An effective pass rush eluded the Washington Redskins throughout the 2012 season even as they made a push for an NFC East title and a playoff berth.
Those goals were accomplished despite Washington's struggles to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Redskins finished tied for 23rd in the NFL last season with just 32 sacks. That was down from 41 in 2011.
And while injuries, including a season-ender to right outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (torn left pectoral muscle) in Week 2, played a role, they can't afford to fight those same pass-rush issues this year if they want to make another postseason trip.
That's no given. Washington's 3-4 front uses a read-and-react formula and generating pressure can be difficult anyway, especially on first and second downs.
"The design of it and the alignment of the big guys, it's not necessarily conducive to great pass rush," said Redskins defensive line coach Jacob Burney. "However, you've got to work through that. It's just the way it is. You've got to clear the run. You know how offenses are. Sometimes they let you know, even if you're in those alignments, that they're passing."
So far, so good. Washington has managed six sacks in two games against Pittsburgh and Tennessee. If that trend continues into the regular season it will take tremendous pressure off a relatively inexperienced secondary.
Some of the improvement can come simply from better recognition. Stephen Bowen was at right defensive end on Monday in a 24-13 win over Pittsburgh. He and nose tackle Barry Cofield scanned the offensive linemen for tells. When they guessed a pass was coming it allowed them to stunt and confuse the Steelers.
"We work really well together," Bowen said. "Based on how [Cofield] rushes, I work off of him. It just comes with time and experience."
That showed on film as Cofield, Bowen and reserve defensive end Kedric Golston had their way with the Steelers' offensive line. Pittsburgh managed just 332 yards of total offense and 95 on the ground.
Cofield dominated a Pro Bowl center in Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey. He was credited with half a sack on Monday and recovered a fumble before suffering a broken right hand that likely will keep him out of the final two preseason games.
"[First and second down is] where I'm going to have to try to make my money, as they say," Cofield said. "Third down, we've got all kind of packages and what not, so I'm not sure how much of the field I'll even see. So realistically, I've got to try to make it happen on first and second down in run situations.
"So there's just pre-snap keys that I've gotten more comfortable with that I'm trying read, different things we're doing up front where I have some liberties and I trust my guys behind me to cover up for me."
Washington also must deal with four-game suspensions to outside linebacker Rob Jackson and left defensive end Jarvis Jenkins. But the Redskins are confident that there is enough depth on hand among the front seven to keep the pressure up even if injuries strike.
The presence of players like linebackers Darryl Tapp and Brandon Jenkins, in theory, should allow the Redskins to attack offenses in a wider variety of ways. Orakpo noted there are times that left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan can slide in to tackle, which he has done in both preseason games.
"It shows how much versatile we can be as far as the defensive front," Orakpo said. "You may see me going inside sometimes. We may have four 'backers out there. Who knows? We've got a whole bunch of stuff in store that we can't wait to really showcase this season."
The obvious caveat, again, is it's still preseason and there will always be concerns about the team's depth up front as the inevitable attrition mounts during the season. But that optimism is fueled because of the return of Orakpo and the expected improvement of Kerrigan.
If the Redskins can get into third-down scenarios, they have the weapons to make opposing offenses pay. Pittsburgh was 1-for-13 on third down on Monday.
"It's not just getting pressure, but getting pressure with four guys because that's what we didn't do well enough last year," Kerrigan said. "We had to rely too much on the blitz [in 2012] and you want to be able to get pressure with just your down linemen."
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