A cluster of defensive linemen trudged off the practice field at Redskins Park on Tuesday afternoon, many of them new and all of them huge.
There was nose tackle Terrance Knighton, the man dubbed “Pot Roast” and generously listed at 331 pounds. There was Stephen Paea, a soft-spoken 300-pounder born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga. And there was Ricky Jean Francois, cut by the Indianapolis Colts in February and scooped up by general manager Scot McCloughan four days later.
Together, the trio represents a new era for the Washington Redskins’ defensive line, a group that has annually underperformed over the past several years. Oft-injured defensive end Stephen Bowen and veteran nose tackle Barry Cofield are out, released in a series of cost-cutting moves several months ago. Francois, Knighton and Paea are in. They are expected to join holdovers Chris Baker, Kedric Golston and Jason Hatcher in a regular rotation along the defensive line next season.
The addition of several key players came with a change in philosophy. Under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry and defensive line coach Robb Akey, the Redskins plan to be more aggressive up front, attacking opposing offensive linemen instead of merely occupying them.
“I think we’re going to make more plays in the backfield,” Hatcher said. “And I think we have the personnel to do so, versus last year, we just held up linemen and let the linebackers make plays. But we’re in a more attack-style defense now, and I think it’s going to benefit us well.”
Hindered in part by injuries, the Redskins’ defensive line struggled to generate a pass rush for most of the 2014 season. Together, the group had just 10 1/2 sacks in 16 games, three fewer than outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan recorded himself. The line also collectively failed in the turnover department, forcing no fumbles and recovering only one. Baker led the group with 25 tackles.
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On Tuesday, returning linemen pointed to schematic differences that will allow them to get upfield more frequently and pursue opposing ballcarriers. Coach Jay Gruden said the goal is to “get the handcuffs off of them a little bit.”
“Not that they had [handcuffs] on last year, but the frame of mind is to be a more aggressive-style defense and let them play,” Gruden said. “Corners are going to have some opportunities to make some plays on balls, and obviously, safeties will be very important in the run fits and all that good stuff, so I think overall, from a unit, I think defensively, the new players that we added, the new scheme we have, it’s a welcomed change.”
The Redskins have tried to bolster their defensive line before. In 2009, they infamously signed marquee free agent Albert Haynesworth to a gargantuan contract. Two years later, they traded him to the New England Patriots, gave Bowen and Cofield multi-year deals and drafted Jarvis Jenkins in the second round.
Injuries prevented Bowen and Cofield from meeting expectations, and each only participated in eight games in 2014. Their absence pushed unproven players like Frank Kearse and Clifton Geathers, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, into significant playing time, and allowed opposing offensive lines to focus on players like Hatcher.
If the new defensive line additions stay healthy, that should change this year.
“It helps a lot,” Hatcher said. “You’ve got guys that can take some pressure off you [so] that you’re not the only person they can key on. You’ve got Stephen Paea, you’ve got Pot Roast, you’ve got Bake. You’ve got a lot of guys who can go in there and make plays.”
“We all can be fresh,” Baker added. “There shouldn’t be a time in the game where anybody’s extremely tired, because we have a bunch of guys who can rotate and play and keep guys fresh.”
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The regular season is still more than three months away, but already the new defensive linemen are making an impact. Gruden praised Knighton’s quick first step and presence as a leader in the locker room. Baker lauded Paea’s work ethic, a tendency to stay after workouts to continue lifting or running. The collective message was clear: the defensive line will be better in 2015.
Knighton, however, offered a reminder that the group is not there yet. Chemistry is essential up front, and still needs to be built. There is plenty of room for growth. That the defensive line seems improved in late May means nothing to him.
“Names don’t win you anything. It’s about putting the work in,” Knighton said. “Obviously, I was on a really good team that had numerous Pro Bowl guys, and we fell short at the end. So, I’m just trying to tell the guys about putting work in on the field, getting to know each other off the field and just make sure everybody’s doing the right thing at all times.”