At one point during the Washington Redskins’ early preseason practices, prized rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III stepped behind an offensive line that looked nothing like the one management envisioned.
Left tackle Trent Williams was nursing a foot injury; left guard Kory Lichtensteiger was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery; his backup, Maurice Hurt, had tweaked his knee; right guard Chris Chester sat with a sprained ankle; and right tackle Jammal Brown was on the physically unable to perform list because of a hip injury that later required surgery.
Only center Will Montgomery remained in good health.
With the exception of Brown, the unit finally returned to full strength two weeks ago. But entering last week’s game against New Orleans, questions loomed about the line’s ability to protect Griffin and to create running lanes for Washington’s running backs. The linemen delivered against the Saints.
They paved the way for an offense that cranked out 459 total yards (third most in the NFL in Week 1) and 40 points (fifth highest) and gave up just two sacks. And even the sacks weren’t particularly the fault of the line. The first came on a play that featured a fumbled handoff and Griffin wasn’t able to make it back to the line after scooping up the ball, and the other came when running back Alfred Morris inadvertently tripped Griffin.
Overall, Redskins players and their coaches came away from the game encouraged.
“I think they played hard. I think they played really hard,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “They didn’t give up any sacks. The two sacks we had were just a couple miscommunications between Alfred and Robert, just running into each other on some play-pass tracks. I thought they played really good not giving up a sack. I thought they blocked well. The only thing we missed was a few targets in the run game, but I was happy with them. There’s still a lot of [room for] improvement too.”
The strong execution from the line, Griffin’s mobility and his quick release combined to produce a better result than the Redskins have seen in recent years. Although Griffin took a couple of shots from defenders after releasing passes, he emerged from the game unscathed for the most part.
The quarterback’s ability to extend plays should help lower the number of sacks allowed for the Redskins, who last season gave up 41 — 11th highest in the league. But Griffin’s mobility also means that linemen could be required to hold their blocks longer than they would while playing with a less-agile quarterback who would be more inclined to throw away the ball rather than improvise. But the linemen aren’t complaining.
“I like it,” center Will Montgomery said. “I think [Griffin] can extend the play, obviously, so when you have that little clock in your head, three or four seconds, he can extend it to eight to 10 seconds. So you’d better latch onto a guy and take a peak to see if he’s still running around somewhere. If my guy’s still pass-rushing and five seconds have gone past, you just have to know he’s still scrambling around back there. You can’t practice that, so you just learn it on the fly. But it’s good.”
The Redskins aim to also improve in their effectiveness in the run game. Last week the line paved the way for 153 rushing yards — the fifth most Sunday — and two touchdowns. But those yards came on 43 attempts — second highest — meaning that Washington had just a 3.5-yard-per-carry average (19th out of 32 teams).
Washington’s linemen want — and expect — better. They did better late in the game as they appeared to wear down the Saints’ defensive linemen, but the Redskins aim for efficiency early in games as well.
Although well-versed in the team’s zone-blocking scheme — in which the linemen’s first steps generally are more lateral as they aim to stretch the defense and create cut-back lanes for the running back — a good deal of fine-tuning still is going on.
“There were some runs we missed, some cuts we missed and some blocks we missed that could have given us a better chance,” Chester said. “We’re all involved in it in creating seams and [Morris] hitting the seams. O-linemen and running backs, we could all have done better.”
With Morris being a rookie who played in a different scheme at Florida Atlantic University, he still is learning to read his line and the lanes available to him. The back said this week that a number of the shorter gains could have been longer had he taken better angles on his runs and made decisions more quickly. Shanahan and the linemen agreed.
“It’s just something he’s got to get used to,” Chester said of Morris. “He’s more than capable of it. . . . And we could have been cleaner on some of our blocks to help him out. We’re in it together.”
Said Coach Mike Shanahan: “It’s a group of guys playing together on the offensive line that usually dictates if you have a good offensive line. A lot of times people want to say, ‘This guy is this or this guy is that,’ but it’s five guys playing together. . . . I feel pretty good about it, and hopefully we can keep that standard up.”