NFL defense, perhaps more than ever, is about whether your pass rushers can get to the opposing quarterback. And the Washington Redskins, after showing significant improvement in that area last year, are looking to make continued progress this season, when they hope to be regarded as one of the league’s most relentless defenses.
“I feel like we took a step higher, a step further to get to where we need to be,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said this week. “And we’re going to continue to get better and learn from one another. We had 40-plus sacks last year and that’s a tremendous number, and we’re going to continue to build off that.”
The Redskins tied for 10th in the NFL last season with 41 sacks. That was much better than in 2010, when they had only 29 sacks and finished tied for 25th among the 32 NFL teams.
But even with last season’s improvement, the Redskins still ranked last among the four NFC East defenses in the category. The Philadelphia Eagles had 50 sacks, matching the Minnesota Vikings for the NFL’s most. The New York Giants, on their way to a Super Bowl title, tied for third in the league with 48 sacks. The Dallas Cowboys tied for seventh with 42.
“Our defense is predicated on getting to the quarterback,” said Ryan Kerrigan, the Redskins’ other outside linebacker. “That’s our main emphasis every game, especially as outside linebackers. Brian and I, that’s our job first, to get to the quarterback. We’ve just got to keep bringing the heat.”
The NFL is in the most passing-friendly era in its history. Quarterbacks across the league spent much of last season rewriting significant portions of the sport’s record book. Defensive players, meanwhile, complain that rule changes over the past decade have tilted the sport’s competitive balance heavily toward passers and receivers. Defensive backs have been barred from using clutching-and-grabbing tactics on receivers down the field. Safety rules have made some formerly acceptable hits on quarterbacks and receivers illegal.
Some NFL defenders say the only way to slow down passing offenses is to get to the quarterback as often as possible.
“It’s a passing league,” Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “You have a lot of elite quarterbacks in this league. If you don’t have a great pass rush, you’re not going to be one of the top defenses out there.”
Bowen quickly added that there are other elements to playing defense well. “It starts on first and second down. We have to improve on run defense as well. But I think we’re making all the right steps to be a top-five defense, definitely.”
There is more the team’s pass rush can do, Bowen said.
“I think we just touched the surface,” he said. “The more we play together, the more we’ll have a feel for everybody. We’re all young. We all like doing our jobs. I think the more we study our opponents and figure out ways to exploit people’s weaknesses, the sacks are going to come.”
The Redskins had good pass-rushing balance last season. Orakpo led the team with nine sacks. Kerrigan had 7.5 sacks as a rookie, while Bowen had six and defensive end Adam Carriker had 5.5.
Orakpo often has been the focus of opposing offenses, but, he said, the presence of other pass-rushing threats around him will help.
“It’ll take a lot of pressure off of me and I can go out there and play,” Orakpo said. “A lot of guys are going to make plays. They’ll start focusing on them and it’ll free me up. That’s what I’m excited about. We have a lot of playmakers across the line.”
The Redskins probably will need increased sack totals by Orakpo and Kerrigan if they are going to fulfill their goal of moving up in the pass-rushing rankings. They are the primary pass rushers as outside linebackers in the team’s three-lineman, four-linebacker alignment. Orakpo’s 11 sacks as a rookie in 2009 are his best in his three seasons in the league, and his nine sacks last season were tied for 21st in the league.
“I feel I can build off that season and continue to get better, continue to learn from experiences and better my pass rushing, better my all-around game,” Orakpo said.
Kerrigan said he, too, can improve as a pass rusher in his second NFL season.
“Just being more consistent, not having those games where I’ll get one sack one game and not get another for another two games,” Kerrigan said. “I don’t want to have that this year. I want to be able to have a consistent impact from a pass-rushing standpoint throughout the season.”
Bowen said the team’s defenders have “not yet” set a target number of sacks for this season.
“But I’m sure when we get closer to the season,” he said, “we definitely will.”
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