RICHMOND — As of right now, the middle of training camp, the defining characteristic of the Redskins defense is its newness. New scheme. New coaches. New personnel.
Amid all that, coach Jay Gruden stopped to compliment one of the pillars of his defense, outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, someone who has been a Redskin for much longer than the shiny new objects of fascination.
“Yeah, you know, not a lot of people talk about Ryan anymore,” Gruden said Sunday. “He’s just always there, he’s a mainstay for us and he’s a very productive player.”
Kerrigan has started all 16 games of every season since his rookie year in 2011, so, if he’s hiding, he’s doing it in plain sight. He’s a beacon of consistency, but he’s also changed a lot over the course of 98 career games.
Kerrigan is 28, going on 29 this month. Rest and recovery are more important than when he was a 23-year-old rookie. He plays a lot, but he’s not on the field for every down like he was earlier in his career.
Last year, Kerrigan played a career-low 71.58 percent of defensive snaps. He had 11 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. During his other Pro Bowl season, 2012, Kerrigan was on the field with the defense 99.16 percent of the time, seventh-most among NFL linebackers. Last year, Kerrigan’s percentage of play time on defense ranked 45th and, as a result, his body felt better.
“The difference I found last year was in games in late November and early December … I was feeling a lot fresher at that time of year than I had in years past when I was playing a higher volume of snaps,” Kerrigan said. “I think playing, having that many guys that can rotate in is really key.”
In years past, he said, he’d really feel the exhaustion of a season on Tuesday or Wednesday after a game. He’d go back to Redskins Park to begin preparing for the next opponent feeling worn down, not fresh.
A day or two of rest after a game wasn’t doing it. The better he played, the more tackles he made, the more exhausted and sore he’d feel the next week.
By playing a bit less in 2016, Kerrigan avoided some of that exhaustion. With a fresher body each week, Kerrigan made up for his lost snaps with more efficient production. His 72 quarterback pressures in 2016 ranked third among outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. His 23 pressures on 136 third-down pass-rush snaps were some of the few bright spots in the Redskins league-worst third-down defense.
There’s no reason that shouldn’t continue into 2017, especially because Kerrigan is still feeling the rewards of rest.
“I feel better than I have in the past couple of years,” he said.
Kerrigan has had a productive training camp, and he’s also spent plenty of time in the cold tub and gotten a veteran’s day off of practice as the Redskins commit to keeping him fresh during this time, as well. The coaching staff’s expectations are high, as usual, and Gruden expects that Kerrigan is “still going to be a double-digit sack guy for us.”
Kerrigan has been that, or near that, his entire career, but he’s become a more well-rounded player as he’s gotten older.
“He’s an excellent player against the run, which goes unnoticed sometimes by a lot of people,” Gruden said.
Kerrigan’s 26 solo tackles in 2016 were a career low, which doesn’t say anything good about his run defense, but the fact that he got only seven assisted tackles illustrates that the issue was one of the whole defense, not just Kerrigan.
In part, Kerrigan has become a better run defender out of necessity. Over the course of his career, he’s watched offenses spread out and defenses respond by moving hefty defensive tackles off the field in favor of cornerbacks. Of course, there’s been an equal and opposite reaction to that, too.
“Yeah that’s the challenge with football nowadays,” Kerrigan said. “Every offense is trying to get you in your nickel personnel and then run the ball.”
On passing downs, Kerrigan may be one of the bigger players on the line of scrimmage, so he’s got to be ready to stop the run if the offense tries to surprise him. He plays with his hand in the dirt more than he used to.
“You obviously have less beef on the field, less run stuffers on the field, so that becomes the challenge for the guys in the box, for us, the interior guys, the off=the-ball linebackers, it really puts the onus on us to squeeze gaps and reduce run lanes,” Kerrigan said.
With more experience playing in those situations, Kerrigan’s gotten better at anticipating plays, reading the tackle’s set and making educated guesses.
“I think just having a better understanding of situations, you know, knowing, even if it’s second and seven and an offense might, that’s typically a passing situation but nowadays [with] offenses, that’s a 50-50 down,” Kerrigan said. “Offenses could run or could pass so you really have to not get too far upfield in your initial takeoff.”
When the Redskins suit up for Week 1, the sight of Kerrigan’s No. 91 lining up will be a familiar one. But while it’s easy to see the seventh-year player as a symbol of consistency and stability, Kerrigan has shown adaptability, as well, to the nuances of today’s game and to the realities of aging. He probably wouldn’t have been able to keep up the same level of play without it.
So, if Kerrigan proves Gruden right and has another double-digit sack year in 2017, he’s not just doing the same old thing he’s always done, no matter how familiar it looks.