Redskins' offense putting itself in bad situations with sacks

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 1:10 AM

Rookie left tackle Trent Williams was among a trio of offensive linemen who stayed after practice Wednesday afternoon at Redskins Park. Williams squatted in his stance while, one at a time, Selvish Capers and Will Robinson, members of the practice squad, rushed straight at him. The three were the last ones off the practice field.

Offensive line coach Chris Foerster, who spent the bye week studying film, believes he spotted some areas in which the line can improve. "We just wanted to work a little extra on some things," he said.

For Williams, the reasoning seems to be a bit more simple: "You never want your quarterback on the ground."

Preparing for Monday's game against Philadelphia and the second half of the season, that might be the most urgent item on the Redskins' long to-do list. While Donovan McNabb has been subjected to much of the heat both inside and outside Redskins Park, the offensive linemen know the stats and coaches realize there's a correlation between McNabb's play and the line's performance in recent weeks.

McNabb's quarterback rating on the season is 76.0, but he hasn't hit that number since Week 3. In the first four weeks of the season, McNabb was sacked only six times. In the last four games, though, the offensive line has allowed 17 total sacks, and McNabb has struggled to the point that he was benched once in favor of Rex Grossman.

As long as he's healthy, McNabb will start Monday in a rematch with his former team, the Eagles, and the line will try to buy him more time than the Redskins' last outing. The Detroit Lions had seven sacks on Oct. 31, the fourth-most in 130 NFL games this season.

The Redskins entered the season knowing the line needed a major upgrade from last season. At the season's midway point, though, it is allowing an average of 2.9 sacks per game - the exact average for all of 2009 - and ranks sixth from the bottom of the NFL in sacks allowed. Only Oakland has allowed more sacks in the past two seasons, and only four teams - Detroit, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Oakland - have allowed more during the past three seasons.

Players and coaches say there isn't one single reason the team's pass protection has struggled, allowing nearly three times as many sacks in the second quarter of the season than it did in the first. But there are a couple of obvious differences.

In eight games, the Redskins have fielded four combinations of starting linemen. Injuries have hampered Williams, Stephon Heyer and Jammal Brown, and Coach Mike Shanahan benched Derrick Dockery in favor of Kory Lichtensteiger at left guard in Week 3.

"We've moved people around in there and any time you move people around, it's a little tough to get that cohesiveness," Shanahan said. "Hopefully we will the second half. . . . You don't want a lot of changes. You want to try to keep the same starters as much as possible."

The Redskins also lost running back Clinton Portis to a groin injury in Week 4. His absence has been noticeable in pass protection. Portis has long been one of the league's best pass-blocking backs and without him picking up blitzes, the Redskins have suffered.

The timing of the Redskins' sacks has been particularly damaging. Ten have come on first down- more than any other team in the NFL. Those are downs when a healthy Portis typically would be in the backfield, and a sack sets the Redskins back before a drive has even begun.

On second down, the Redskins need an average of 8½ yards to gain a first down, which ranks No. 28 in the league. And it only gets worse.

The Redskins are bad - historically bad, thus far - on third down. Sixty-eight times this year, they've faced third-and-long (six or more yards for a first down). Only Oakland and Detroit have faced more. And Washington has converted only 23.8 percent of its third downs this year, worse than every team except Chicago.

This year's Redskins and Bears teams are posting the worst third-down conversion percentages since Stats Inc. began tracking the statistic in 1991. Only two teams since then have finished the season converting fewer than 25 percent of their third down attempts.

As a result, nearly one-quarter of Redskins drives - 26 of 105 - have ended as three-and-outs, a higher percentage than all but six teams this season.

"Obviously, we all want to get better," said center Casey Rabach. "We all want this offense to get rolling like we know it can be. I always say hard work is the remedy to a lot of things. That's what we plan on doing."

That's why Williams stayed after practice Wednesday. Foerster said coaches wanted to work specifically on the left side of the line. Though Williams has shown plenty of promise as a rookie, he has allowed 5½ sacks this season, according to Stats Inc. - 2½ more than any other linemate - and that's despite missing two games.

"We don't feel good about it," Williams said. "It's hard, because everybody's coming after Donovan. They know he's a mobile quarterback, they know he likes to get outside the pocket, so we probably see a little bit more blitzing than everybody else do."

There's no instant cure for what ails the line. Players and coaches say linemen need to improve on technique, consistency and execution.

"We're trying to find that magic formula," Shanahan said. "Hopefully we can find it Monday night."

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