With Brian Orakpo charging from the right side and Ryan Kerrigan on the left, the Washington Redskins figured they had the edges shored up. Any opposing quarterback would be bracketed by Washington’s pair of young, hungry pass-rushers — a dangerous if slightly predictable blueprint.
“You see it all the time around the league, guys moving around, giving teams different looks,” Orakpo said. “You see it with Dallas and Baltimore — all the good pass rushers are all over the place. With us, we’ve been a bit more stagnant, rushing the same guys all the time.”
But as Kerrigan, a 23-year-old rookie, has become more comfortable with his role, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is starting to appreciate the flexibility his two outside linebackers give him, particularly on third downs. In last Sunday’s win at Seattle, Haslett lined up Orakpo on the left side at times with Kerrigan on the right; at other times, he stacked the two of them on the same side; and at one point he even added Rob Jackson, another outside linebacker, to the mix.
“We’ve been moving them around. They’re starting to feel a little more comfortable moving around, so we’ve been moving Ryan and ’Rak, putting them on the same side, flip-flopping them,” Haslett said. “Earlier, Ryan was just kind of getting comfortable with what we’re doing.”
The Redskins’ goal of beefing up their pass rush from last season has thus far been a success. Through 11 games, the Redskins are tied for first in the NFC and third in the NFL with 33 sacks. A year ago, the Redskins had 29 sacks over the course of a 16-game season.
Dallas’s DeMarcus Ware is leading the NFL with 14 sacks, well ahead of the Redskins’ top pass rushers. But Washington is the one of only three teams (San Francisco and Houston are the others) who have two linebackers among the 25 sack leaders.
Orakpo has six sacks. At this point a year ago he had 81 / 2 . But the Redskins’ sack numbers are up at just about every other position. Eleven players, in fact, have played a part in at least one sack this season.
In 2010, the outside linebacker position opposite Orakpo accounted for four sacks. This season Kerrigan, the first-round draft pick out of Purdue, leads the Redskins with 61 / 2. And the Redskins had only 81 / 2 sacks from their defensive linemen a year ago. They already have 15 this season, led by Adam Carriker’s five and Stephen Bowen’s 41 / 2.
Changes in the middle are perhaps the biggest reason the Redskins have gone from the 31st-ranked defense in the league to No. 11. Not only are the defensive linemen making plays, but they’re creating more opportunities for the four linebackers behind them.
“They’ve been very crucial in how me and ’Rak play,” Kerrigan said, “them occupying blocks and also getting to the quarterback themselves and making plays. That’s freed it up for me and ’Rak even more.”
Haslett looks at his entire starting front seven, which features four new pieces from a year ago, and sees improvement. “I think the group is really an outstanding group,” Haslett said.
Coaches see a core of players who will anchor the team’s defense for years to come. Of the current starting front seven, the Redskins have everyone under contract for next season except for London Fletcher and Carriker. Several of those players — Barry Cofield, Bowen, Orakpo, Kerrigan, Perry Riley, Chris Neild — are locked up through at least 2013.
“I think it’s going to get better the more they play together,” Haslett said.
While Cofield and Bowen have improved since Week 1, it’s Kerrigan’s growth that has allowed Haslett to open up his playbook late in the season. Without the benefit of offseason workouts, Kerrigan was still learning the 3-4 defense when the season got underway in September.
“I still have a couple plays here and there where I hesitate, or I’m not quick enough,” Kerrigan said. “But I think I’ve definitely made some strides.”
Kerrigan’s numbers actually improved following Sunday’s win at Seattle. Late in the game, on fourth and five with 2 minutes 13 seconds remaining, Haslett dialed-up an all-out blitz, and Orakpo, Kerrigan and Bowen all got to quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for a nine-yard loss. Originally, Orakpo and Bowen were credited with a half-sack each. But after reviewing the play this week, the league decided to award Kerrigan with the half-sack originally given to Bowen.
Kerrigan’s 61 / 2 sacks ranks third among NFL rookies, trailing Denver’s Von Miller (101 / 2) and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (71 / 2).
Eleven games into the year, the Redskins are able to do a lot more things with Cofield, Bowen and Carriker consuming offensive linemen and the linebackers spotting lanes to the quarterback. With five games remaining, they’ll be looking to take better advantage of those opportunities and preview a defense they hope to use for years to come.
“Once Ryan gets acclimated a lot better, we can do it a lot more,” Orakpo said. “We’ll be doing it this week and more as the year goes on.”
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.