- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

ASHBURN — Protected by hoodies, skullcaps and other means of cold-repellent wear, the Washington Redskins‘ offensive linemen chugged along Wednesday afternoon. Detaching themselves from shoulder pads and cleats inside the warmth of the locker room were their teammates. This is the way practice has worked all season. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan has started his group early and worked it late.

Finally, the linemen were able to trudge up the walkway to shelter. All the churn has turned them into an unlikely point of strength for a team entering its first playoff game since 2012.

Early on, they knew it would be different with Callahan. He was detailed, driven and desperate to drag work out of each available second.

They made changes. The Redskins swung Morgan Moses to right tackle and put their top draft pick, Brandon Scherff, inside at right guard. Injuries altered the lineup further. After veteran Shawn Lauvao was placed on injured reserve in late September, Spencer Long was made the starting left guard. Then, center Kory Lichtensteiger was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 11 with a designation to return because of weakness in his left shoulder.

When Lichtensteiger was replaced by Josh LeRibeus, Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams could look to his right and wonder just who it was down the line. Moses had played eight games the previous season. LeRibeus had played seven. Long played five. Scherff was in college.

But, the group was able to hold together long enough that a prediction from general manager Scot McCloughan came true. When the team decided to give Lichtensteiger the designation to return, as opposed to ending his season, McCloughan reached out to Lichtensteiger for a chat.

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The Redskins were 3-5, not a typically a confidence-inspiring numeric combination. Yet, McCloughan believed a push was pending. He told Lichtensteiger that was the reason for the option to return.

“I don’t want to make it sound like at 3-5, you think you’re going to make the playoffs every time,” Lichtensteiger said. “I knew we were capable of it. Scot’s conviction really convinced me, kind of no doubt in his mind that we were going to go on the run and win the division. That gave me confidence. I just knew I had to get myself ready to be in the position to come back and help out.”

Without Lichtensteiger, Williams has waded through the year growing his voice and presence. He started training camp by saying he thought the fresh-legged right side of the line could fulfill its jobs. At first, it appeared as if Williams was publicly giving support to a curious experiment where two young players would be asked to start for the first time, after switching positions. He contends he believed all along.

“To be honest, if that would have been anybody else and having the young guys over there, I probably would have been worried a little bit,” Williams said. “But, from working with them and seeing them practice day in and day out, I knew we’d be OK. I knew those guys just had to learn to communicate and work together.”

Callahan’s approach was new for all, even Williams, who was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl last month. Callahan came at his new charges after the Redskins plucked him from the rival Dallas Cowboys. Instead of Callahan’s persistence being off-putting, it appears to have simply worked. The Redskins reduced their year-over-year sack total from 58 to 27. Part of that is a different quarterback who chooses to release the ball quickly as opposed to extending plays, but certainly, part of that is Callahan’s influence.

“I think the word we like to use is, he’s a ‘grinder,’ you know?” Williams said. “He’s not a butthole. He’s not an up-in-your-face-yelling-at-you coach. But, he does expect a lot out of you. He’s going to use every second of the day he’s allotted to work. It’s done nothing but help us, so nobody’s complaining.”

Lichtensteiger was thankful to be back in Callahan’s meticulous world after being activated earlier in the week. He practiced on Wednesday, then banged around with a couple of practice squad defensive linemen to test his previously uncooperative left arm. Back on Oct. 11 against the Atlanta Falcons, Lichtensteiger was reduced to a one-armed center. He had full range of motion in his left arm, but no strength because of a disc-related injury. Rest, a trip to a specialist and other rehabilitation fixed his ailing wing.

When trying to rehabilitate his arm, Lichtensteiger stayed at Redskins Park instead of working elsewhere. He went to offensive line meetings, asking questions and preparing though he was not going to play.

“I thought would be very strange to have been gone for six weeks and try to come back and act like I was never gone and try to get back in the swing of it,” Lichtensteiger said. “And, I felt like I kind of owed it to the guys to stay invested and try to help out in any way I could. Don’t know if I did, but at least maintained some level and involvement, which was nice.”

He expects to play on Sunday. Lichtensteiger said he will not have any reservations about walking back onto the field for a live game, though he concedes he will not know his ability to push back in a game before he is doing so.

“Nothing until then is going to prove that to me,” Lichtensteiger said.

When he returns, the offensive line will have back its play-caller. The youngsters have grown up on the right side. Williams has spent another season stoning pass-rushers on the left side. He’ll rejoin a group that has unexpectedly made it work.

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