone and the length of two football fields before dropping for 40 more push-ups.
He finished his walk, circling to the front of the building and retiring to his office. Film of the day's practice was waiting. There was plenty more work to be done.
Staff writers Jason Reid and Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.