The Washington Redskins' quarterbacks were protected during the preseason as if they were hermetically sealed: The Redskins allowed a league-best three sacks in five games, an especially impressive feat, since the club lost right tackle Jon Jansen to a season-ending injury in the first exhibition game.
But in the past two games -- both losses -- pass rushers plowed through to batter quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey for nine sacks. It's the same number that the Redskins allowed in the entire 1991 season, when Coach Joe Gibbs won his last Super Bowl.
At this rate, the Redskins would allow 48 sacks for the season, a huge number for a Gibbs-coached team.
"Nine sacks is like having a whole season," assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel said yesterday. "You don't give 'em up in two weeks. But we can't get hung up on it. We have to get it fixed."
The Redskins spent the first 15 minutes of yesterday's 90-minute practice reviewing pass protection.
An offensive line tends to receive the brunt of criticism for the proliferation of sacks. However, Washington's unit -- particularly the left side -- has performed little differently from preseason. The increase in defensive pressure against Washington's quarterbacks stems from poor execution by the entire offense, Gibbs said.
"It's everybody," Gibbs, whose team is 1-2 and last in the NFC East heading into Sunday's game in Cleveland. "If the receiver isn't where you expect him to be or he's not running the right route. Or you got the back that doesn't do his pass protection. It's the offensive line. Tight ends are a big part of it. Generally, if your quarterback is quick getting rid of the ball, that helps for sure. So it's everybody. I think it's been a little bit here, a little bit there."
The Redskins' offense, ranked No. 15 in the 32-team NFL, has been behind for most of both losses, putting the unit in predictable passing situations that defenses exploit. In the season opener, a 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay, the Redskins rushed 34 times, not including quarterback carries, for 165 yards. In the past two games, against New York and Dallas, the Redskins have rushed a combined 47 times for 142 yards, not including quarterback runs.
Other sacks were attributed to tight coverage, with the quarterbacks holding the ball too long while waiting for a receiver to wriggle free. Two of the five sacks Brunell suffered against the Cowboys on Monday night were for that reason. The problem is compounded when a team is losing because the quarterback must wait for a receiver to run longer routes.
"As soon as there's a sack, people say, 'Hey the offensive line stinks,' " said Bugel, who estimates that a quarterback has only 2.5 seconds to get rid of the ball in a typical pass play. "But you have to keep everything in the right perspective, which we do."
Brunell said, "I think the protection [from the line] has been good lately."
Teams have blitzed on virtually every passing down, particularly up the middle, forcing the Redskins into one-on-one blocking matchups that have been lost more than won. Instead of the Redskins double-teaming top pass rushers, during blitzes Washington must often rely on a tailback blocking a linebacker and occasionally a defensive back. The best way to deter blitzes is by making big plays.
"Until you do a very good job on the blitz, people are going to get off the bus blitzing us," Bugel said.
The Redskins have even had several protection breakdowns on play-action plays, which have been a point of emphasis in practice. In Gibbs's system, the Redskins use up to eight players to pass block, including the H-back -- a position that combines the duties of a tight end and fullback -- and the tailback. And the No. 3 receiver, James Thrash, is critical to blocking defensive ends. The coaches stress that players must be aware of the defensive lineup and adhere to their blocking responsibilities. "If one guy slips up, that's a sack," Bugel said.
One problem on the offensive line is miscommunication, especially trying to figure out who to block when a defense overloads on one side of the line with defensive backs.
Because of Jansen's absence, the Redskins have provided more help via an extra blocker to his replacements, Ray Brown and Kenyatta Jones. Brown, 41, became a starter against the Giants after Jones started the season opener. Brown played well despite matching up against left defensive end Michael Strahan, one of the league's top pass rushers. But Brown struggled against unheralded Cowboys defenders, he said, because of flaws in his technique. "Those are things I can address," Brown said yesterday.
Offensive linemen Derrick Dockery and Chris Samuels are familiar with each other from playing most of last season together. Samuels has been splendid since holding Tampa's Simeon Rice to zero sacks in the season opener with almost no help. "I'm pleased with the way I'm playing," Samuels said, "but as a team I'm not happy because we're 1-2."
Brown, who is slated to start Sunday, is still learning to play with Thomas. But the entire line still has to get in synch, especially after the insertion of the latest starter; center Cory Raymer replaced Lennie Friedman as a starter on Monday partly because of problems with snaps in previous games. And Bugel said he intends to use Raymer indefinitely.
"You don't want to make a merry-go-around of the offensive line," Bugel said, "so hopefully this bunch grows together."
Said Thomas of the sacks, "Hopefully it's just a phase, and we're over it."