RICHMOND — “Snap!” the coach shouts, and the outside linebacker explodes from his stance.
In a flash, 250 pounds of muscle lunge toward a tackling dummy, knock it silly with an inside shoulder and cut hard to the left.
“Quick hips!” yells Brian Baker, the Washington Redskins’ outside linebackers coach. “Get ’em turned! Got to have quick hips! Quick! Quick! Quick!”
The next player in line takes a turn on Baker’s snap count. And the coach, crouched just a few feet away, shouts: “Don’t shuffle! When you shuffle, we give the quarterback time! Try not to take that extra step.”
With his bullhorn voice and laser-focused gaze, the 52-year-old Baker could be mistaken for a drill sergeant. No detail escapes his notice, no matter how picayune. Footwork, hip placement, hand use and vision are particular fixations.
But watch him work over the course of a practice, and it’s clear Baker is more teacher than drill sergeant — more intent on building his players up than breaking them down.
“Let’s go again!” Baker shouts as he repositions the dummy for pass-rushing drills from the opposite side. “Good! Good! Good!”
Multiple failings led to the Redskins’ 3-13 debacle last season, but the anemic pass rush stood out among them. So Washington’s front office countered with a 1-2 offseason punch designed to shore up a defense that ranked 20th against the pass.
But Baker may ultimately have greater impact, given that his charges include Pro Bowl linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, as well as Stanford’s Trent Murphy, whom the Redskins chose with their second-round pick in this year’s draft.
“He’s a great technician, first of all,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said of Baker, who was his defensive line coach in St. Louis. “He’s really knowledgeable. He knows the scheme, so I thought it was a natural fit.
“When you build the team, you build around those two outside guys — your pass rushers. I think [Baker] has done a good job with those guys, letting ’em do their thing and taking advantage of their skills.”
Not every NFL team invests in separate coaches for inside and outside linebackers, even those who play a 3-4 defense akin to Haslett’s. The decision to bring in Baker and shift Kirk Olivadotti to inside linebackers reflects first-year Redskins Coach Jay Gruden’s conviction that fundamentals and proper techniques are crucial to reversing the squad’s flagging fortunes.
In Baker, the Redskins got a coach who played the position under Bobby Ross at Maryland, although in a 4-4-3 defensive scheme that’s all but extinct today, and helped lead the Terrapins to the 1983 ACC championship.
A protege of Ross’s, Baker joined the Terps as a graduate assistant coach and followed his mentor to Georgia Tech. After stops at Army and Maryland, he switched to the NFL ranks. In January, he jumped at the chance to reunite with Haslett after coaching defensive linemen in Dallas and Carolina and last season, outside linebackers in Cleveland.
The Redskins job also offered a chance for the Baltimore native to come home.
With Gruden and Haslett giving him considerable autonomy, Baker is reveling in the opportunity to teach the fine points of pass rushing that often get short shrift.
“A pass rush is a very specific skill set,” Baker notes. That said, he doesn’t demand cookie-cutter technique, pointing out that long-armed Julius Peppers rushed differently than the massive Reggie White.
Nor does he treat Pro Bowlers differently than rookies. No young player is badgered, no superstar treated with kid gloves.
“I’m demanding of them, but it’s because I want them all to get better,” he says. “I’m invested in them.”
But eyes and hips are bedrock principles. And there’s scarcely a drill in which Baker doesn’t harp on both.
The eyes should stay fixed on the quarterback, not the offensive lineman. Great pass rushers must study blockers well enough to know where they are, freeing them to focus on the true target, the quarterback.
Regarding hips, it could be argued that Baker understands more about the power of their proper placement than Shakira.
“There are a lot of different ways to get to the quarterback,” he says. “But the one thing that is consistent: To beat an offensive lineman, you’ve got to get your hips past his hips. Whatever move you use, you’ve got to get your hips between him and the quarterback.”
Even to a four-year veteran such as Kerrigan, this was a revelation.
“He’s so technically sound,” Kerrigan said of Baker, “and especially in the film room, where he can really point out the finer details that can help us go from a good pass rusher to a great pass rusher.
“When you’re pass rushing on the edge — say, if you’re rushing on the left side — if you reach with your left arm, that’ll naturally turn your hips toward the direction of the quarterback. That’s the direction you want to go. Little things like that seem obvious once he explains it, but you didn’t realize [them] before.”