Ben Roethlisberger wouldn't even entertain the possibility of a Washington Redskins defense without London Fletcher, who has played 231 straight games.
"I don't think London Fletcher's going to break his streak," the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback said. "I don't foresee him missing a game, so I'm not even preparing without him."
It's uncertain whether Roethlisberger and the Steelers will have to contend with Fletcher on Sunday, as the veteran hasn't practiced this week because of balance issues and a right hamstring injury. But at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Redskins will have to endure without Fletcher, 37, who hasn't missed a game in his NFL career.
That transition from Fletcher to whoever's next in line likely won't be easy, but the Redskins believe they have a succession plan in place with a group of young linebackers led by Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson. Thanks in large part to Fletcher.
"One of the things he's done is poured himself out into everybody: Perry Riley, Lorenzo Alexander, myself, Rob Jackson, Brian Orakpo, [Ryan] Kerrigan," linebacker Chris Wilson said. "We really get a lot of coaching that really goes unseen and unheard from a players' standpoint. As of right now, I definitely couldn't see the defense without him because he's been a Redskin since I've been a Redskin.
"I couldn't because he's always been there. But at the same time, I would be selling him short if I said we would fall apart without him because he's poured himself out into everybody."
Most of these players know nothing of this defense without Fletcher in the middle. The only defenders to predate his joining the team in 2007 are safety Reed Doughty and defensive lineman Kedric Golston.
Fletcher has missed occasional practices but otherwise started each of the 88 games, regular-season and playoffs, with the Redskins. So it's not hard to realize why nose tackle Barry Cofield calls him "The Godfather."
"He means everything," Kerrigan said. "He's the cornerstone, the heartbeat, whatever you want to call it. He's that for us."
Preparing for Fletcher's eventual departure, via retirement or otherwise, could begin Sunday. But the front office and coaching staff have been strategizing the long-term plan at middle linebacker.
It began with Riley, a fourth-round pick in 2010, who replaced Rocky McIntosh as the starter at the other inside linebacker position midway through last season. The 24-year-old is shy off the field but swarms to the ball and moves well sideline to sideline even with Fletcher beside him.
When the time comes that Fletcher isn't around, Riley knows there's pressure on him to take on more responsibilities.
"You definitely think that way. London is a great football player, a great tackler, great leader, everything," Riley said. "And he's out there all the time. You rarely see London not out there. When he's not out there, it's kind of, 'OK, I've got to make more plays.'''
The onus isn't just on Riley. The Redskins think highly of Robinson, who, along with Alexander, helped fill in for Fletcher when he was knocked out against the New York Giants.
Fletcher has one more year left on his contract after this season, which could put Robinson on a course to step right in. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett called him a "great prospect for this organization."
"We drafted Keenan obviously for a reason, a purpose in mind. It was obviously just kind of like Perry, to groom him to be ready to play some day," Haslett said. "That position is a hard position to learn because obviously you're running the whole front, you're running the back end, you're telling everybody what to do. There's a lot of learning to it. [And] he's really, really smart."
Robinson, 23, has been smart enough to learn from Fletcher. Things like how to watch film, how to prepare for games and how to diagnose plays are becoming second-nature because of his teaching.
"He's a guy that prepares really well. He knows what's going to happen before the snap," Robinson said. "He's a guy that kind of teaches me, 'Zo and Perry the little things to look for in order to be able to have a key to what the offense will do before they line up or before the snap. Knowing is half the battle, and then doing it -- just reacting -- helps you play quicker as a linebacker."
Robinson and Riley can adapt quicker to increased roles because of Fletcher, who in 15 years has played what is essentially "three lifetimes" in the NFL, Wilson said.
In the short term, Alexander is expected to start and take Fletcher's place if Fletcher's unable to play. Even that is not an easy adjustment and can lead to a drop-off.
"There is in the sense of his experience and his ability to call out plays and some of the things that he's able to do that you only get playing 15 years in the league," Alexander said. "But there's no drop-off as far as run fits, making plays in that sense. I think from a mental side there's a slight drop-off. But I can't make up 15 years."
Robinson and Riley can't right away, either. The Redskins could go out and find a replacement for Fletcher in free agency. But given the franchise's recent track record with high-profile signings, preparing a home-grown successor might be the best solution.
Whether they already have those guys in Robinson and Riley remains to be seen.
"Well, we'll find out when they get their opportunity to play. Whenever a guy goes down, somebody else gets an opportunity to show us what he can do," coach Mike Shanahan said. "We'll wait and see."
That time is coming, sooner or later. But that doesn't mean it's easy for anyone to envision the next generation of the Redskins' defense without Fletcher.
"It's really hard to even say. He's an extremely important part: he's a leader," Cofield said.
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