Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan was not at his locker Tuesday morning, so Trent Murphy knew he was one of two places: either recovering in the training room or lifting in the weight room.
“The guy never stops working,” Murphy said.
“He’s a monster,” Jackson Jeffcoat added.
“He’s got to be reckoned with every week,” coach Jay Gruden said.
In a 4-11 season filled with defensive lapses and embarrassing performances, Kerrigan has been one of the few bright spots. The polite 26-year-old from Muncie, Indiana, has terrorized opposing quarterbacks, particularly in the second half of the season. His career-high 13 1/2 sacks this year are tied for fifth-most in the NFL, and his five forced fumbles — including a textbook strip-sack in Saturday’s 27-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles — are tied for the most by any player in the league.
On Tuesday night, Kerrigan was selected only as an alternate for the Pro Bowl, prompting several players to take to Twitter and express both shock and frustration at what they believed to be a snub. Washington’s coaching staff agreed.
“I’m a little disappointed. I think he is also,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “It comes with winning and losing, I guess. It’s a shame.”
Kerrigan’s productivity has been especially impressive given the dearth of complementary pass-rushers on the Redskins’ defense this season. Three-time Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo, who was supposed to start opposite Kerrigan, tore his pectoral muscle in late October. Defensive end Jason Hatcher, who recorded 11 sacks for the Dallas Cowboys last year, has been both ineffective and injury-prone.
Yet through it all, Kerrigan has still managed to notch a sack in five consecutive games, becoming the first Redskins player since 1991 to achieve such a feat.
“When teams play us, I think he is probably the first guy they think of as far as rushing the passer,” Gruden said last week. “He is a great kid, great player and great competitor, and he’s one of those guys that just fits in a great core of guys that we’d like to have here for a long time.”
Kerrigan bruised his right wrist in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 30, and his play has steadily improved as the wrist has improved. But the fourth-year player says he’s also changed his mental approach in the second half of the season after a conversation with outside linebackers coach Brian Baker.
Following a Week 11 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baker told Kerrigan that he was looking cautious in his rushes. “Don’t let the fear of failure override the chance of success,” Baker told him.
“That kind of resonated with me, because I was playing tentative a little bit. And ever since then, I’ve just kind of let it go,” Kerrigan said. “Sometimes I’d get caught up in making sure the quarterback was contained, kind of slowing my rushes to make them a little less effective. But ever since Bake told me that, I’ve kind of just not gotten so caught up in that. [I’m] just rushing.”
When asked about Kerrigan, multiple players and coaches used the same word: relentless. It describes not only his work ethic in the film room and practice, but also his rushing style on Sundays.
“He’s been consistent since he’s been here, from Day 1 when he started as a rookie,” Haslett said last week. “And he’s getting better and better with rush game moves, using his hands — getting away from that rip technique that he has, onto different things. And I think he’s going to be much better as we go on.”
Washington’s younger pass-rushers have taken notice. Murphy, who was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a broken hand, said that he views Kerrigan, his neighbor in the locker room, as a role model. Jeffcoat, another rookie who is expected to start opposite Kerrigan on Sunday, agreed.
“[I’m] just trying to see what he does and emulate things,” Jeffcoat said. “I’ve been able to watch him all season on film, sitting there and seeing what he does, seeing how he sets guys up, seeing how he can pick up grown men and move them to the side. It’s just cool to watch him do that stuff. I can add some things from his game to mine, and that helps.”
Kerrigan’s 13 1/2 sacks this season put him in the company of several Redskins greats, including Dexter Manley, Ken Harvey and Charles Mann. His regular-season sack total would rank among the top-five in the NFL in four of the past five seasons, and he still has one game remaining.
There is a fine line between great pass-rushers and elite pass-rushers, and sack numbers go a long way toward establishing those reputations. Kerrigan said sacks are “such a funny thing” because there are so many factors involved in recording one, from the secondary’s coverage to the defense’s play-call, but pass-rushers are ultimately defined by them.
“Sometimes you get a lot of pressures and hits and you don’t get sacks,” Haslett said. “Ryan’s getting both of them right now.”