ASHBURN — Houston Bates rolled to his feet 12 yards into the backfield, flexed his biceps over a fallen Kellen Moore and went back to work.
It was the third sack in two preseason games for the Washington Redskins’ outside linebacker, but the reaction was muted. Perhaps the circumstances — a preseason game, late in the fourth quarter, his status as an undrafted rookie — tempered the eruption of emotion.
“I’m just taking what they’re giving me, reading the offensive linemen and just taking advantage of whatever their sets are,” Bates said afterward, when asked about the sack. “Our coaches have been doing a really nice job of giving us tools to use in the game, with hand skills and get-off and stuff like that. [I’m] just taking advantage of everything they’re giving me.”
Bates has also taken advantage of fairly consistent playing time in the Redskins’ first two preseason games, including the 21-17 victory over the Detroit Lions on Thursday night. He played 25 of 56 defensive snaps, a solid workload for a preseason game, while mixing in another 14 snaps on special teams.
A week earlier, he played 23 of 56 defensive snaps against the Browns, dragging down quarterback Thad Lewis on consecutive plays in the closing minutes, and also logged 10 snaps on special teams.
Bates’ path to Washington’s main roster, which will be finalized on Sept. 5, is littered with obstacles. Aside from Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy, who filled a starting role last year once Brian Orakpo tore his right pectoral, the Redskins drafted Preston Smith in the second round in May, then signed Junior Galette, who had 10 sacks last season for the New Orleans Saints, on the second day of training camp.
When Trevardo Williams strained a hamstring in the first week of training camp — an injury that ultimately led to his release — Bates was tabbed to take snaps with the second-team defense. On Thursday, he rotated in for one play on the opening drive for Smith.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Bates spent his first four seasons at Illinois, transferring home to Louisiana Tech for his final year of eligibility after earning his bachelor’s degree in hospital administration. Lining up as both an outside linebacker and a defensive end, he led Conference USA with 10 sacks last season — including 4.5 sacks in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, coincidentally against Illinois.
“I know it’s been an emotional week to see him go out and do the things that he did,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said after the bowl game, calling the performance “absolutely awesome.”
He pondered ending his football career and putting his degree to use, but then accepted an invitation from the Houston Texans to attend their rookie mini-camp on a tryout basis. Without a contract offer, he was certain that was the end — until the Redskins called him and asked if he’d try out at their rookie mini-camp the following weekend.
“I almost didn’t come to the Redskins,” Bates said. “It was the first time in my life that I let doubt kind of seep in, and I said, ‘You know what? This is not going to be for me. I’m going to hang it up and follow my hospital administration degree and go out in the medical field.’
“But something told me to just go and give it my last shot and if I’m going to go home, go home banged up but give it everything I’ve got. It ended up working out, persevering and doing OK, so I’m here. That’s a blessing.”
Facing first-and-10 last week from the Browns’ 20-yard line with 1:52 remaining, Bates backed up left tackle Michael Bowie, then stepped back inside and grabbed Lewis after nose tackle Robert Thomas and defensive end Travian Robertson collapsed the pocket. He then sped right by Bowie on the next play and turned the corner, dragging Lewis down from behind after the quarterback stepped up in the pocket.
On Thursday, Bates was active again, dropping Moore on second-and-7 with 10:11 left in the fourth quarter. Wide receiver Ryan Broyles chipped Bates, but the tactic failed; after Moore faked a pitch to his right, he rolled out to his left and was one-on-one with Bates, who easily snagged the quarterback for a loss of 12 yards.
With one preseason game remaining before the Redskins make their first round of cuts, and two weeks until rosters need to be set, Bates still has other opportunities to cement his status. If he doesn’t make the 53-man roster early next month, the 10-man practice squad could be an option.
“I’m just glad the Washington Redskins gave me an opportunity to show my talent and gave me a chance to play,” Bates said. “I’ll do anything to help this team and organization. I’ll play linebacker or defensive end — whatever they need me to do. The transition hasn’t been that difficult for me. I’ve just been playing instinctively and doing the same thing I’ve done in college.”