- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

Playing with the lead last December, the New York Giants’ defense wasn’t doing anything fancy. The elaborate blitzes that flummoxed the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl were replaced by a simple four-man rush.

And the Washington Redskins’ banged-up offensive line couldn’t block it.

A sequence of eight second-half drop-backs by quarterback Jason Campbell told a bleak story.

Scramble, sack, 8-yard pass, scramble, 15-yard pass, 3-yard pass, scramble and sack.

The second half of the season told the Redskins they needed to tinker with the starting group (goodbye, Jon Jansen and Pete Kendall) and build younger and more versatile depth (so long, Jason Fabini and Justin Geisinger).

Even though the Redskins have yet to change their philosophy of refusing to use first- or second-round draft picks on offensive linemen - a streak dating to 2000 - they feel the starting line is more than equipped to face the Giants in Sunday’s season opener and stay healthy for 16 games.

“I think we’re way far ahead in our pass [protection],” offensive line coach Joe Bugel said. “Our first unit is together, nobody is out and we’re a healthy bunch right now.”

Said head coach Jim Zorn: “There are a lot of things we do today that we didn’t do last year and are better at.”

Center Casey Rabach, left tackle Chris Samuels and right guard Randy Thomas return and are joined by right tackle Stephon Heyer (who lost his job because of injury last year) and left guard Derrick Dockery (back after two years with Buffalo).

Campbell was sacked 22 times in the second half, when the offensive line got worn down. Because Campbell wasn’t sacked in the preseason, there has been widespread optimism at Redskin Park about the starting group’s competence.

“I think we’re in a good place,” Rabach said. “We had little nagging [injuries] early in camp, but everybody pulled through those.”

Most important, the line pulled through two-a-day sessions against the Redskins’ strong defensive line. In the process, it got better at blitz pickups and honed some of the protections that have been tinkered.

The terminology remains the same, but backup quarterback Todd Collins called the system “more user-friendly.”

“The coaches are putting us in better situations,” Samuels said.

Samuels remains the linchpin - if he goes down, the Redskins are in trouble. Anticipating health problems, the Redskins released Jansen and didn’t re-sign Kendall. Heyer and Dockery are a combined 15 years younger. Heyer, a third-year player, won the right tackle job last preseason but couldn’t stay healthy.

“He’s gotten bigger in his lower body, and he’s gotten more confident,” said Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins’ executive vice president of football operations. “He’s still improving, but he’s made great strides from last year to this year.”

Dockery was released by Buffalo after an unproductive 2008 season.

“We watched film of his first year there [2007], and we thought he played exceptionally well,” Cerrato said. “He’s comfortable here, and this is where he wants to be.”

The Redskins opted to keep 10 linemen rather than risk seeing D’Anthony Batiste or Edwin Williams claimed.

“When you look at the waiver wire the other day, 24 guys were claimed [including] seven defensive backs, four offensive linemen and four defensive linemen,” Cerrato said. “If you put out a corner who can run or a big guy with some ability, you’ll lose them.”

While the Redskins have attempted to improve the receiver position with second-round picks Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, they have chosen a less conventional route with the offensive line, relying on free agency (Rabach, Dockery and Thomas) and undrafted players (Heyer).

In the entire league, 61.9 percent of the starters were drafted by and have played for only that team. Twenty-two teams have at least three draft picks starting, and four teams - Green Bay, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Francisco - are comprised entirely of draft picks.

The Redskins and Kansas City are the only teams with just one drafted starter. Among the Redskins’ five reserves are one draft pick, three free agents and one undrafted free agent. It has made Bugel’s job difficult, but he’s not complaining about working with discarded or undrafted players.

“Developing kids - that’s my name and my game,” Bugel said with a big smile. “Sometimes, the guys you get off the scrap heap turn out to be the best players. I don’t worry about [not having high draft picks].”

Bugel and the Redskins will start to worry if the youngsters have to play significant roles. That was ultimately the line’s downfall last year. Thomas could be the first breakdown, which would force Chad Rinehart (zero regular-season snaps) into the fray. Will Montgomery is an upgrade if Rabach misses extended time.

“When you put one of those guys in with our starters, they rise up,” Zorn said. “When you put them in as a stopgap, we won’t lose very much.”

With the added weapons offensively, Campbell should be more effective. But the line knows it starts with them and giving him time to throw downfield.

“From day one, it was a struggle, but we’ve jelled together nicely,” Samuels said. “We know [the line’s play] is crucial. If we go out and play well, we have a great chance to win.”

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