Washington Redskins: DeMarcus Ware

Baker focused on causing fumbles

June, 23, 2014
Every practice he harped on the same thing: force turnovers. Brian Baker doesn’t just want his outside linebackers to hit the quarterback, he also wants the ball out as well.

He’s not the first coach to talk about this with his players, or even with the Washington Redskins. But Baker harped on it every practice and made it clear jarring the ball free is the goal.

"I tell them, 'Sacks get you paid; sack/strips win you games," said the Redskins' outside linebackers coach. "You look at the better pass-rushers in the league, those guys are getting the quarterback to choke the ball up. That defense is positively affecting the game. You sack the quarterback, it’s just a tackle for a loss."

Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo has not excelled in this area, with just six forced fumbles in his career. When he arrived at the quarterback in the past, he often did so without worrying about stripping the ball. He just wanted to get the guy down. He's admitted in the past it was not part of his mindset. If he creates more turnovers, his chance for the sort of contract he wants -- and one the Redskins would be willing to pay -- increase.

Baker said he knows how to change a player's mindset.

"Drill. All the time," he said. "Since I’ve been here, there has not been one time where we worked solely on wrapping up the quarterback. Maybe that will hurt us down the road, 'Oh, he never works on tackling the guy.' But we put a lot of emphasis on strips because it will definitely win games."

Among the top pass-rushers, here’s how many fumbles they’ve caused: Clay Matthews (10); DeMarcus Ware (32); Tamba Hali (27); Robert Mathis (48, with the former defensive end causing eight as an outside linebacker this past season); Terrell Suggs (27); Robert Quinn (eight, though seven came this past season); Greg Hardy (six).

Obviously there are other good pass-rushers, but that provides a sample of what they’ve done. Ryan Kerrigan has 10 in his first three seasons.

"Everything we do from a pass-rush standpoint has a sack/strip element to it," Baker said. "If you can take a sack and now strip the quarterback where you’re causing the turnover? Man, that is an impact play."
ASHBURN, Va. -- One addition could lead to better individual play. The other could be seen as insurance for his potential departure. Both could help Brian Orakpo in the short term, and that's all he's worried about.

In fact, Orakpo said he never viewed rookie Trent Murphy as anything other than a guy who could help now. He said he did not wonder if Murphy was drafted to be his eventual replacement.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Brian Orakpo
AP Photo/Michael PerezBrian Orakpo views the additions of rookie Trent Murphy and outside linebackers coach Brian Baker as a sign that better days are in the immediate future for the Redskins' pass rush.
"That's the last thing I'm thinking of," Orakpo said. "That's the first time I even thought about that to be honest with you."

Orakpo said Murphy's addition was necessary. So, too, was outside linebackers coach Brian Baker's. And Orakpo said both can help him -- and Ryan Kerrigan -- have more of an impact this season.

First, Baker. Here's the list of pass rushers he's worked with in the past: Charles Johnson, Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware and La'Roi Glover. How much did he mold their games? Tough to say, but clearly Baker can pass along tips he picked up working with those players onto the Redskins' linebackers.

"Just pass-rush concepts, man," Orakpo said. "Not just being an athlete. All kinds of different stuff he learned coaching guys throughout his years. Hand usage. Hand placement. I'm a momentum type of pass rusher. Now he's trying to teach a guy like myself proper hand placement and not being so wild at times when I'm rushing.

"We've been doing a lot of techniques. Any time we got a break, me and Baker are going at it doing different techniques, working different hand placements, working half of the offensive tackle or the tight end. Just trying to get better."

It's different.

"I haven't done this before," Orakpo said. "This is brand new for me. I'm excited. It will get all of us better and get all of us to another level. It comes with years of experience, always trying to incorporate something new in your game. I'm excited Baker is here and also that [Kirk Olivadotti] is here because he's teaching the inside linebackers a lot of new things as well that we were accustomed to my first year. Those guys are huge assets."

That's how Orakpo views Murphy, chosen in the second round last month. Orakpo said one word came to mind when they picked him: Depth.

While many will debate whether Murphy was the right choice, the bottom line is the Redskins needed another pass rusher. Just adding Jason Hatcher in the offseason would not provide enough of a boost, or depth, in this area.

