Just when it looked impossible, Redskins patch together solid line

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 2009; D01

There was a time not long ago when Jason Campbell would take a snap from center, and his eyes would fall right to the inevitable, oncoming rush. During a five-week stretch in October and November, the Washington Redskins quarterback was sacked 20 times, and hit too many more to remember. And his offensive linemen kept falling, first veteran guard Randy Thomas, then Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels. And when the replacements for the regulars started getting injured, too -- guard Chad Rinehart went out for the season three weeks ago -- there seemed to be no hope the Redskins could hold together offensively.

What happened, though, has been somewhat stunning. The Redskins are using one player that was out of football when the season started, another who was out of football for the previous three seasons altogether, and another who has flip-flopped from one side to the other and back again. And, somehow, they've improved.

"I'm probably a little surprised just how fast they came along working together in practice," Campbell said Wednesday. "I know it's a little bit of a rough start at the beginning because you're trying to get a lot of guys that haven't played in a while on the same page and things like that.

"Communication in the offensive line and being physical takes time because you got to get used to each other. I feel like over the last couple of weeks they got used to our schemes, used to their blocking assignments -- and also, they know what they're doing. They're not guessing and not thinking too much."

The tallies read like this: In 13 games, the Redskins have started seven different offensive lines. Eleven offensive linemen -- more than two units' worth -- have played at some point. The Redskins have employed, on the practice squad and active roster, 14 offensive linemen. And two of the best -- Thomas and Samuels -- were lost for the season in Week 2 and Week 5, respectively.

Now, the left tackle is Levi Jones, who was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason and was out of work until the Redskins signed him Oct. 20. He was starting in his third week on the job. "That was kind of a spot that we weren't really sure about until he showed up," center Casey Rabach said.

The right guard is Mike Williams, who hadn't played in a regular season game since 2005, lost more than 100 pounds to make a return to football, and was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2002 season -- as a tackle. "Mike did an okay job at tackle," Rabach said, "but he's a way better guard. He can just use his size and all that stuff just to be a mauler in there."

Not that Williams wanted to be there.

"Here's the thing: I thought I was a good tackle," Williams said. "I mean, I was an all-American and a [high] draft choice and all of that. Why take a good tackle and move him? . . . Don't get me wrong, moving to guard, it's an adjustment. But our size helps. We take up a lot of space. A 350-pound guard is a big guard.

"And being that I played tackle for a lot of my career, my footwork is slightly different. I'm used to having quick feet for guys coming off the edge and changing directions. I'm used to facing those exceptional athletes."

The right tackle is Stephon Heyer, the third-year player from Maryland who began the season right where he's playing now, took Samuels's spot when the veteran went down with a neck injury, and then moved back to right tackle when Jones emerged.

How tough is it to deal with all those moving parts?

"It's very difficult," said Giants Coach Tom Coughlin, whose team is preparing to face the Redskins on Monday night. "To not have a guy even in training camp, to try to work with, and then to make some good decisions along the lines of what the players can best do and what does not over-tax them and how can you get on the same page as fast as you possibly can. That's the most difficult job."

The Redskins, apparently, have handled that part of the job. Campbell has still been sacked 33 times, fifth most in the NFL, and the Oakland Raiders brought him down three times Sunday. But over the last four games -- a quarter of the season -- the Redskins have given up just 1.25 sacks a game, compared to 3.33 per over the first nine games. Given the personnel, how can that happen?

"I don't know," Redskins offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said.

Smith, though, gave credit to veteran offensive line coach Joe Bugel, and said, "That group is working really hard." Rabach, who has missed just one of 77 regular season games since he became a Redskin in 2005, and left guard Derrick Dockery, who returned to the Redskins this season after two years in Buffalo, are the only two linemen who have not missed a game. Dockery, in fact, hasn't missed one in his seven-year NFL career. Those two have been forced to serve as tape and glue and spit when the coaches were trying to patch things together.

"During the week, when we were doing a lot of shuffling and stuff, I was kind of the guy who was answering a lot more questions," Rabach said. "People would say, 'If this happens, what are we doing?' But on game day it's just business as usual. It has to be."

On Sunday, business as usual will be that same group -- Jones, Dockery, Rabach, Williams and Heyer -- starting together for the third straight week. And in the midst of a lost season, that unlikely group might gain some measure of satisfaction.

"Any time you get thrown a curveball that you can succeed at is great satisfaction," Rabach said. "Each season you kind of take a few things away from it, and this season I'm just going to take away all the things that went awry for us on the offensive line, and what we did to overcome those."

Staff writer Jason Reid contributed to this report.

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