Before completing two dramatic long throws to shock Dallas on "Monday Night Football" with a late-game comeback Sept. 19, Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell had spent the better part of the evening running for his life. Brunell, 35, proved that he remains mobile at this stage of his career but would rather not be provided with such a platform on a weekly basis, as the Cowboys still sacked him five times, exacting several punishing blows.
"They just wanted to see if I still had a little bit left in the legs," Brunell said jokingly of his offensive line. "It was a test."
If so, then Brunell clearly passed, but the offensive line did not.
To that end, the unit has spent the past two weeks of practice refining its pass protection, with another stiff challenge facing them Sunday when the Seattle Seahawks come to FedEx Field. Only four teams have more sacks than the revamped Seahawks (nine), while the Redskins (2-0) have already conceded eight sacks in two games (seven clubs have allowed more sacks, but five of those teams have already played three games). In the final four minutes against Dallas, Brunell was sufficiently protected -- the Cowboys were sitting back in more of a preventative shell by then -- but it will take a much improved overall team effort to ensure he does not spend too much time on the ground again.
"We never want that," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "You can't afford to let the quarterback get hit in this league anymore. You see how many quarterbacks are down in the league right now. People are losing two at a time like the Jets, so it's a top priority, high priority. If we're not on top of our game, if we're not moving our feet and working our hands, a disaster can happen, because you're going against good players every week."
Coach Joe Gibbs called the suspect pass protection "a concern," and made it a point of emphasis in practice. In fact, it has been a concern for quite some time. Washington's line sagged last season with tackle Jon Jansen lost for the season because of injury, and yielded 38 sacks, as many as it had in its first season under coach Steve Spurrier (2002). Things are supposed to be different this season, with Jansen back -- albeit with two broken thumbs -- new center Casey Rabach in place, and the Redskins adopting the shotgun formation, which is designed to buy more time for the passer.
Bugel has heaped praise upon the tackles -- saying Jansen and left tackle Chris Samuels have played "exceptionally" -- but the interior of the line seems to be the soft spot. Four of the sacks allowed in Dallas came with the team in the shotgun, and the flurry of penalties that buried the offense in 2004 returned in Texas Stadium as well. Last season, the Redskins compiled the second-most penalty yardage in franchise history, with the offensive line the primary culprit. Right guard Derrick Dockery's progress was stunted by a team-high 11 penalties, and he committed two holding penalties against the Cowboys, while the line combined for four penalties totaling 35 yards.
Dockery, 25, a third-round pick in 2003, is still trying to establish himself as a consistent performer in the NFL, and was targeted by Dallas. Nose tackle La'Roi Glover gave Dockery fits in the Cowboys' 3-4 set, and linebacker Dat Nguyen diced through the center of the line to make regular forays into Washington's backfield.
"I feel badly for the guy," Bugel said of Dockery, "because nobody works any harder than he does, and he wants to be a great football player, and there are some times when you're going to get match-ups. La'Roi Glover's been a tough match-up for us over the past couple of years."
"I'm not pleased about it by any means," Dockery said. "As competitive as I am, I want no penalties in games. It's something we need to fix. I have to work on being mentally sharp and work on my technique."
Not all sacks are the result of mistakes along the line. Of the five sacks against Dallas, two were deemed to be the result of superb pass coverage, but the others -- and several near-sacks -- were the product of poor fundamentals and lack of communication on the line. "It was silly mistakes," Samuels said. "Guys taking turns getting beat." The five starters have only spent two games together.
"I think it was a great time as a line for us to have a bye week," Jansen said, "because we got to work on mainly communication things. We've got to all get on the same page and stay that way."
"The biggest thing that upsets us is when a sack comes from something that is totally correctable," Rabach said. "And there were a couple like that [in Dallas] that should never happen where somebody is out of place or somebody got his feet mixed up or whatever. That's the part we work on day in and day out."
The Redskins, like most teams, have been particularly vulnerable on clear passing downs. Five of the eight sacks have come out of the shotgun -- Bugel is adamant that had the team been in that formation when quarterback Patrick Ramsey was knocked to the sideline in Week 1, the sack would not have occurred -- and five have come on third and long, killing potential drives. Gibbs had refused to use that formation in the past, only adopting it this season, and with more three- and four-receiver sets in use now, sometimes linemen are required to take on double-teams with the Redskins outnumbered at the line of scrimmage.
Jansen, for example, was forced to take on an extra blitzer from the inside on the play when Ramsey was hurt, and the linemen are still working with the H-backs, tight ends and running backs to ensure they are in sync on protection schemes. In the fourth quarter against the Cowboys, when it mattered most, everything was perfect, but a repeat of the first three quarters may prove dangerous to Brunell's health.
"Obviously, we've got to protect a little better, all 11 guys," right guard Randy Thomas said, "and make Brunell more confident back there like he [was] in the fourth quarter of the last game. That's the way a quarterback is supposed to be protected, so he can stay in the pocket and read the field. But when he's pressured like that, that's not good."