By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009
When the Washington Redskins' offensive linemen isolated themselves in a corner of a practice field Wednesday, Stephon Heyer went through the monotony of drills he had performed the week before and the week before that. He put his hand on the ground, offensive line coach Joe Bugel grunted a signal, and Heyer stood up, ran to his left, and collided with a blocking sled. It is what offensive linemen do to prepare, a violent drill for a violent life.
Despite the repetitive nature of the job, Heyer's role has fundamentally changed less than a month into the season. He still plays right tackle, and whether he develops or not will still play an important part in determining whether he can be part of the Redskins' future. But Randy Thomas, he of the 141 career starts and the 10 NFL seasons, was to be alongside Heyer, a guiding force at guard.
Now, Thomas is done, out for the year because of a torn triceps muscle. Into his place steps Chad Rinehart, a third-round draft pick in 2008 who played college ball at division I-AA Northern Iowa. Since Thomas went down Sept. 20 against St. Louis, Heyer has aged just two weeks and played exactly one more NFL game. It doesn't matter that he has all of 15 NFL starts. As Thomas said, "Stephon's got to be the vet now."
Said Heyer, "You definitely feel a difference."
The Redskins, as a whole, feel a difference, too. The coaching staff has publicly praised Heyer as a hard worker who has gotten stronger. But they are also realistic about what can be expected from a right side of the line that now boasts a 25-year-old undrafted free agent and a 24-year-old who has played in one NFL game.
"He's done pretty well," Coach Jim Zorn said of Heyer. "He's very attentive. He studies well. They just need to get a feel for each other."
If they do not, then the Redskins could come to rely even more heavily on the left side of the line, where Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels plays alongside seven-year veteran Derrick Dockery. Last week, when the Redskins lost to the Detroit Lions, Zorn concentrated on the passing game, because that's where he felt the Lions were most susceptible. Of the 14 run plays Zorn called against Detroit, six went to the right side for 38 yards; one went up the middle for two yards; and seven went left, gaining only eight yards.
"We don't look at it and say, 'We can only run left,' " offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, who is in charge of the run game. "That's not it at all. We will call plays we believe will work, and we'll run over Stephon, no question."
Running over Heyer means running toward Rinehart, too. But does Heyer believe he has to play a role in helping Rinehart develop?
"Not really," Heyer said. "I think Chad, he knows what's going on. He knows what he needs to do."
That isn't a universally held belief. As Smith said, the change from Thomas to Rinehart "increases [Heyer's] responsibility."
"He's got to be a better communicator because we've got a younger guy in there," Zorn said. "It's not the toughness. It's not knowing what to do. It's communicating when adjustments have to be made. Those two guys are working to try to get that done."
Said Thomas: "He's got a young guy next to him now. He's got to communicate with him. A younger guy's going to be known to be a little quieter than some guys, but I think him and Stephon could do a great job. Everybody's got to help everyone."
Thomas, 33, said he is willing to do his part even though he can't play. He said he will work with Rinehart, both in practice and in the film room. Thomas will be on the sideline Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he said he would travel to road games as well. The list of areas about which he can preach is long.
"What I know as a pro, what type of techniques, and mentally what I know about the guy he's facing, or some things I noticed that [offensive line coach Joe Bugel] didn't say," Thomas said. "Just two eyes, compared to one set of Buges's. I'm kind of out there watching, observing what I see, and I can just focus more on Rinehart."
Heyer is clearly trying to focus on himself. Originally inserted into the starting lineup prior to the 2008 season because Zorn, among others, felt he was a better pass blocker than veteran Jon Jansen, Heyer lost the job because of left shoulder sprain early in the season. The Redskins cut Jansen last spring, and Heyer won the job in the offseason, beating out veterans Mike Williams and Jeremy Bridges. He figured he would line up next to Thomas, but he said he is not concentrating on how his performance is affected by Rinehart's.
"What I do is different," he said. "I don't need Randy to do my job. I don't need any guard to help me do my job. When it comes down to one-on-one situations, as far as pass protection or whatever, that's me."