Tim Hightower had never played a game behind the Washington Redskins‘ offensive line before last Friday’s preseason opener against Pittsburgh, so he wasn’t sure what to expect from a unit that — let’s be honest here — doesn’t have a glowing reputation coming off a 6-10 season.
“They did a heck of a job,” said Hightower, who finished with 44 yards on 10 carries. “I have no complaints. I didn’t know those guys could move like that. They take off running, and they looked like they were on a mission. As a running back, it’s good for me to see them firing off the ball and excited.”
The Redskins‘ offensive line made a positive first impression that extended beyond Hightower. The assets coaches have cited in selling this unit to the public — continuity, experience and quickness — were evident. Players appeared comfortable cut blocking and running in-sync from sideline to sideline. At this early juncture, there appears to be reason for, gulp, optimism.
“I think we’ve got the right guys, and coaches are telling us the right stuff,” left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “Even though we’ve had a short time to get it going, it has kind of carried over from last year. Just a year in the system, I guess, is a good thing.”
For the Redskins to improve on last year’s win total, their offensive line has to be better. That starts with controlling games on the ground.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has said he wants to run the ball more after amassing fewer attempts than all but one NFL team in 2010. The Redskins‘ bootleg and rollout passing plays are more likely to succeed if they establish the running game.
Against Pittsburgh, that formula worked. Washington gained 119 yards on 20 plays against the Steelers' first string. Quick passes and successful rollout throws complemented a potent ground game, and the offensive line was the catalyst.
“They came off the ball,” Shanahan said. “They were physical. They moved well together. I was excited about them.”
Take Hightower’s 11-yard run on first down from midfield on the opening drive, for example.
Lichtensteiger and left tackle Trent Williams cut down defenders pursuing from the backside. Center Will Montgomery, right guard Chris Chester and right tackle Jammal Brown ran and blocked the linemen and linebackers on their side.
“I almost felt like I had to speed up on some of them,” Hightower said. “The center and guards got out there so much, they got the linebackers running. There were seams and lanes everywhere.”
Chester is the only member of the current line that didn’t start a game for the Redskins last season, although Montgomery has moved from guard to center to replace Casey Rabach.
Redskins coaches signed Chester with the belief that he will fit in their outside zone scheme because he can run. Chester isn’t the most powerful blocker when it comes to one-on-one matchups, and that showed Friday, but he did execute some quality blocks on the move.
“The footwork is a little bit tighter in the [Baltimore Ravens’] power scheme,” he said. “In the zone scheme, we take a little bit more wider angles. That’s a habit I’ve got to work on, and I’m making great progress on it.
Cut blocking is an essential element of the Redskins‘ running system, and that was effective Friday, as well.
Linemen don’t practice it during the week because of the injury risk involved with diving at a defensive lineman’s hip and ending up on the ground. However, they unveiled it against the Steelers.
“There were some good ones, Kory Lichtensteiger in particular,” offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. “Jammal Brown had some good ones. Will had one.
“We drill it, but … it takes time to get used to. As the season wears on, they do it week in and week out, they’ll get better at it.”
The group is off to an auspicious start, at least. Anyone looking for reasons to be optimistic can seize on that.
The Redskins‘ linemen, however, realize they have much more to accomplish to restore their reputation and transform from a liability to an asset.
“We’re not going to put all our stock into one good game, just like we wouldn’t feel like we were screwed if we had a bad game,” Lichtensteiger said. “It’s encouraging to see the running game working and us as a unit working well together. The first impression is good, but we’ll take that with a grain of salt.”