You usually can find the Washington Redskins’ offensive linemen sitting together on the benches outside the back door of Redskins Park before practice each afternoon. An offensive line is the sum of its parts, you know. Cohesion is essential to their success, so these guys stick together. They often walk down to the practice field as a unit, and this season they can carry themselves with a newfound pride.
A year after crumbling because of several injuries, the Redskins’ offensive line is playing OK. It has made a positive contribution to one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks, largely because of its collective good health, linemen’s familiarity with each other and the option concepts Washington’s coaches added to the offensive playbook after quarterback Robert Griffin III joined the team.
“I think they’re solid,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said, “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.”
The rushing stats, at least, support that. The Redskins rank third in the NFL with an average of 5.25 yards per rush. Their 4.04-yard average last season ranked 22nd.
That improvement is critical, considering that coach Mike Shanahan values a successful running attack above anything else on offense.
Griffin’s speed and the emergence of rookie running back Alfred Morris have sparked the running game. And by extension, how coaches use them has benefited the offensive line.
“Here, at least, the scheme has been the outside zone play,” left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “When a defense can concentrate on just that, it makes our job hard. But when we can run inside zone and with the option and the pitch, it makes them guess the whole game. A lot of times they’re not right.”
Several offensive linemen have noticed how significantly defenses have been impacted this season by the threat Griffin poses as a runner in the option game.
There have been several examples in every game. The Redskins ball carrier runs one way while a linebacker or defensive lineman, who normally would be in pursuit, is instead frozen because he has to read which of two, three or four players actually has the ball.
“I think they don’t know where to go,” Lichtensteiger said. “In years past, how you beat the zone scheme is you pinch your [defensive ends] inside and you run your linebackers over top, and it kills our angles. But they can’t do that because they don’t know it’s an outside zone coming.”
“They kind of don’t know where the ball is sometimes,” left tackle Trent Williams added. “When you don’t know who to tackle, it’s kind of hard to get going in the right direction.”
Griffin’s and Morris’ play-making ability helps, too, of course. Griffin’s elite speed translates to game-breaking ability when he scrambles. Morris is a physical runner with exceptional vision and quick feet. He routinely makes the first tackler miss and gains yards after contact.
“Even if we don’t get a perfect block, we have guys that can make plays, too,” Lichtensteiger said.
Not all the credit, however, goes to playmakers and scheme. This year’s line is sharper in some areas, largely because all five linemen have started each of the nine games. The line has escaped the injury carnage it suffered through last season and other areas of the team have endured this year.
(Now would be an appropriate time to knock on wood.)
“We’ve coalesced better,” right guard Chris Chester said. “We’ve tightened up our combo blocks and techniques and all that.”
Still, significant room for improvement remains, especially in pass protection, as the most recent loss against Carolina proved.
The Redskins’ second-half deficit forced them to throw to get back into the game, and that negated the effects of the option. The Panthers’ talented front four pressured Griffin without the help of extra rushers or blitzes and finished with four sacks.
“I think the hardest thing to do in the NFL for any team is to block a pass rush,” Kyle Shanahan said. “To just drop back and go against some of these D-linemen is the biggest challenge in the NFL. When D-linemen are playing the pass, it’s usually a tough game.”
The key to this line’s success, then, seems to be staying in situations that allow the running game to cause indecision and uncertainty among the defense.
That suits Washington’s linemen just fine.
Said Lichtensteiger: “We’re to the point now that if we don’t get 150 yards on the ground, it’s going to be a disappointing day for us.”