By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 12:10 AM
This Sunday at FedEx Field, Will Montgomery will be the starting right guard for the Washington Redskins, a position he won by beating out veteran Artis Hicks.
"I don't think you've ever won the job," Montgomery said.
Against the New York Giants, the guard opposite Montgomery will be Kory Lichtensteiger, a center by trade who had never started an NFL game prior to this year. Does his experience in starting for 13 straight weeks at guard mean he thinks he has a future at the position?
"I have no idea," Lichtensteiger said. "I'm not going to try to predict that sort of thing."
Headed into their final game of the season, the Redskins have very few certainties on offense. But what the Redskins do know: Coach Mike Shanahan's offense relies heavily on a zone-blocking scheme that is best run by smaller, more mobile linemen, particularly in the running game. What they need to find out: Are Montgomery and Lichtensteiger two pieces that might already be in place? And regardless of who plays quarterback in 2011, can this line keep that player upright?
"I think you're always working to get better, but I'm really pleased with where we're at right now," Shanahan said. "Guys are working. Guys are getting a good feel of where we're at. It's not perfect by no means, but much improved as the year's gone on."
Before quarterback Donovan McNabb was benched for the final three games in favor of backup Rex Grossman, the line's play was a source of consternation. Was McNabb's performance, substandard when compared to the rest of his career, due to the fact that the line couldn't hold up? After allowing just one sack against Jacksonville last week, Washington has given up 44 sacks this season; only Chicago and Carolina have surrendered more.
"It's come along, but we're not where we want to be," center Casey Rabach said. "Long way to go. Hopefully a great offseason, we'll get it there."
But there are no assurances that the entire line will be back. Left tackle Trent Williams, the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft - who on Wednesday described his rookie season as "average" - will return. Right tackle Jammal Brown - whose health and performance have improved in the second half of the season - could be a free agent. Rabach is due $3 million in salary in 2011. After Shanahan replaced four of the five starters from 2009, more change could be in the offing.
It's possible, though, the change might not involve the guards. Lichtensteiger, 25, isn't here by accident. After playing center at Bowling Green, he was taken by Denver in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. The coach with the Broncos back then: Mike Shanahan. The system Lichtensteiger ran in college: zone-blocking.
"I was watching tape when I got to Denver, and I was like, 'Oh, this is pretty much what I did in college,' " Lichtensteiger said. "And obviously with Mike here, it's a version of the same offense. It fits my skills pretty well."
It might fit his size pretty well, too. Derrick Dockery, who had Lichtensteiger's job to open the season, began the year having played in all 112 games of his NFL career. But at 6 feet 6, 325 pounds, he is built more for a traditional, straight-ahead blocking scheme. In the zone system, guards frequently get out on the run and are asked not only to take on defensive linemen, but to release through the line and take out linebackers. Lichtensteiger, who Shanahan called a "fighter," is 6-2, 292 pounds - and better suited for the system.
"I consider myself a bit of an overachiever," Lichtensteiger said. "I don't have the biggest frame. I'm not the prototypical offensive guard in the NFL, so I'm going to try probably harder than most people will, and when I climb to the second level, I'm going to try to cut somebody's legs out from under them. I'm going to try to hurt somebody. That's what I do."
Montgomery, 27, also has the ability to play center, as he did when Rabach injured his knee Nov. 21 at Tennessee. But it was the following week against Minnesota when Shanahan officially turned to Montgomery at guard. Hicks, a 6-4, 318-pound nine-year veteran who was still battling thigh and groin injuries, was ineffective. Montgomery went in and has started the four games since.
Shanahan said Montgomery had "one of the best games that I've seen against" Dallas's defensive line.
"I know I have a job this week, and I'm going to try to keep it till next week," Montgomery said. "That's the way I look at it."
Coming out of Virginia Tech in 2006, Montgomery was actually hoping he would go undrafted, because then he could pick his team. The Centreville native had his eye on Atlanta and Denver. Both ran the zone-blocking scheme. Instead, he was drafted in the seventh round by Carolina. He started four games for the Panthers as a rookie, but was cut prior to 2007.
"I think I'm just a good fit for this offensive system in general," he said. "I feel like I'm fast, and I can get out and run a little bit. So I like to be in the type of offense where you're running a lot."
Rabach, who spent all of training camp working with Dockery to his left and Hicks to his right, said Lichtensteiger and Montgomery have fit in well.
"I think those guys that have been castoffs of a lot of other teams, they just worked hard and found a spot," Rabach said.
Williams, though, is supposed to be the line's anchor, and Shanahan made him the first offensive lineman selected in this year's draft in part because of his exceptional footwork. This month, Shanahan said one positive development this year is that "Trent Williams is learning to be a pro."
That didn't necessarily come naturally.
"You have to be self-motivated," Williams said Wednesday. "Nobody's going to walk you along. The next guy wants your job, and the coaches are going to play whoever's better. No excuses."
That was the message Dockery and Hicks found out this year. Now, Montgomery and Lichtensteiger realize the same thing: They may be starters now, but between now and the beginning of next season, anything could change.