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Offensive line’s progress stems from foundation Redskins laid last year

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011

Chris Foerster did backflips on the inside when he saw how new right guard Chris Chester executed a combination block in the first quarter of last Sunday's game.

It was a minor detail, really, and the run on which it happened didn't even gain positive yards. But to the Washington Redskins' offensive line coach, it meant everything.

Chester, off the snap, immediately helped center Will Montgomery block St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Fred Robbins by reaching out with his left hand. Chester contacted Robbins away from his own body. Sometimes if a lineman tries to start a combo block with his forearm close to his chest, he loses the space needed to free himself and run to the linebackers.

On this play, though, Chester's hand was well away from his body. That allowed him room to clear Robbins and run a few more yards to block linebacker James Laurinaitis.

The block helped open a huge cutback lane, which running back Tim Hightower did not take. Still, Foerster was thrilled by Chester's execution.

"Those kinds of things, all of a sudden they get it," Foerster said. "Now you're able to make the next step after that."

The play exemplified the progress the offensive line has made four games into the second year of coach Mike Shanahan's tenure. Players and coaches believe they are far from a finished product, but their progress is undeniable.

"The continuity is there," left tackle Trent Williams said. "Everybody knows what they're doing. There's not a lot of second-guessing as there was last year coming into a new system. I feel like we're all working together right now."

Continuity is why Shanahan and the organization assembled this five-man unit how it did in late July. The Redskins ranked 16th in the NFL in yards per rush last season and 23rd in sacks per pass attempt - unsuccessful by most standards - but Shanahan wanted to build on players' experiences.

That's why four of the Redskins' five starters on the line from last year's team were retained. The Redskins signed Chester as a free agent, and they replaced center Casey Rabach with Montgomery, who was a reserve. Williams, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and right tackle Jammal Brown were brought back.

Through four games, Foerster and the line have benefited from their familiarity with each other and the scheme.

Three of the Redskins' games this season have been against opponents the team played last year. Devising strategy before and during games was easier because the line had a foundation on which to build.

"My communication with the guys, they've all heard it before," Foerster said. "We've been through a lot together now. When we want to make an adjustment, we've probably made that adjustment before and those guys are familiar with the adjustment."

Those games also provided a clear measure of the group's progress.

"When we looked at our St. Louis game from a year ago in preparation [for last Sunday], we're like, 'Wow, we had problems with this a year ago, and we're not having those problems this year,' " Foerster said.

The line hasn't always dominated, though. Strong rushing performances against Arizona and St. Louis are balanced by games against New York and Dallas in which the Redskins' running backs averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry.

New York and Dallas have strong, athletic defensive linemen and linebackers. And because they are divisional opponents, they could be viewed as the standard the Redskins' line must overcome.

"It's not good enough to go every other game against real heavy rush defenses to have a bad game and rely all on the pass, so we're going to have to keep working on that," Lichtensteiger said. "The Giants were committed to stopping the run, but I think at this point everybody is going to be committed to stopping the run. It's up to the coaches to keep them off balance and for us to execute."

For now, progress continues to be incremental. For example, Foerster has Lichtensteiger working on footwork details.

"You see if your second step gets down quicker, how much better you're going to help the center," Foerster said. "It's a matter of inches."

Inches that could mean major gains for the team as a whole.

"For four games in we're starting to get there, but we've got a long way to go," Foerster said. "Each guy has things he needs to work on, things as a group we need to get better at. It's just a process."

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