It all came apart for the Washington Redskins and their aging offensive line in November.
After allowing 16 sacks during a surprising 6-2 first half, the line collapsed against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants. They surrendered 16 sacks in those four games, three of which were defeats.
The Redskins never recovered en route to an 8-8 season. Those struggles led to the departures of left guard Pete Kendall and right tackle Jon Jansen, the return of left guard Derrick Dockery after two years in Buffalo and the promotion of right tackle Stephon Heyer.
Through three preseason games against the fearsome fronts of the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, the results have been impressive. Starting quarterback Jason Campbell hasn’t been sacked through 35 pass attempts.
“We want to keep the quarterback clean,” Dockery said. “That’s the top priority, and we’ve done that.”
That was true again in Friday’s 27-24 loss to the Patriots. Campbell was 13-for-22 for 209 yards and a 90.9 passer rating.
“They’ve done an outstanding job,” Campbell said. “I feel confident now that I have time to get through a lot of my progressions.”
Left tackle Chris Samuels said he was pleased with how the line has progressed since the Redskins were shut out in the preseason opener at Baltimore.
“We’ve been focusing on our pass protection since Day One because we knew we struggled with that last year,” Samuels said. “We’re doing a pretty good job so far. I thought we played hard and physical [on Friday], but there are some things we can work on. There’s definitely been progress - a big chunk - since Baltimore. If we keep heading in the right direction, good things are going to happen for us later in the season.”
Coach Jim Zorn credited his linemen for pushing one other to step up after they gave up 38 sacks last season. Only four NFC teams gave up more, including Detroit and St. Louis.
“They’re really coming along,” Zorn said Saturday. “One of the things we were talking about in our offensive staff meeting this morning was that [the linemen are] challenging each other and holding each other accountable. They’re taking some of the responsibility and putting heat on each other. I think that has been very significant. We’re all trying to improve [our pass protection], and I think we have.”
Zorn also noted persistent badgering from veteran line coach Joe Bugel and the focus of offensive coordinator Sherman Smith on blitzes in practice.
“Sherman has been doing a very good job… to give ourselves an opportunity to study and look at different blitzes,” Zorn said. “So far we’ve done a great job communicating those blitzes.”
The line didn’t do nearly as well run-blocking against the Patriots. The first-team unit helped the running backs produce just 38 yards on 14 carries. Top back Clinton Portis has just 34 yards on 11 attempts this preseason.
“We definitely gotta get things going better in the running game,” Samuels said. “Anytime your running game’s struggling, you gotta do something else, and I thought we passed the ball pretty well.”