RICHMOND — Over the first few days of training camp, quarterback Robert Griffin III made nifty moves to elude the pass rush. But if the retooled offensive line finally performs as the Washington Redskins hope, Griffin shouldn’t have to stay on the run for long.
The Redskins made long-overdue changes along the line this offseason — cutting ties with shaky center Will Montgomery, shifting guard Kory Lichtensteiger to center and signing guard Shawn Lauvao were the key ones — in an effort to improve the passing game.
Although there was no shortage of blame for last season’s 3-13 collapse, pass protection was high on the team’s list of weaknesses. With the lone exception of all-pro left tackle Trent Williams, Redskins linemen were prone to breakdowns.
Redskins quarterbacks were sacked 43 times, tied for the 14th-highest total in the 32-team NFL. Griffin’s knee problem was the other part of the story. As a rookie, Griffin often outraced would-be tacklers, assisting his blockers. Slowed while wearing a bulky brace after surgery, he wasn’t as helpful last fall.
In camp this month, Griffin has displayed much more quickness. Lichtensteiger and Lauvao also are showing something worth watching.
As the line’s director, the center makes the blocking calls before the snap. Montgomery regularly tripped up teammates with incorrect instructions, a problem that, combined with his poor pass blocking, opened a door for Lichtensteiger.
Lichtensteiger, a center in college, was the Redskins’ starting left guard the past four seasons. With a listed playing weight of about 284 pounds, he was light for his position by NFL standards. However, he was ideally suited for Washington’s successful running game because of his agility and quickness.
Lichtensteiger has bulked up to play center — he’s now listed at 296 pounds — and is off to a good start in camp. On a rainy first day of practice, Lichtensteiger and Griffin experienced exchange problems. Other than two fumbled snaps, though, Lichtensteiger has been smooth in his line calls and effective blocking. He was sharp on the second day of practice, winning several individual battles.
The tape doesn’t lie: Lichtensteiger is getting the job done, Gruden said. “Very good, very good. Kory’s done a nice job,” Gruden said, happiness evident in his tone. “It’s not easy for a guard to move into center . . . but he’s a natural center.
“He’s got great movement, obviously. He’s done a good job with the calls and, of course, the snaps have been solid. . . . Everything has been clean.”
Throughout Washington’s offseason training program, Lichtensteiger immersed himself in re-learning the center position. He embraces the responsibility of his new role. “As the center,” he said, “you have to take your job seriously and know that everybody is depending on you to make all the right calls for them to do their jobs.”
Lauvao, a three-year starter for the Cleveland Browns, has leaned on Lichtensteiger for advice; it’s common to see them talking between plays.
Lauvao was solid in full-contact work Monday. It’s easy to see why he was considered one of the best available free agent linemen.
The Redskins are largely banking on Lauvao and Lichtensteiger to shore up the interior of the line. Perhaps right guard Chris Chester, a good run blocker coming off a rough season in protection, will benefit from the new look.
At tackle, Williams’s talent matches his production. The line’s anchor, he possesses a rare combination of power and footwork. Entering his fifth season, Williams says he’s ready for a bigger leadership role on the team.
“I don’t think there’s anything Trent can’t do,” Gruden said. “He is a leader. People all look up to him. . . . If he wants to take that role, I’m sure the players will welcome it with open arms. Trent’s a special player.
“When you watch practice film. . . he is the first guy I usually watch. He’s fun to watch. He’s got great feet. He’s athletic. He’s strong. He’s taken over the offensive line.”
On the right side, tackle Tyler Polumbus isn’t great, but there are worse at his position. Granted, Polumbus has trouble with speed rushers. Then again, many tackles do.
One potential problem is the offensive line’s lack of depth.
The Redskins selected tackle Morgan Moses and guard Spencer Long in the third round of the NFL draft. Neither is expected to challenge for a starting position anytime soon. Moses clearly has a lot of work ahead of him to understand his role in Washington’s offense.
Even if the rookies don’t contribute, though, the line has potential because of the offseason changes. And if it winds up being good, Griffin may get a chance to rest his legs.
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Photos: Scenes from Richmond