Life without London Fletcher is not far away for the Redskins. That’s a bit sobering to consider.
Whether it’s this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers or next year or when his contract is up before the 2014 season, Fletcher’s current balance problems and hamstring injury are an occasion for the team to re-evaluate its succession plan for the defensive captain.
My colleague Steve Whyno did that in a feature for today’s paper, which I recommend reading.
Lorenzo Alexander would replace Fletcher as the starting MIKE linebacker against Pittsburgh if the 37-year-old can’t play. Perry Riley would stay at JACK. No point in making two players play different positions when you can limit that to only one, as we learned during last year’s offensive line shakeup.
Ultimately, the Redskins feel confident in the trio of Riley, Alexander and fourth-round rookie Keenan Robinson going forward.
“What you lose from London is obviously the leadership role, the type of passion and energy that he brings to the game, much like a Ray Lewis,” Alexander said. “Obviously you can’t match what he brings to the game experience-wise. There’s not too many guys who have played 15 years and call out defenses. But am I capable of going in there and playing and winning a game for us, as well? Yes. Is Keenan able to do that? Yes. So I think we have depth.”
Riley is extremely athletic. He runs exceptionally well, and he’s a good tackler. His challenge continues to be mastering the mental aspects of the game – positioning, reads, adjustments, alerts.
“When Perry Riley got his opportunity he took advantage of it,” coach Mike Shanahan said this week. “You could see right away that he is an athlete. He has quickness. You hate to lose a guy like [former Redskins linebacker] Rocky [McIntosh], but you saw very quickly that [Riley] ran at a different level and had to become more comfortable with the defense. He keeps on getting better and better, but we will wait and see.”
Halfway through Robinson’s rookie season, he’s on the same track as Riley was after the Redskins drafted him in the fourth round in 2010. He has played on kickoff coverage and return in order to get acclimated to the speed of the game.
He recently had opportunities to showcase his progress on defense. He is learning the MIKE and JACK inside linebacker positions, as well as BUCK, which is the Redskins’ nickel defensive end. Coaches see potential.
“We drafted Keenan obviously for a reason, with a purpose in mind,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said Thursday. “It was, obviously, just like Perry – to groom him to be ready to play some day. That position is a hard position to learn. Obviously, you’re running the whole front. You’re running the back end. You’re telling everyone what to do. You’re not just the strong inside linebacker. You’re also the weak inside linebacker. So there’s a lot of learning to it.”
The Redskins like Robinson’s combination of athleticism and intelligence.
“He’s really smart, Keenan, I mean,” Haslett said. “He understands the game. He’s really good in the pass part of it and he’s learning on the run. I think he’s going to be a heck of a player. I think he’s a great prospect for this organization.”
“He’s got speed,” Shanahan said of Robinson. “He’s got size; extremely bright. When he has had the opportunities, he’s taken advantage of his opportunities. I think he has a great future. [He has] picked things up very, very quickly. He’s looked good on special teams; as you can see, he is an athlete. He just has to get used to the system.”
What’s great for the Redskins – one of the main reasons they re-signed Fletcher in the offseason to a two-year deal – is the example Fletcher sets for younger players.
“For me, basically just learning how to practice like a pro, how to prepare like a professional,” Robinson said. “He’s a guy that prepares really well. He knows what’s going to happen before the snap. He’s a guy that kind of teaches me, Zo and Perry the little things to look for in order to be able to have a key to what the offense will do before they line up or before the snap. Knowing is half the battle, and then doing it – just reacting – helps you play quicker as a linebacker.”
“He’s always in there watching film, and I’ve tried, especially this year, to kind of be his shadow,” Alexander said. “Going over things, asking him how he would play it. Why in certain defenses do we run this call? What can beat it? Because every defense has a weakness, and you have to know that, so you know you can’t stop everything. Just try to pick his brain as much as I can because I know sooner or later – for those purposes just try to pick his brain to know how he sees things.”
“One of the things he’s done is poured himself out into everybody: Perry Riley, Lorenzo Alexander, myself, Rob Jackson, Brian Orakpo, [Ryan] Kerrigan,” outside linebacker Chris Wilson said. “We really get a lot of coaching that really goes unseen and unheard from a players’ standpoint.”
If Fletcher can’t play this Sunday, the silver lining is the Redskins would gain a greater understanding about what life without Fletcher will be like. He hasn’t missed a game since joining the Redskins in 2007, but that reality is approaching, as painful as it might be. The list of defensive needs already is long enough, and the Redskins are at least optimistic that inside linebacker isn’t one of them.
“We’ll find out when they get their opportunity to play,” Shanahan said. “Whenever a guy goes down, somebody else gets an opportunity to show us what he can do.”