"It's all about getting another guy to come in and create havoc," Orakpo said. "Depth is huge. You need three or four pass rushers that can go. This team has relied on me and Ryan doing the dirty work. But every other team has three to four guys ready to rock and roll. You saw what Seattle did bringing three or four guys, moving my boy Michael Bennett around. Cliff Avril on one side, Chris Clemons one side. Just moving guys all over the place. ... We finally got the big picture and got someone in here."

It's no secret what the Redskins want to do: tap into the three linebackers' versatility. That's evident in practice as each of them has lined up all over the place. The goal: pressure with four or, at most, five. You can be aggressive without always having to blitz. Washington blitzed more in 2012 in part because it lost Orakpo and Adam Carriker to injuries. But it left a weak secondary susceptible.

"If you pressure with four guys, you have a much better chance," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "You saw the success Seattle had -- they very seldom blitz. We have the ability with four, five guys that we have being able to rush the passer, keeping them fresh -- that we can get pressure."

If that's the case, then Orakpo likely would receive the sort of long-term contract he desires from Washington. He made it clear a long time ago he'd still like a long-term deal and that not having one wouldn't impact his approach, or desire to attend workouts. He'd still like one before the season, but Gruden said long ago he's fine with letting him play the season out on the franchise tag. Other members of the organization said it's conceivable the Redskins will keep all three pass rushers beyond this season.

For now, Orakpo's concern is 2014.

"Don't look into the one-year-left-rookie-drafted [storyline]," Orakpo said. "We have to look at this year and trying to get to that Super Bowl. Forget about the future. That's just business. Business will take care of itself. We're trying to make noise this year."
Eli ManningElsa/Getty ImagesNewly signed Redskin Jason Hatcher is coming off a career year in which he had 11 sacks.
The Redskins finally made the big move many anticipated they'd make, though maybe not with the player they thought it would be: Jason Hatcher. He just happens to also come from their hated rival, an added bonus for Redskins fans (that is, if he plays the way they hope).

Hatcher will be reunited with former defensive linemate Stephen Bowen in Washington. He'll also be returning to a defense that uses a base 3-4 front, though is often in nickel packages. Hatcher flourished as a 4-3 lineman a year ago.

For more insight into this move, ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Redskins reporter John Keim exchanged questions and answers.

What are the Redskins getting in Hatcher?

Archer: I don't think they're getting a guy who will get them 11 sacks a season, if that's what you're asking. He played defensive end in the 3-4 in the first seven years of his career and never had more than 4.5 sacks in a season. But he might be a good combo mix of a 3-4 end and 4-3 tackle, especially with how much nickel defense teams play these days. He's a three-down player, but he turns 32 in July and you have to wonder how much he has left. You also have to wonder if his season was the result of a contract year. I'm surprised he went to a 3-4 team, honestly.

He's a guy who flourished in a 4-3 now he's going to a 3-4, how will he fit in Washington?

Keim: I think he'll fit nicely (and I'm sure his new deal convinced him a 3-4 was, well, OK). But he won't strictly be a 3-4 end. I'm sure he'll play end in a base package and inside in their nickel package. They used the latter nearly 70 percent of the time last season. I know his role changed in Dallas last year, but I can't believe the Redskins would deviate too much from where he had success as a rusher. And clearly that success came inside, as the Redskins know better than anyone. One team source said Hatcher's inside pressure was the best they'd seen against them in a few years. They lacked the ability to generate much push of their own, with only Barry Cofield a consistent threat. With his nose tackle duties, it's hard for him to stay fresh as a rusher too. The Redskins absolutely needed what he showed he could do last season. There was too much pressure to generate a rush with just their outside linebackers or by blitzing. They got little from the line. He won't need to get 11 sacks, but if he gets in the 5-6 range that would be a big bonus. Really, they need him to push the pocket and be a presence. Not enough of that last season.

Why the sudden jump in sacks?

Archer: Contract year? No, that's too cynical. I think he found a good fit and a coach who really worked with him on pass rushing. In the 3-4 he was basically a hold-the-fort kind of guy and let DeMarcus Ware or Anthony Spencer make the plays outside. He really took to Rod Marinelli in 2013 and I thought he would have stayed in a 4-3 scheme after complaining a little bit about how limited he was in a 3-4. What's funny is that if Jay Ratliff didn't get hurt (or stay hurt) then Hatcher would have likely been the one technique and really not had a chance to get after the passer as much. He was able to break the mold of what Marinelli excels with at the three technique but he did a good job. He does not have a variety of moves but he can close pretty fast for a big guy. But I'll leave it with this: He had 16 sacks in his first seven seasons. To me he's more that guy than a guy who can put up double-digit sacks in multiple years. Maybe he'll prove me wrong.

