The one-on-one pass-rushing drill may consume no more than 20 minutes of a two-hour Washington Redskins practice. But in the early days of training camp, it has offered a telling window on two critical aspects of the team's game: The aggressiveness of the defensive line and the ability of the offensive line to protect the quarterback.
Both units were disappointments last year. The Redskins' offensive line gave up a team-record 61 sacks, while the defense, projected to be the team's strength, finished 28th in the NFL.
During the offseason, the team shored up its weakness at defensive end by signing San Diego's Marco Coleman. His counterpart, Kenard Lang, looks much improved. And tackles Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield appear more fit and hungry than last year, suggesting the vaunted line may finally come together.
The outlook for the offensive line is murkier. While the Redskins drafted Michigan's Jon Jansen at right tackle, they'll try to select a left tackle from competition among 11-year veteran Andy Heck, released from Chicago, and Shar Pourdanesh and Joe Patton, who shared duties late last season.
Heck's first practice will be Thursday, when veterans arrive. In the meantime, Redskins coaches have worked exclusively with rookies and players recovering from injury. And during that time, coaches have called for plenty of pass-rushing drills with two goals in mind: Evaluating the Patton-Pourdanesh battle at left tackle and preparing Jansen for a starting role at right tackle.
Anyone who tracked the results through the first three days of camp would know the defense ruled the drill, with Coleman, Lang and Ndukwe Kalu proving handfuls at end and Wilkinson and Stubblefield having their way at defensive tackle.
The drill mimics game situations of second- or third-and-long. The offensive and defensive lines face off, and on the count of fourth-string quarterback John Paci, a designated pair does battle: Patton vs. Coleman, for example, or Jansen vs. Lang.
As entertainment, it's not as poetic as watching wide receivers practice one-handed catches. Its appeal is a brutal, naked clarity: Most often, it ends with one man standing.
"It's a pride drill," Jansen said. "It's a manhood drill."
The offensive linemen have the advantage because they know the count. At the snap, their hands spring up, feet shuffle back and toes dig in to protect the quarterback. The defensive linemen, keying on their opponent's movement, lunge forward with a surge, trying to knock their opponent off balance. The essential weapons are quick feet, quick hands and leverage. The rule of thumb, as every Pop Warner player knows, is "Low pads win."
With a semicircle of scouts, assistant coaches and line-mates gathered round, there's something vaguely Roman about the drill. The cheers, jeers and chatter are constant.
"Make him run through you!"
"Is that how they do it in the Big Ten?"
Typically, each player being tested faces four opponents in succession. Pourdanesh, for example, might face Coleman, Kalu, Derrick Ham and Rahmaan Streater, one after the other.
The main battle at camp is at left tackle. Coach Norv Turner will keep his 10 best offensive linemen. There are 18 on the roster; of those, eight are tackles.
"They have to find a guy who's going to be their left tackle for the year," Patton said. "They're trying to find a guy who they have confidence in and believe in and can stick him in there and just let him play."
Pourdanesh struggled with the drill today. Coleman blew past him once, then Kalu and Derrick Ham.
"It's a tough drill," Pourdanesh says. "You're not going to win every single one of them in that drill. I definitely have to get better. I was trying a different technique, switching back to the way I used to play left tackle with my left hand down."
On Tuesday, it was Jansen who struggled.
"What you want to see with a rookie is progress," offensive line coach Russ Grimm said. "What you want to see with a veteran is consistency."
Though Patton held the edge, he and Pourdanesh frequently stood side-by-side as they waited for their turns, deep in conversation.
"I won't pull a punch with Shar," Patton said. "I'll tell him what he's doing wrong; he'll do the same. I've been knowing Shar going on five years. I like Shar. He's a good guy, a good competitor, a fierce fighter. And I want to see him do the best; he wants the same for me. We're still teammates as of right now. Regardless of whether we're fighting for the same position or fighting for whatever, we're teammates."
For an eight-year veteran such as Coleman, whose confidence and credentials are well established, the drill's main value is a chance to experiment and fine-tune his technique. In just three days, he has turned heads with his tenacity and drive, seemingly running every drill at top speed, with total focus.
"One time, I tried to spin inside and then spin back out," Coleman says. "It didn't work. But I wouldn't try that normally in a game setting. I want to win the drill -- trust me. I never approach any drill without trying to win. I'm trying to beat the guy. But at the same time, I want to try some things I normally wouldn't."
Coaches can't infer too much from the one-on-one pass-rushing drill. Though it simulates competition, it can't simulate the multiple variables that get flung into second-and-long situations in a real game. But during training camp, it has all the essentials of good theater.
"In my opinion," says Patton, "the most competitive part of practice is the one-on-one. That's where it's going to be: All the fire, all the intensity, all the battles."