By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
When the preseason schedule was released five months ago, the Redskins knew they'd start against a couple of tough defenses. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, in fact, were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the NFL last season.
What the Redskins coaches didn't know then, however, was how their offensive line might fare against such aggressive and varied attacks. After a tough showing against Baltimore, the first-team line looked improved against the defending Super Bowl champs Saturday. The coaches, and linemen, are taking this as an encouraging sign.
The team opened training camp and saw its offensive linemen get pushed around in practice for the better part of three weeks by their burgundy-clad defensive counterparts. With minor injuries, both old and new, affecting several players, the line's performance provided plenty of sky-is-falling fodder for message boards, bar stools and talk radio.
"As long as I've been playing football, the defense always seems to start out a step ahead," center Casey Rabach said. "But the past week and a half or so, we've really been jelling, and I think we're becoming the line that we want to be. There's still room for improvement, but things are coming together."
As the team prepares for Friday's game against the New England Patriots, Coach Jim Zorn said he's pleased with the progress he's seen.
"I'm very excited about the fact that we've given our [starting quarterback] time and even our backups -- our young guys -- time as well, to stand strong and throw," Zorn said following practice Monday, the first practice since training camp and two-a-days officially concluded last week. "We've had some good play development. You can see the plays develop now and us getting a chance to make them work."
Much of the focus and scrutiny since Saturday's win over the Steelers has focused on the lack of production out of quarterback Jason Campbell. Though Campbell was just 1-of-7 passing, unlike last season's struggles, no one could point a finger at the offensive line. At least for one week.
For the most part, Campbell and the three quarterbacks who relieved him had a comfortable pocket from which to operate most of the game. Rabach said the team has switched some of its blocking assignments for this season and the pass protection appears already to be benefiting.
What made the early performances especially impressive were the defensive fronts the Ravens and Steelers were showing. Even though it's only preseason, neither defense wasted time with conservative attacks. They both stood several players upright at the snap and blitzed from all directions.
"We've picked up some complicated blitzes with these first two teams that we played and stood our ground," Zorn said. "There've been some scrambles, there've been some needs for scrambles but nearly as much as we saw last year."
The Patriots' defense has started slowly this preseason. Through two games, New England has given up more yards than any other team in the league, an average of 383 per game. The Patriots have, however, managed six sacks in two outings.
The Redskins are expected to play their starting offense for the entire first half. The first-team line appears to be healthy heading into Friday's game, and the team's veteran linemen say that's the real key to having a successful year. During camp, left tackle Chris Samuels, right guard Randy Thomas and right tackle Stephon Heyer all missed multiple practices due to injury.
"You can see we're getting better," said left guard Derrick Dockery. "We just come here to work each and every day. The more reps we can get, the better we play. I think you're seeing that right now."
Dockery rejoined the Redskins after spending the past two years with the Buffalo Bills. He said lining up alongside Samuels feels normal, and it didn't take long for the two to rediscover the rhythm necessary to protecting their quarterback's blind side.
"It's still the same. He loves the game as much as ever, and he's still an elite left tackle," said Dockery, who started 55 games next to Samuels from his rookie year in 2003 until he left for Buffalo in 2007. "It feels good to be back next to him."
Dockery was the biggest upgrade for the line during the offseason. The Redskins said good-bye to longtime right tackle Jon Jansen, but coaches say Heyer is ready to take over the position. Even without a bigger facelift, Rabach always liked the Redskins' returning pieces.
"Last year didn't end the way we wanted it to," Rabach said. "We took the criticism, but I knew the players we'd have here and I always had confidence. I know what we're capable of."
With less than three weeks until the opener against the New York Giants, the Redskins are starting to answer some looming questions, and after Friday's game against the Patriots, the regular season roster will start taking shape. While the first-string line seems set, there are still concerns further down the depth chart.
While coaches and team officials have raved about the offseason progress tackle Mike Williams has made -- he has dropped more than 100 pounds since the first of the year -- they haven't had a chance to see much of what he's capable of on the field.
Williams missed practice again Monday, still nursing a low ankle sprain. He's been out since last Tuesday and also has missed all or part of practices during training camp because of dehydration and an abdominal strain.
"I can't change what's happened," Williams said Monday. "I'm not worried about it. I know what they want to see. I know what I want to prove. We got a little taste in Baltimore; it's just unfortunate I couldn't get out there for Pittsburgh. Being smart and knowing what's going on, hopefully we can get out there during New England."
Williams did some light jogging Monday, and though he hopes to play against the Patriots, he's not certain when he'll be able to practice at full speed.
"Your body is going to heal at its rate," he said. "I guess if there's a frustrating thing, your mind and your heart is one spot, and your body needs a little more rest, it's going to heal on its own time."