“It’s technique and teaching them why you’re doing it,” Wharton explained. “ ‘This right here can happen. That’s why you set like this.’ We go over everything with the guys as if they’re starters. … A lot of times, the young guys don’t get the full extent as a starter, but we don’t want to deny them their reps.”
Washington’s offensive line is the team’s only positional group that has a separate post-practice workout for its younger, less-experienced players each day. Before practice is also a time for more reps, and even before games, when starters are dressing or warming up, offensive line coach John Matsko is often on the field working with two or three tackles on their pass sets and blocking.
The emphasis on development and depth up front has been central to Coach Ron Rivera’s approach since he arrived in Washington in 2020. Yet it also has turned a once-questionable group into one of Washington’s strongest assets, even amid injuries to many key players.
“The offensive line is a completely different mentality,” Rivera said Wednesday. “It’s a different way of thinking. One thing I got to give credit to, obviously, is our personnel. We had the same thing last year, and we made a conscientious effort of trying to keep at least 12, 13, 14, 15 guys around.”
Last year, with more stringent covid-19 protocols that limited practice time and made it difficult to cycle in new talent in the wake of injuries, Rivera and his staff used the practice squad to serve as, among other things, a pipeline for the offensive line.
“It’s one of the things that John Madden had harped on for the last few years about making sure that there’s more opportunities for offensive linemen to develop,” Rivera said. “... So we got together, and one of the things that we talked about as a coaching staff and personnel [while with the Carolina Panthers] was we got to do a good job assessing our offensive line depth, our defensive line depth, because those guys are hard to find. And so we’ve got to find those guys and then really work them. That’s one of the things that we’ve been trying to do.”
This year, the team has taken the same approach and relied on the teachings of Matsko and Wharton to prepare a group of 15 linemen, six of whom are on the practice squad, as if they all will start each week. Though it’s a cliche used often by coaches and players, for Washington’s line, it’s a reality.
And it’s a mentality that saved the offense.
Starting center Chase Roullier was lost for the season when he suffered a fractured fibula in Week 8. His backup, Tyler Larsen, suffered what is believed to be an MCL sprain in the win over the Panthers. Right guard Brandon Scherff missed four games with a knee injury, and rookie right tackle Sam Cosmi missed time with an ankle injury and is now dealing with a hip issue.
Yet amid the changes to the right side of the line, quarterback Taylor Heinicke has had a clean pocket on 67.1 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate (minimum 100 dropbacks) among quarterbacks through Week 11, according to Pro Football Focus. In that span, Washington ranked 10th in the league with 122.9 rushing yards per game and had the eighth-highest first-down rate (27.4 percent) on carries.
And while Heinicke has taken 22 sacks, he has borne the responsibility for six of them, according to PFF, while the offensive line has allowed only 13.
“I like talking about the offensive line because they play probably the toughest position in football,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “Quarterback, obviously, but if we give up a sack, it’s on them. If we score a touchdown, they don’t really get the praise. It’s the guy that gets the touchdown. … They got to move 300-pound men, get hit every play and play every game; they don’t get subs. I have a lot of respect for O-linemen throughout the league, but the guys that we have in our locker room are very unique. … Coach Matsko, he’s a tough coach, but he has them prepared and ready.”
The stalwarts of Washington’s offensive line have been on its left side, which was remade in the offseason. Left tackle Charles Leno signed as a free agent and has played all 671 offensive snaps. Left guard Ereck Flowers, who returned to Washington in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, has played all but three snaps and hasn’t committed a penalty. Against Carolina, he had perhaps his finest game yet and even drew the praise of NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger.
“Those guys are very physically dominant players already,” Wharton said. “Just to see them jell over time has been really what you’d expect from veteran offensive linemen, the way they’re playing, the way they feed off of each other, their confidence.”
But the depth of Washington’s line has been an unheralded piece of its success.
Reserve linemen in the NFL are generally expected to be able to play multiple positions up front because only so many can be active on game days. But the notion of position flexibility has led to some creativity in Washington.
When Larsen was injured last weekend in Carolina, Wes Schweitzer, who competed for a starting guard job in training camp and even filled in for Scherff at right guard this season, took over at center.
While Cosmi was out with an ankle injury, Cornelius Lucas, who has been the team’s leading backup at tackle, started three games in his place — after starting eight games on the left side last year. Lucas has not allowed any sacks or been called for a penalty in 304 snaps this season.
And when both Lucas and Cosmi were out in Week 8, Saahdiq Charles, who had one start at guard last year, started at right tackle.
The offensive line’s continued success will, however, make for some difficult decisions in the offseason for Rivera and his staff. Next year Scherff, Leno, Lucas and Larsen will be free agents and Flowers’s salary cap charge will jump to $10 million, up from $3 million this year.
Perhaps then, too, the same lessons will apply to Washington’s deep offensive line.
“We tell those guys you got to have a starter mentality because the season is so long; you never know when your opportunity is going to present itself," Wharton said. "So always be ready, and don’t blow your chance.”