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In search of quarterback sacks, Redskins' Brian Orakpo draws holding penalties instead

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 3:42 PM

With two sacks, Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo is not among the NFL's sack leaders, entering Sunday's game against Green Bay in a 25-way tie for No. 27 in the league. Atop the list are names like the Packers' Clay Matthews, who has seven sacks, and the San Diego's Shaun Phillips, who has six.

But Orakpo has them both beat in another category. Matthews has had just one offensive lineman flagged for holding him. Phillips has had two. Though Orakpo's sack numbers aren't as impressive as he'd like, there's a reason: Orakpo has drawn five holding penalties in the first four games of the season.

"I'm not able to have these big type of games that I want to," Orakpo said. "I'm still able to produce pressure and do what I can. But it's still frustrating at times."

Orakpo notes that after four games last season, he also had two sacks - and he finished the year with 11 and a trip to the Pro Bowl. Orakpo has 17 quarterback hurries this season, 11 more than any other teammate, according to a count compiled by Redskins coaches based on game film. So even on plays that he isn't held, he's been just a second or two away from the quarterback.

"He's doing an outstanding job," linebackers coach Lou Spanos said. "He's pressuring the quarterback, he can go outside, he can go inside. He's just doing a great job rushing the quarterback, and everybody's aware of what he can do to a game."

The NFL doesn't track individual players who are held, so it's not clear whether Orakpo leads the league. But according to FootballOutsiders.com's research, the Redskins' opponents have been penalized for a league-high 15 holding penalties through the first quarter of the NFL schedule.

For pass rushers, holding penalties "are just like sacks," defensive end Adam Carriker said. It moves the other team's offense back 10 yards, though the down must be repeated. Yardage-wise, a holding flag is more valuable than most sacks. Matthews, the league-leader, has pushed back offenses an average of 6.86 yards per sack this year.

For quarterback hunters, frustrating as it may be, being held can also be viewed as a sign of respect. It's a last resort for a blocker whose job is to keep his quarterback standing.

"If they're just blocking you straight up, they're saying, 'We can just beat you,'" Carriker said. "But if they hold you - he's caused a lot of holding penalties - that's a compliment. That means guys are struggling to block him. They have to cheat basically."

While Orakpo appreciates how it helps the team, he'd prefer to reach the quarterback.

"I'm still able to get on the edge and do what I want to do. At the same time, as far as finishing the sack and getting all these holding calls, really it takes away from your momentum," he said. "That's the thing that frustrates me."

During the games, Orkapo isn't too bothered. He says he's able to quickly move on to the next play. He caused two Philadelphia holding penalties in the Redskins' 17-12 victory over the Eagles last Sunday, so it's hard to complain after big wins. But when Orakpo gets to Redskins Park on Mondays and reviews film of each game, it's hard not to notice.

"When you come back and watch film, you see what could've transpired, all the sacks that you missed," Orakpo said. "That's what's frustrating."

Coming off a stellar rookie campaign, Orakpo knew he'd be facing increased expectations this season. He says he loves the new 3-4 defensive scheme, which defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has said would give Orakpo the green light to chase the quarterback three times more than last season. But the converted linebacker says most of the pressure he feels is internal, which is why "it's irritating to always be getting held and not get those big sack numbers that you want to."

Following his first couple of games, Orakpo shrugged it off. "I thought it was going to die down eventually," he said. But following the Eagles' game, everyone from fans to teammates seemed to notice the trend.

"It's become a little bit redundant week in and week out," said Orakpo. "I'm looking at other premier guys getting their sacks, getting big plays and not really getting held as much. But for some reason, week in and week out, it's the same thing with me."

There's not much he can do about those situations, but Orakpo says that he notices several other instances in each game when he can still make big plays. While he might've missed two sacks against the Eagles because of penalties, he said he missed two others because he was a hair behind the quarterback. It's a fine line between a four-sack game and a zero-sack outing.

"The one time, [Kevin] Kolb beat me to the edge," he said. "The other one I had him with my right arm - I mean, I'm holding the dude - I just couldn't bring him down. The other two times I got held. So there's a lot of plays out there; I just got to keep pushing."

He hopes this Sunday provides the year's breakout game. A year ago, the Packers gave up a league-high 51 sacks. But this year, Green Bay has a new starting center and right tackle, and they're actually among the league's best, having allowed only five sacks through four games, better than all but five NFL teams. (As a team, Packers offensive linemen have been penalized just three times for holding penalties this year.)

On the defensive side of the ball, Green Bay's Matthews is from his same rookie class and is enjoying the type of second-year success that Orakpo had envisioned for himself.

"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing and eventually stuff will come," Orakpo said. "I'm gonna go out, try my best and maybe this week, it's a three- or four- or five-sack game, you never know. But you got to keep working, keep being relentless and eventually stuff is going to happen."

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