The struggles that many feared would plague the Washington Redskins’ offensive line this season appeared to be emerging in Week 3.
Only two plays into the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, left tackle Trent Williams suffered a bone bruise in his right knee and was lost for all but a handful of snaps the rest of the way. His replacement, Jordan Black, and the remainder of the starting line did not have a good game. The unit, charged with protecting prized rookie Robert Griffin III and paving the way for an effective rushing attack, surrendered five sacks. Washington lost 38-31 and fell to 1-2.
But the outing proved to be only a bump in the road. Williams returned to action the following week, and other holes in the line were sealed.
After a 2011 wracked by injuries and a 2012 plagued by more bumps, bruises and strains, the regular season results so far have the Redskins believing that perhaps their offensive line has turned the corner, thanks to health and maturity.
“There are a number of people that were worried about our offensive line,” said Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan. “I was hoping that we would stay fairly healthy and I was hoping some of our young guys that we have — if we didn’t stay healthy — could mature very quickly. We have stayed fairly healthy, which is always a big advantage.”
Aside from the Cincinnati game, the offensive line has kept Griffin upright for surprising lengths of time. Through six games, Griffin has been sacked only 12 times, which ties the Redskins for 16th in the NFL. The line has allowed two sacks twice, and only one sack three times.
Griffin suffered a concussion in Week 5, but only after leaving the pocket and trying to scramble for yardage.
The line also has paved the way for an offense that ranks third in the NFL in total yards gained (2,364) and second in the league in points scored (178).
With their 183-yard performance Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, the Redskins extended their streak of producing at least 125 rushing yards to eight games. In the past six games, the Redskins have compiled 996 rushing yards — second in the NFL this season to San Francisco (1061), and the most prolific six-game output of the Mike Shanahan era. Washington’s 11 rushing touchdowns rank first in the league, ahead of the New England Patriots, who have 10.
Griffin accounts for six of those touchdowns, and running back Alfred Morris has five. Griffin ranks second in the NFL behind Houston’s Arian Foster (seven), while Morris is tied for second with Baltimore's Ray Rice.
It helps to have perhaps the NFL’s most elusive quarterback. When defenders penetrate the line and get into the backfield, Griffin uses his speed and athleticism to avoid would-be tacklers, extending plays until receivers can get open or tucking the ball and running it himself. As a threat to run or pass, he keeps defenders off balance and makes pass rushers hesitate before blitzing.
“There aren’t a lot of guys who play that position that can break a 76-yard run and not get caught,” Vikings Coach Leslie Frazier said. “So that creates some issues for any defense. He’s a heck of a young player that can throw the ball and run the ball.”
Said Williams: “It makes my job easier. He's a playmaker and we trust his decision-making back there.”
Continuity also has factored in the line’s success.
The team’s zone-blocking scheme requires that linemen work together as they hit their initial blocking assignments. Then they move on to the next level while stringing out defenders and creating cutback lanes for running backs.
The development of such chemistry can take time. The current starters now are in their second season together. Williams and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger have started alongside each other since 2010, while center Will Montgomery, right guard Chris Chester and right tackle Tyler Polumbus became starters for Washington at their positions last season.
“The offensive line is a group of people working together as a unit that gives you a chance to be successful,” Shanahan explained. “Everybody’s got a piece of the puzzle — your offensive line, your tight end, your quarterback, your wide receivers. That’s why we’re very successful right now, because we have a group of people all going in the same direction. They know the system, they know each other, they’ve been fairly healthy there. They’re working together.”