RICHMOND — The sturdy, silver lunch pail rests conspicuously on the sidelines, gleaming in the mid-summer afternoon sun. Keenan Robinson wants everyone to see it. He wants his fellow linebackers to know that it’s time to put in a solid day’s work.
“I’m a guy that doesn’t need to be reminded, but I bring it to remind other guys,” Robinson said. “Every day, we’ve got to bring our lunch pail, just come ready to work, and this is an opportunity each and every day when we step on the field.”
For all the tumult that struck the Washington Redskins’ defense during the offseason, between the coaching changes, free agent signings and adjustment in philosophy, no group was less affected than the Redskins’ inside linebackers.
Robinson, the mike linebacker, and Perry Riley, the jack linebacker, weathered the changes together. Their task during training camp, then, is to become familiar enough with defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s aggressive one-gap, 3-4 scheme to make sure that when the season opens at home against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13, it’s a well-oiled machine.
“We’re the quarterbacks of the defense, so we have to play strong and lead the other group of guys, and they’ll follow our lead,” Riley said. “We know that it starts with us, and that’s what we’re focused on this year.”
In previous years, under defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, the Redskins primarily ran a two-gap scheme, in which defensive linemen stood across the line of scrimmage from their counterparts, were responsible for clogging up the lanes and let the linebackers do the work.
Barry’s scheme, though, is different. Players will be asked to line up in those gaps, either to bring a premature end to the running game or force offensive linemen to account for what could be a clear path to the quarterback. If they don’t get through, Riley and Robinson can then clean up the mess.
It’s something coach Jay Gruden wanted to do when he sought a new defensive coordinator in January.
“[The scheme] allows us to play faster,” Riley said. “We can just get downhill, shoot our gaps, not worry about playing two or three gaps or running sideways as much. It allows the defense to be more aggressive.”
That transition would have been something to undertake had the Redskins returned the same personnel from last season. Instead, after allowing 27.4 points per game, the third-most in the league, and 5.85 yards per play, the sixth-worst mark of any team, changes needed to be made.
Robinson, who had a team-high 108 tackles last season, and Riley, who finished with 93, were only tangibly affected. The biggest adjustment was the verbiage and the wording of the playbook; everything else, Robinson said, “has been pretty fluid.”
“That’s the only thing that’s different, so that’s the only thing that we’ve had to try to change and try to learn,” Robinson said. “Everything else has been pretty fluid going from Haslett’s defense to Joe Barry’s defense.”
That steadying presence benefited the Redskins last season, when Robinson, in his first year as a starter, led the team with 108 tackles. Riley finished third on the defense with 93 tackles; the two players combined for 14 tackles for a loss, including 3.5 sacks, with each making 26 stops in the passing game.
Robinson’s emergence was particularly noteworthy because of his history. A fourth-round draft pick in 2012 who was tabbed by the coaches at the time as an eventual starter, he tore his right pectoral late in his rookie season, then tore his left pectoral on the opening day of training camp the following July.
“He’s a very bright guy, and as last year’s experiences, as far as playing full-time, really helped him seeing the game, seeing formations, recognizing formations, making the calls and making the checks,” Gruden said. “Now he’s using different words. Some of it has carried over, but a lot of it has changed. He’s doing a good job.”
Riley has taken note, and he believes last year’s experiences will only help the two successfully navigate the transition.
He’s also kept an eye on Robinson’s lunch pail, which he described as being “just him.”
“As long as he’s still out there balling, he can bring whatever he wants to practice,” Riley said. “It’s something that he does to get himself ready, and as long as he comes ready, I’m all for it.”