There are two seeds of promise inside the packet of official statistics from the Washington Redskins‘ win over Seattle on Sunday. Their most inexperienced starters on offense and defense — running back Roy Helu and inside linebacker Perry Riley — led the team in rushing yards and tackles.
For an organization already with an eye on the big picture in the face of a third straight losing season, perhaps that’s a greater success than the game’s result.
The obvious question, though, is whether Helu and Riley could have helped the Redskins (4-7) avoid their predicament if they had played sooner. It’s a question that challenges coach Mike Shanahan’s core philosophies, one he constantly grapples with as he infuses the roster with young players in an attempt to reverse the franchise’s course.
“You don’t want to put a guy in there that’s going to cost you the game because he’s going to miss an assignment in coverage or miss an assignment with his blocking responsibility or his gap responsibility,” Shanahan said. “You try not to put too many young players in those situations, because if you do, it will cost you a game. When you feel somebody is ready then you put them in.”
Shanahan has handled each case differently. First-round rookie outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is the only defensive player who has played every snap this season. That’s even more impressive when you consider he never played the position before he came to Washington. He was a defensive end at Purdue.
By contrast, Shanahan and his staff eased Riley into a starting role. The Redskins‘ fourth-round pick in 2010 might have contended for a starting job this summer if the lockout hadn’t stunted his development by shutting down the team’s offseason program. He got his first start Nov. 13 against Miami, the 25th game for which he was on the Redskins‘ 53-man roster.
“What I think and what the coaches think are two different things,” Riley said. “Obviously, they didn’t think I had it down pat enough. I thought I was ready last year. I do feel more ready this year than I did last year, so I guess that can tell you a little something.”
Riley has backed up his confidence with production. Coaches credited him with 42 tackles in his first three starts. That’s more than his predecessor, Rocky McIntosh, amassed in any three-game stretch this season.
Riley still misses assignments, though. He dropped coverage on Dallas tight end Jason Witten’s 59-yard touchdown two games ago. He was in the wrong gap on runs of 12, 8 and 6 yards by Seattle last Sunday, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said.
“It’s something that if you’re willing to live with some of the mistakes and try to minimize those, obviously there’s a lot of upside to it, also,” Haslett said.
But how do coaches know that a player has minimized his shortcomings to an acceptable level?
“A lot of guys judge it by the scout team,” Haslett said. “To me, that’s hard because they read a [play] card and they run it. I think you’ve got to know if the guy is instinctive, if the guy has physical skills - which Perry does have.
“If nothing else, he’s fast and he’ll run to the ball. He may not know where he’s going, but he knows where the ball is. I think playing linebacker, sometimes that’s half the battle.”
Shanahan differentiated between Kerrigan and Riley by noting Riley has more mental responsibilities playing inside. He is responsible for knowing both inside linebacker positions and setting the entire defenses in certain situations.
“You put a guy in different situations where it’s pass protection on first-and-10, nickel situations with different types of blitzes,” he said. “It’s screens, it’s different types of routes you have to run. If you’re looking at a young player, especially with no [organized team activities in the offseason], it puts a lot of pressure on him, especially in our scheme. And we felt he was ready. He handled it during the week with very few mistakes.”
Helu downplayed the mental strain, though.
“If anything, it’s the amount of carries that build my confidence,” he said. “Even if they’re going to lay me out for 10 carries, I’m in rhythm and I know exactly on certain schemes where their guys might be. I feel some of the linebackers’ and linemen’s eyes on me and I know a little bit better feel of the game on where to cut.”
Riley agreed that playing time is most beneficial. In practice, his assignments aren’t as clear as they are in games because the Redskins‘ scout team doesn’t know the opponent’s plays as well as the actual opponent.
The experience helps, too. The lesson he learned from surrendering the Witten touchdown is burned into his mind.
“Just keep your eyes on my coverage no matter what the quarterback is doing, what’s going on back there in the pocket,” he said with a smile. “That’s somebody else’s assignment.”
Could he have learned that lesson by playing at the end of last year’s 6-10 campaign? Maybe so.