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Washington Redskins find a thin line between a solid blocking unit and one in disarray

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:22 AM

As the Redskins continue to search for an identity on offense, perhaps no unit better represents the team's inconsistency than its offensive line. The problem isn't that they play differently from week to week. Heading into this week's game at Detroit, it's more of a quarter to quarter issue.

"The first quarter is one way, the fourth quarter is another way and the second and third quarters look even different," said offensive line coach Chris Foerster.

Foerster reiterates one of the team's prevailing themes - "everyone's learning, everyone's new" - but acknowledges that seven weeks into the season, there's a sense of urgency facing the line.

"You have to catch up pretty quickly," he said. "We're at that point in the year that things should start coming together."

Thus far, results have been mixed. The current starting group features four players who weren't a part of the organization a year ago. As a unit, they're faring better than last season's line, but coaches and player agree that there's plenty of room for improvement.

The Redskins' 16 sacks allowed is the ninth-most in the NFL, though still well behind last season's pace of nearly three sacks per game. Quarterback Donovan McNabb has suffered 36 quarterback hits, more than all but seven teams have given up. Washington already has faced 10 of the league's top 21 sack leaders, though, so those numbers could improve.

"We've moved a few people around. But I like what we've got," said Coach Mike Shanahan. "I think we've made some strides, especially with moving people around. I think we'll get better each and every game."

That search for improvement has coaches still carefully evaluating players each day at practice, tying performance to the depth chart as if the team was still in the throes of training camp. At right tackle, Shanahan intends to have Jammal Brown and Stephon Heyer alternate each series this weekend, similar to the way Kory Lichtensteiger and Derrick Dockery shared the left guard job early in the season.

"There's no question that you'd rather have the same five guys from Day 1," Foerster said. "But you also have to put the best five players on the field and unfortunately, here we are in the eighth week of the season and that's still in doubt."

While each lineman has shown flashes of promise, their struggles have also been difficult to miss. Rookie Trent Williams has given up three sacks, according to Stats Inc., though he's faced many of the league's top pass rushers - most recently, Chicago's Julius Peppers.

"I thought I did okay. Other times, I thought I had some plays I could've done a lot better on," Williams said of Peppers. "But that's football."

Brown, still slowed by a hip injury that kept him out all of last season, has also given up three sacks so far. In his first four years in the league, Brown gave up an average of barely three sacks per season, according to Stats Inc.

Brown's hip has kept him from performing as coaches had hoped when they acquired him from New Orleans in June. He has difficulty bending, getting low on his blocks and moving as quickly as he'd like.

"So at times, it means you play too high in the scheme, sometimes you don't get as much movement in the running game, or you don't get as much ability to stop," Foerster said.

Brown's struggles have allowed Heyer into a competition for playing time. Heyer, who started two games in place of Williams this season, allowed nine sacks last year but has allowed just one this season.

In limited playing time through seven games, though, he's already matched his total number of holding penalties for 2009. In fact, his three holds tie him for first in the league. (As a team, the Redskins are tied for third in the NFL with nine offensive holding penalties, according to Stats Inc.) And Heyer's three false-start penalties are just one fewer than his season total for 2009.

Next to him is right guard Artis Hicks, whose four false starts is just one fewer than his career high. And at left guard, Lichtensteiger has looked like a liability at times in the passing game and has allowed two sacks so far. But coaches like his flexibility and quick feet enough that competition at that position appears to be over. Last year's starting left guard, Derrick Dockery, has been inactive the past three games.

While McNabb's mobility and keen awareness in the pocket have certainly helped him avoid some danger, the Redskins seem to be making more progress in the running game in recent weeks. Last Sunday, Ryan Torain became the first Redskins player in two years to notch consecutive 100-yard games. The Redskins ground game is ranked No. 21 in the league, averaging 96.7 yards per game heading into Sunday's trip to Detroit.

"It's a process. But we're getting there, I think," said center Casey Rabach. "I think the running game is coming along. Like I've said every week, we still have things to work on, no doubt."

But they lack consistency on the field and continuity in the lineup, two essential concepts that are tied together intimately.

"The good thing is, we've had so much uncertainty at times at different positions, so most of these guys have worked together a lot," Foerster said. "It's not like it's a huge learning curve. But again, it's not like they've been together for four or five years either."

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