There have been plenty of negatives to this season so far from the Washington Redskins. When a team is sitting with a 3-8 record, that tends to be the case. So I thought I’d try to look for a positive from the 27-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers this past Monday night. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy to find. But I found one in Brian Orakpo.

He had a good game going up against one of the best left tackles in the league in Joe Staley. Orakpo is known for his ability to rush the passer, but hasn’t always been great with the other areas of his game. We saw a much more aware Brian Orakpo against San Francisco.

This was the play on which Brian Orakpo registered his sack. The 49ers are running a screen play, where both the left guard and the center are going to run out in front to block for the running back.

Orakpo engages with the running back coming out of the backfield. He notices the left tackle, Staley, positioning to block inside to allow the other lineman to get free for the screen. So Orakpo stays with the back.

With Orakpo taking the back out of the play, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is forced to scramble.

Kaepernick slips, but Orakpo was in position to tackle him even if he hadn’t. Awareness like this to read the tackle and react shows a growth in Orakpo’s game that wasn’t necessarily there a few years ago. He didn’t use his athleticism or technique to get a sack, but instead his smarts and awareness. That’s something that the elite pass rushers in the NFL do on a consistent basis.

Here’s another example of smart play and good awareness from Orakpo.

San Francisco is running another screen pass, this time to a wide receiver in a bunch formation.

The 49ers disguise it well, faking a read-option hand off and even pulling a guard to sell the fake even further. But Orakpo stays at home and doesn’t crash on the run.

The moment Kaepernick pulls the ball, Orakpo knows it’s not a read-option run. On the read-option, the quarterback gives the ball to the running back if the unblocked defender stays home and doesn’t crash on the run. So the fact that Kaepernick pulls the ball despite Orakpo not crashing on the run tells him that it’s not a run. Orakpo spots Kaepernick winding up to throw, and attacks his potential throwing lane.

With Orakpo in the throwing lane, Kaepernick has no choice but to throw the ball away. This was another positive play from Orakpo, despite him not getting credit for a sack, tackle or even a pass break up. A sign, perhaps, that stats aren’t everything when it comes to evaluating a player.

Another criticism of Brian Orakpo is that he’s never had an inside counter move. Against San Francisco, he did use an inside move that nearly worked perfectly.

Orakpo lines up outside the left tackle, Staley.

The 49ers are using play-action, so Joe Staley attacks Orakpo from the snap to help sell the fake. Normally the left tackle would take a drop step to counter a speed rush off the edge, but you can see in the picture above, that Staley is almost charging at Orakpo. Orakpo sticks his foot in the ground and cuts back inside.

Orakpo manages to catch Staley off-guard and gets his hip level to that of Staley. When a rusher manages to get his hip level to his blockers, he should be able to win the block and get past him. So Orakpo should have won this play.

But defensive end Kedric Golston was attacking the same gap that Orakpo cut back into. Had Golston attacked the gap to the other side, Orakpo would have had more room to work with and probably would have got past the recovery attempt of Staley. But with two players in the same gap, Orakpo has little room to maneuver. That delays the rush long enough for Kaepernick to get his throw away. But it’s encouraging to see Orakpo use a different move to keep tackles off-balance. It’s something that a lot of people have believed he’s needed to add to his game for a while now. Washington has restricted his ability to do this somewhat, because they want to keep some opposing quarterbacks in the pocket, but it’s still good to see time and again.

We did also see Orakpo do what he’s primarily paid to do, rushing the passer. Staley is not an easy tackle to beat, and he got the better of Orakpo at times, but Orakpo did get some pressure and force Kaepernick to scramble.

Here we see Orakpo lined up outside Staley. He’s going to run the arc and use the traditional rip move.

Orakpo engages first with a punch to the Staley’s chest. Already, Orakpo has a good angle on Staley, who has almost been completely turned around from his starting position.

Staley then gets both hands on Orakpo and attempts to knock him off his path to the quarterback.

This is where Orakpo drops his left hand to use the rip technique. Orakpo’s arm will come up and attempt to rip Staley’s hands off of his chest.

Orakpo gets his arm under that of Staley’s.

Orakpo manages to use his speed and momentum to break free from Staley and pressure Kaepernick. Unfortunately, Kaepernick felt the pressure and scrambled to his left, but Brandon Meriweather prevented the first down.

These kinds of rushes are where you’d like Orakpo to be a little lower and run more of an angle. Orakpo is too upright when he runs the arc and as a result, allows tackles to stay on him. The premier pass rushers get very low to the ground as they come around the corner at roughly a 45-degree angle. But Orakpo is stood much too upright. His speed and athleticism allow him to be productive despite this, but he’s unlikely to ever be considered elite if he can’t get lower.

Overall though, I thought Orakpo had a solid game, considering he was facing Staley. He’s improved in his run support, although Vernon Davis was able to block him effectively at times. But his overall awareness and feel for the game has improved despite missing significant time with injuries the past few seasons. The question then becomes, how much more can or will he improve or has he reached his ceiling? The Redskins will have to answer that question themselves to determine just what size contract they should offer Orakpo before he hits free agency in the offseason.

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Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team.

What’s ahead:

● The Redskins practiced Friday morning. Sunday’s kickoff is at 8:30 p.m.

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