A running play the Washington Redskins attempted in practice Monday morning was reminiscent of last season - and that can't be a good thing.
As the running back stretched the play toward the left sideline, the right side of the Redskins' defensive line surged past the line of scrimmage. Suddenly, left tackle Trent Williams and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger were tangled, tumbling and on the ground.
Breakdowns up front were a major reason Washington's offense averaged only 18.9 points per game in coach Mike Shanahan's first season. But rather than drastically overhaul the line, Shanahan has retained four of the five starters that finished last season and acquired only one free agent for the first string.
Without significant personnel changes, then, Washington will rely on continuity and players' natural progression in the offense to help fix one of the team's major shortcomings.
"Even though we didn't have the [organized team activities] and the minicamps, we have last season to build on," offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. "Most of these guys have been here, and hopefully they'll do something with the continuity we can build and we'll pick up where we left off and improve."
With only two days until signed free agents can join their teams for practice, the Redskins' line has a familiar feel.
Williams and Lichtensteiger are back on the left side, and right tackle Jammal Brown returns after re-signing Sunday. Will Montgomery, who finished 2010 as the starting right guard, has replaced Casey Rabach as the first-string center. Former Baltimore right guard Chris Chester is the only new face.
So how realistic are the offensive line's prospects for improvement? Optimism abounds, at least, inside team headquarters.
Returning players expect their experience in Shanahan's zone running scheme to be a boon. Timing and precision are required in cut-blocking and combination blocking, and the Redskins feel more comfortable executing those tactics.
"I feel like last year I was going through so many things before the snap that I ended up late off the ball, and I was sometimes doing the wrong thing," said Williams, the fourth overall draft pick in 2010. "Now I know it as soon as I leave the huddle. There is no thinking about getting off the ball."
Williams battled typical rookie inconsistencies, especially in pass protection against some of the league's finest pass rushers. Better play at the most important position on the line would go a long way toward solidifying the entire group.
"I think it's a big difference between your first year and second year," Shanahan said. "You have an idea about the competition you're going against, the speed of the game, the intensity within the division. He's going to go back and look at film from last year - the good, the bad and the ugly - and hopefully improve."
Brown improved as last season progressed. He missed all of 2009 recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, and he was playing right tackle for the first time since 2005.
Foerster believes the version of Brown who finished 2010 is the one that will show up in 2011.
"We definitely noticed that he moved better as the year went on from the standpoint of executing his blocks," he said. "Every single part of his game, you just saw improvement."
Chester is an unknown quantity in the zone scheme. Foerster coached him in Baltimore from 2006-07, and the Ravens run a more power-based gap blocking system, he said. Chester played tight end in college, though, and is nimble.
"Chris fits the mold for us as far his footspeed and quickness for what is needed from the guard position," he said.
What all that means for the final product is a mystery for now. There are reasons for optimism and skepticism. Washington's win total this season depends heavily on the answer.
"If you have a bunch of people eager to learn and ready to work," Williams said, "you can always have a successful line."
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