Entering this season, the Redskins’ offensive line wasn’t known for performing in beautiful harmony with precise choreography like “The Five Heartbeats.”
Washington’s group up front was more like “Trent Williams and the Flatliners,” with the lead facing questions about his dedication, concentration and maturity.
The O-line was considered one of the team’s biggest problems, an area with plenty of mediocrity but little depth. Aside from drafting third-rounder Josh LeRibeus, fifth-rounder Adam Gettis and sixth-rounder Tom Compton, coach Mike Shanahan had done nothing to bolster the unit in the offseason. When star left tackle Williams went down in Week 3, he was replaced by Jordan Black, a man who spent last year out of the NFL — and it showed.
“There are a number of people that were worried about our offensive line,” Shanahan said last week. ” The offensive line is a group of people working together as a unit that give you a chance to be successful. Everybody’s got a piece of the puzzle — your offensive line, your tight end, your quarterback, your wide receivers. That’s why we’re very successful right now, because we have a group of people all going in the same direction. They know the system, they know each other, they’ve been fairly healthy there. They’re working together.”
A funny thing happened as we were holding our noses and complaining about the O-line’s smell. The offense has continued to blossom, from the 40-point, 459-yard outbreak against the defense-averse New Orleans Saints in Week 1, through the turnover-impaired 23 points and 480 yards Sunday against the New York Giants.
Suddenly, Washington’s offensive line isn’t so shabby after all, ranked 15th in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, which claims the unit “would be a lot higher if not for [right tackle] Tyler Polumbus bringing them down.” (Someone has to be the whipping boy, even if his leg-whip penalty against New York was completely bogus.)
We don’t know how much of the group’s improvement is due to quarterback Robert Griffin III and halfback Alfred Morris. But whether that dynamic rookie duo is part of the cause or a beneficiary of the effect, the line’s turnaround can’t be ignored. Especially after racking up a season-high 248 rushing yards and dominating the Giants for much of the game. The fourth-quarter output was impressive (except for two sacks and two fumbles), as Washington rushed for 53 yards while RG3 completed 10-of-13 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.
“We got them a lot,” Griffin said of his line’s play against the defending Super Bowl champs in the final quarter. “We had them stymied and a little confused, so they weren’t really rushing the passer a lot. Every team has a player and it’s kind of hard to hold them down throughout a whole game. I thought our offensive line did a great job in that aspect.”
At this rate, such performances seem more trend than fluke. Morris is the NFL’s second-leading rusher (658 yards), behind Arian Foster and ahead of Adrian Peterson. Thanks to RG3’s contributions on the ground (468 yards, good for 12th in the league), Washington boasts the NFL’s top ground game. Only New Orleans has more yards in total offense.
Griffin clearly is a special talent, perhaps a revolutionary player at his position. His ability to run and improvise — such as his jitterbug before converting a 4th-and-10 pass against the Giants — would make any line look better. He’s the main reason that Washington is likely to snap its three-year streak of yielding 40-plus sacks.
But we can’t discount the fact that another sixth-round halfback is enjoying enormous success behind Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. We’ve seen this script play out before, when Shanahan had sixth-rounder Terrell Davis in Denver, followed by equally-obscure, 1,000-yard rushers in Olandis Gary (fourth-rounder) and Mike Anderson (sixth-rounder).
Now, the injuries that beset the Skins’ O-line the past two seasons appear more explanation than excuse. Now, the chemistry and timing demanded in Shanahan’s attack seems to be materializing, instead of existing as a pipe dream. Now, Williams is developing into the All-Pro talent that made him a No. 4 pick, while the flat-liners are exhibiting robust heartbeats.
“I think they’re solid,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said of the entire unit. “I think they’ve done a good job. I think they did the same thing last year when they all played together. We only had them for about three games, but early in last year when the five of them were playing, I thought they did a pretty good job. I think this year they’ve only improved and I’m excited about them.”
As expected, there’s an abundance of excitement on that side of the ball.