Was this a move to weaken a division rival?

Keim: Do you really think owner Dan Snyder would revel in signing a player away from the Cowboys and Jerry Jones? OK, so do I. It's always a bonus when a team can poach a player from a division rival. But they felt snagging Cofield from the Giants might weaken them a bit. The Giants still went on to eventually win another Super Bowl. But Hatcher was a good player on a bad defense and it's tough to lose such a guy. The Cowboys' D was weak enough already. That said, it doesn't sound as if Dallas made much of a push to bring him back. I wonder what everyone will think when he's a 34-year-old entering his third season here; what can he do then? But it's reasonable to expect Hatcher to make an impact this season and the next.

What is the impact on the Cowboys, now losing Hatcher along with Ware?

Archer: Well, they were 32nd in the league with those guys, so I guess they can't be worse. Ah, that's too cynical too. I think they made a mistake in not working out a deal for Ware. Now, I wouldn't have done what the Denver Broncos did with $20 million guaranteed, but I think he's got a lot left in him. The Cowboys drew a line with Hatcher and didn't want to cross it. They weren't going to pay him nearly $28 million on a deal, that's for sure. The Cowboys are looking at using waves of players to get to the quarterback -- albeit guys who have never really gotten to the quarterback much. And they're not done adding guys, obviously. Well, they shouldn't be done adding guys. Sean Lee becomes the face of this defense. Now he just has to stay healthy, which he has yet to do. Lee is their best defensive player and playmaker. Personally, I think they'll miss Ware more than Hatcher. Ware was a guy that needed extra attention every week. Hatcher wasn't that guy.

What does this mean for former Cowboy Stephen Bowen?

Keim: I wondered the same thing, but multiple team sources said not to take the next step and assume Bowen won't be here. The problem is, Bowen carries a hefty cap number this year ($7.02 million) and is coming off microfracture surgery. He also turns 30 at the end of this month. Add that up and you'd think he'd be in trouble. But he remains in their plans, so if something is done with his contract I'd still expect him back. Another note and maybe you know this, but apparently he and Hatcher are best friends.

Top free-agent roundup: NFC East

March, 10, 2014
Here are the top 15 free agents, followed by their rankings, entering Tuesday's signing period as compiled by NFC East reporters Dan Graziano, Todd Archer, Phil Sheridan and John Keim. There are some strong options at the top, but there is not a lot of depth in the NFC East when it comes to free agency. And if Dallas' DeMarcus Ware gets released, he vaults to a top spot on this list. As always, ESPN's free-agent tracker will keep you updated during this period.

1. LB Brian Orakpo, 8.5: The Redskins used the franchise tag on him, so barring a surprise, he’ll be back. It’s a controversial move among fans, but the Redskins need his pass rush and promise to unleash him more often. His career best for a single season is 11 sacks.

2. DT Linval Joseph, 8: A very big, strong and young (25) interior run-stuffer who has also shown the ability to create pressure from the interior, Joseph could be available because of the Giants’ depth at defensive tackle and their many needs.

3. DT Jason Hatcher, 8: He is coming off an 11-sack season, but he turns 32 in July and Dallas doesn’t have much cap space.

4. LB Jon Beason, 7: The Giants are working hard to sign him before free agency opens, as his leadership and high-energy play at middle linebacker helped transform their defense during the 2013 season.

5. WR Hakeem Nicks, 7: This grade is based on talent and past accomplishments, and a feeling that he was being overly careful in 2013 in order to hit free agency healthy. Lacks his early career speed, but knows how to play the position as well as anyone.

6. WR Jason Avant, 7: For a team in need of a third-down possession guy, the sure-handed Avant will be a great value.

7. P Donnie Jones, 7: The Eagles are expected to re-sign Jones, who was an underrated contributor to their NFC East title team.

8. DE Anthony Spencer, 6: He is coming back from microfracture surgery, so the cost won’t be high.

9. LB Perry Riley, 6: The Redskins need to re-sign him because they already have a hole at inside linebacker after London Fletcher retired. But they won’t break the bank for Riley, who needs to improve in coverage.

