The Washington Redskins handed Jon Jansen a starting job on their offensive line soon after they selected him in the second round of the college draft last spring, and he has resembled a 10-year veteran practically from the moment he stepped on the practice field for the first time.
The right tackle looked like a rookie only once, when he and his linemates struggled mightily in a 33-17 loss at Detroit on Dec. 5. Jansen had a difficult time handling Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Porcher and his teammates didn't fare much better on a day when the Redskins committed 14 penalties, had four turnovers and surrendered five sacks.
Jansen and the Redskins get another chance against the Lions Saturday in a first-round NFC playoff game at FedEx Field.
"It was the game where I struggled the most," Jansen said yesterday at Redskin Park. "I'm excited. I consider us lucky to have the opportunity we have. Not just for me but for the whole team, Detroit was the worst game we had all year. We hope we can play a lot better. . . . I have to play better. That's as simple as it gets."
Jansen's sentiments were echoed by the other members of the offensive line.
"We want to play better," veteran left tackle Andy Heck said. "We're not proud of that film [from the first Lions game]. When you turn that film on, it's ugly."
The Redskins began the season with concerns about their new starting quarterback with a history of injuries and an offensive line that surrendered a franchise-record 61 sacks last season. But quarterback Brad Johnson started all 16 games. And the rebuilt offensive line played a major role in keeping Johnson healthy and turning Johnson and tailback Stephen Davis into Pro Bowl selections. Johnson was sacked 29 times, and the Redskins yielded 31 sacks overall.
"I think most of the time we've given our team a chance to win," Heck said. "Certainly, we're not satisfied. I'm real hopeful we'll all be back together next year and improve on this. We were only together for a short time in training camp. We can do better."
The Detroit game was the most glaring exception to the improved play of the Redskins' blockers, as Johnson absorbed a pounding. The linemen couldn't hear Johnson's signals in the din of the Silverdome, and the Lions' pass rushers were a step quicker all day. Porcher had a sack and Detroit's other defensive end, Tracy Scroggins, had two.
"In the second half, we got behind and the crowd got loud," Johnson said yesterday. "That took away our snap count. They put a lot of pressure on us. I got hit a few times."
The Redskins are playing an 8-8 team that ended the season with a four-game losing steak. The Lions have a 0-19 all-time record in Washington. But Redskins Coach Norv Turner says his players won't be overconfident.
"All we have to do is put the film on," Turner said. "Jon Jansen is going to look at the film and say, 'I've got my hands full.' Andy Heck is going to look at the film and say, 'I've got my hands full.' "
Heck said: "Those guys are excellent pass rushers. The crowd was a small point. Mostly, it was the guys we played against. Porcher is going to the Pro Bowl. Scroggins is very good. [Luther] Elliss is one of the best defensive tackles in the league."
Jansen said he took some lessons from his first matchup with Porcher, who finished the regular season with 15 sacks.
"I learned a lot about him," Jansen said. "I learned a lot about myself. There are some things I can use Saturday."
Jansen didn't reach his goal of making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but left the Redskins convinced he will be a Pro Bowl-caliber player within a year or two. He played all but two of the Redskins' offensive snaps.
"I feel like I accomplished a lot," Jansen said. "But I found out there are a lot of things I need to learn."
The Redskins won't have the Silverdome crowd to contend with this time, and they hope to get an early lead and use the running of Davis to keep Detroit's defensive line off balance.
"They have a great defensive line as far as rushing the passer," said Davis, the NFC's leading rusher who is questionable to play after missing 2 1/2 games with a sprained left ankle. "They're quick. Their crowd caused us problems. We made a lot of mistakes. I feel like we can correct our mistakes. If we can get our running game going early, we can slow their pass rushers down."
Said Heck, who will be matched up with Scroggins: "The game before is history. This will be a new game. We're different teams now. I'm approaching this game like it's a huge challenge. . . . If we can get our running game going, we can take a little bit of steam out of their pass rush."
Johnson had the second 4,000-yard season ever for a Redskins quarterback, and passed the team to its division-title-clinching win with a 471-yard night at San Francisco 11 days ago. The Redskins certainly don't want him to take the sort of hits Saturday that he did in Detroit.
"If we're going to win, I'm going to have to play well," Johnson said. "But that goes for all of us. If there's one breakdown in our offensive line, I'm not any good."
Jansen said: "We need to go out and execute. There's no secret about what they do. We need to be physical and match their intensity, and try to one-up them."