By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009
With Pittsburgh starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing Saturday night's preseason game because of injury, Steelers fans surely expected a new face in their backfield. They probably didn't realize it would belong to Redskins rookie Brian Orakpo, though.
Playing in just his second professional game, Orakpo practically set up camp on the other side of the Steelers' offensive line, hanging off the Pittsburgh quarterbacks like a cape for much of the night.
"I felt good. I'm getting a lot more acclimated to the positions they have me at," Orakpo said.
As he did a week earlier in Baltimore, Orakpo played longer than the rest of the defensive starters in Saturday's 17-13 victory at FedEx Field.
Albert Haynesworth, London Fletcher and the rest of the first-string unit left for the sidelines after one quarter. But Orakpo stayed in the game for the entire first half, putting together the kind of performance team officials had been dreaming about since draft day.
"Brian created some great pressure off the edge," said Haynesworth. "He was all over the field and made a lot of plays. He is a great young talent."
By halftime, Orakpo had played a role in four tackles, tops on the team. But more importantly, he found himself in the middle of several plays, bouncing back and forth between defensive end and linebacker. He showed the versatility coaches think will provide an instant impact on a defensive unit that was ranked No. 4 in the NFL last season.
While coaches were pleased with Orakpo's performance in the preseason opener a week earlier, Saturday's showing provided more hints as to what the defense is capable of with the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder in the lineup.
A season ago, the Redskins relied on a 4-3 defense, but they spent much of the first half Saturday night in a 3-4 formation. The addition of Orakpo and Haynesworth, a high-profile free agent acquisition from Tennessee, gives defensive coordinator Greg Blache flexibility that wasn't possible a season ago. Haynesworth, a two-time Pro Bowl selection playing his first preseason game, adds a big body in the middle of the line, one that often commands the attention of at least two offensive linemen.
It's a new look for the Redskins defense and a new position for Orakpo. After four years playing defensive end at the University of Texas, the Redskins drafted him hoping he could learn to play strong-side linebacker. During training camp, Orakpo spent more time practicing with the linebackers than the defensive linemen, studying technique and learning coverage.
At different times Saturday night, Orakpo lined up on the edge, his hand on the ground, and fought through the offensive line. He pressured Pittsburgh quarterbacks on at least three occasions and came close to notching his first sack in a professional uniform.
Midway through the second quarter, the Steelers faced a third and six from their 36-yard line. Pittsburgh's third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon was working out of a shotgun formation and failed to handle the snap. Dixon quickly recovered the ball but could barely catch his breath before Orakpo smothered him at the line of scrimmage.
At other times, Orakpo started plays standing behind the defensive line and fell back into coverage. On one of the Steelers' longest drives of the first half -- which resulted in Jeff Reed's 34-yard field goal -- Orakpo was twice credited for tackles on pass plays.
Along with Byron Westbrook, he helped stop Steelers wide receiver Shaun McDonald on a seven-yard reception, keeping him shy of the first-down marker and forcing a third down. Three plays later, Orakpo and safety Lendy Holmes stopped McDonald again on a 1-yard pass to the right side.
With two preseason games remaining, Orakpo and the defense are already showing ways it can improve on last year's strong showing.
"I think it's going to be a good fit for us," Haynesworth said. "I'm excited about this defense. We need to jell a little bit more, but this defense can be one of the best in the league."