The Washington Redskins reworked their offensive line for this season by choice, and got terrific results. They will rework their line again for Saturday's NFC semifinal game at Tampa Bay by necessity.
Kipp Vickers is penciled in to make his first Redskins start Saturday at left tackle in place of Andy Heck, who suffered a torn hamstring muscle early in last weekend's first-round playoff triumph over the Detroit Lions at FedEx Field.
When this week began, the Redskins were concerned about the status of two other starters on their offensive line. They were hoping that Pro Bowl guard Tre Johnson would not be suspended by the NFL for the Buccaneers game for his role in last Saturday's fight between Redskins and Lions players. And they were worried about center Cory Raymer, who suffered a pulled muscle in his side during the Detroit game.
But Johnson will be permitted by the league to play Saturday, although he was fined $50,000 and suspended from the Redskins' first regular season game next season. Raymer, who participated in his first full practice of the week yesterday, also is scheduled to start. But his injury continued to bother him yesterday, and the Redskins would turn to inexperienced backup Mark Fischer if Raymer is unable to complete the game.
Vickers will be the only newcomer joining regulars Johnson, Raymer, guard Keith Sims and tackle Jon Jansen in the starting lineup. The Redskins are crossing their fingers that their blocking will hold up against a Buccaneers defense that is among the league's best.
"We have a lot of confidence in Kipp Vickers," Sims said. "He did a great job last week. That's the toughest thing--coming off the bench, not knowing you're playing."
After yielding a franchise-record 61 sacks last season, the Redskins moved Johnson from left guard to right guard. They turned over the left side of the line to veterans Heck and Sims, and handed the right tackle job to second-round draft choice Jansen. The line, helped by new quarterback Brad Johnson's decision-making and deceptive elusiveness in the pocket, allowed just 31 sacks during the regular season.
The line passed another big test last Saturday, handling a Detroit defensive line that had overwhelmed the Redskins during a Lions' victory in December at the Silverdome. Jansen kept Lions defensive end Robert Porcher in check, and Vickers did a good job against end Tracy Scroggins. The Lions had only one sack Saturday.
Now comes an even bigger test against a Tampa Bay defense that ranked third in the league during the regular season and has four Pro Bowl players--tackle Warren Sapp, safety John Lynch and linebackers Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks.
"I think this is the best defense we've faced," Sims said. "The defensive line we faced last week in Detroit was the biggest and most physical. This line, they're so fast. Sapp is a tremendous player."
Said Brad Johnson: "It's unbelievable how quick they are. They're very simple with what they do, but they're very good at it. That's what makes them one of the best defenses in the league."
Sapp had 12 1/2 of Tampa Bay's 43 regular season sacks. The Buccaneers line him up at either tackle spot, so Sims and Tre Johnson each will have chances to block him, probably with help from Raymer.
"I've played against Warren for a long time," Sims said. "He's come a long way. When I first played against him, I was in the Pro Bowl and he was the young rookie trying to get there. Now the roles are reversed. He could be the defensive player of the year, and this was a year where I had to re-establish myself. It's going to be a tremendous challenge. He's got tremendous size [6 feet 2, 303 pounds] and strength. He's gotten a lot smarter. He has phenomenal speed and agility for a defensive lineman of his size."
Tampa Bay's defensive linemen try to confuse blockers with plenty of stunts, and the Buccaneers blitz linebackers and defensive backs effectively. The Redskins know they will have to make the Buccaneers pay for their blitzes by making big plays.
"You always have to key in on John Lynch," Brad Johnson said. "There will be six or seven plays where I'll have to [audible at the line of scrimmage] and get us into the right play depending on what their coverage is or what their blitz is."
For the Redskins' blockers, it will be a matter of getting their assignments straight as well as trying to keep from being bulldozed.
"In pass protection, we need to know where the safeties are," Sims said. "We need to know where the blitzes might come from. Obviously we're going to try to help on Sapp as much as possible, with a back [or] with double-teaming on the offensive line. We've got to know where each other is, know where your help is."
And the Redskins will have to hope that Vickers does his part. He has seven career starts--one of them in the playoffs--on his NFL resume, all with the Indianapolis Colts in 1995 and '96. He was signed by the Redskins late last season, and became Heck's backup when the team traded Shar Pourdanesh and released Joe Patton during training camp this year. Until last weekend, his Redskins tenure was most notable for the stash of candy bars he keeps in his locker, charging teammates who want to take a handful. That will change Saturday, shortly after he places his traditional pregame telephone call to his mother.
"This is what I'm here for," said Vickers, a teammate of Sapp at the University of Miami. "The coaches say all the time, 'We need everybody.' . . . This is the playoffs. This is what you work out for. This is what you run and sweat for. I feel like I've been blessed with a great opportunity here to be part of this."
CAPTION: Kipp Vickers and the Redskins held the Lions to one sack Saturday, but now comes the Warren Sapp-led Bucs, who have the third-best defense in the NFL.