Brian Orakpo’s return could transform Redskins’ defense

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RICHMOND — A tinted visor hid Brian Orakpo’s eyes as he lowered himself into his two-point athletic stance during one-on-one blocking drills Tuesday. The new gold face mask on his burgundy helmet has so many crossbars that his headgear looks like that of supervillain Bane from the recent Batman trilogy.

It’s an appropriate look. Orakpo is a baaadd man this summer.

He is fully recovered from the torn left pectoral muscle that cost him all of last season. In returning to a defense that badly missed him last year, he is consumed by the challenge of playing better than he ever has — a goal that, if achieved, would earn him millions as a free agent next offseason.

“The first day I stepped out on the field, I did not want to lose a step,” Orakpo said after a recent practice. “I did not want to get my feet wet. I just wanted to pick up where I left off, and I feel like I have been doing so.”

To understand what Orakpo’s return means to the Redskins, go back to Sept. 17 in St. Louis. He heavily favored his left shoulder as he staggered off the field following a pass play in the first half. He had surgery on his left pec the preceding offseason, so he knew what the pain meant. He slammed his helmet down and howled in frustration and disbelief. It means that much to him.

Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (98) stretches before afternoon practice at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center, Richmond, Va., Tuesday, July 30, 2013. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)

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Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (98) stretches before afternoon practice at ... more >

When the Redskins beat Dallas on Dec. 30 to win the NFC East, many players dressed and filed out of the locker room as if it were any old victory. Not Orakpo. He shouted and cheered a title he was not on the field to help win.

So if inside linebacker London Fletcher is the heartbeat of the Redskins’ defense, then Orakpo is the blood.

“You can feel the presence out there,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said in June after Orakpo returned to practice. “It’s totally different.”

Orakpo has evolved as a stand-up linebacker since the Redskins, led in 2009 by coach Jim Zorn and front office chief Vinny Cerrato, drafted him 13th overall as a defensive end out of Texas.

He grew to understand leverage required to effectively rush and block from a two-point stance. That helped him improve setting the edge against the run. Years of studying opposing offenses prepares him to cover receivers in space, which he has done well so far in training camp.

But one element of his game sets him apart from others, teammates and talent evaluators say: pass-rush ability.

Even though outside linebacker Rob Jackson had 4.5 sacks in replacing Orakpo last season, Orakpo stands alone as the Redskins’ best pass rusher.

“There’s not too many players like Orakpo around the league,” right defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “He’s a special guy. He’s explosiveness, his speed-to-power, man, there’s not too many people that can explode and exert that type of power into an offensive lineman.”

After Orakpo was hurt last year in Week 2, Redskins coaches struggled to find the most effective personnel combinations to replace him. They began by using Jackson on first and second downs and rotating other outside linebackers on third downs.

Now that Orakpo is back, and now that former first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan is more experienced at the opposite outside linebacker position, the Redskins will test opponents in pass protection more than last year. That should also help the secondary in pass coverage.

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