10. DE Justin Tuck, 6: Coming off an 11-sack season that came out of nowhere after two down years, Tuck turns 31 later this month but is a locker-room leader and a 4-3 defensive end who can set the edge against the run.

11. QB Michael Vick, 6: With Nick Foles' ascension, Vick is looking for a chance to start elsewhere.

12. RB Andre Brown, 5: He played very well in his first few games back off a broken leg, but faded down the stretch and fumbled too much in the final few games. He is likely not a guy who can be relied on as a starter, but potentially a valuable piece.

13. TE Brandon Myers, 5: A huge disappointment in New York after catching 79 passes as a Raider in 2012, Myers also contributed little as a blocker. The Giants are likely to let him go. He could fit better with a different system.

14. CB Terrell Thomas, 5: He played all 16 games after missing the previous two seasons because of ACL tears in the same knee. Thomas believes he can hold up as a starter off a real offseason, and would like to cash in.

15. S Danny McCray, 5: He is a core special teamer only, so the Cowboys could find value here.

Quick Takes: Brian Orakpo and the D

March, 4, 2014
  • There will be pressure on linebacker Brian Orakpo to produce a few more big plays or record a couple more sacks now that he’ll be paid $11.45 million this year. Is that reasonable? After all, he’s been consistent in his four full seasons, always between eight and 11 sacks. Can he suddenly become a 12-sack guy? Just because a guy gets paid more money doesn’t mean he’ll become something he hasn’t previously been.
  • Perhaps he can if the Redskins free up how he rushes the passer, asking the outside linebackers to rush with less contain. That’s not just an excuse; watch the outside linebackers and they were rather consistent with how they had to rush. But that’s not always a bad thing; certain quarterbacks would pick them apart by sliding through openings created by an undisciplined rush. Heck, they did that this season because the interior wasn’t collapsed enough.
  • But if there’s strong familiarity with the linebackers and the ends/tackles (in a nickel rush), it would give the rushers more chance to freelance a little. The tackles/ends must be able to play off the linebackers if they veer off path to make sure the pocket remains tight. That could result in more sacks, but I’ll be curious if that is overall better for the defense – if it's not able to work in sync.
  • There’s a lot being said about the defense this offseason and what will be different next season. More pass rushes for the outside linebackers. Less meddling by the head coach. It sounds great in March. The Redskins need to make sure it works next season, otherwise the heat will intensify – not on the head coach, either.
  • While former coach Mike Shanahan liked to be involved in the defense, it now comes across as if all the defensive ills somehow occurred because of his meddling. Is that fair? Some of it probably is; the inability for defensive coordinator Jim Haslett to be fully in charge in terms of picking his assistants didn’t help, among other things. But it also seems like Shanahan has become a convenient target for all their issues.
  • I don’t know if the Redskins would have interest in Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds or not had Orakpo hit the open market. He’s the sort of guy who would make some sense because the system he played in was the same as Washington’s. If you’re going to give a guy big money, it’s best to do it with someone you either have a connection with or who has played in the same system.
  • But with Worilds being given a transition tag and few attractive options, it almost left the Redskins with few options for a strong replacement if they lost Orakpo.
  • One thing you wouldn’t have to worry about with Orakpo is a big contract changing him. He’s been consistent in how he’s worked and approached the game. He’s not Albert Haynesworth.
  • Among other linebackers who have received big contracts, Orakpo’s first four full seasons compares favorably in terms of sacks (at least with some of them). In Kansas City’s Tamba Hali’s first four full seasons, he posted 27 sacks (then broke out with 14.5 and got the big deal); Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley had 39 sacks in his first four full seasons; Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware had 53 sacks while Clay Matthews had 42.5, but missed a combined five games. Orakpo had 38.5 sacks in his four full seasons. But as we’ve pointed out in the past, it’s the need to produce more game-changing plays that is a focal point. And it's a valid point.

How Brian Orakpo compares at OLB

February, 25, 2014
They say they want him back, but at what price? The Redskins have so many needs that giving free-agent linebacker Brian Orakpo a whopper deal could complicate their ability to adequately fill other holes – even with a lot of cap room. That’s why it’s not a lock that he’ll return, especially if his price tag climbs into the $10 million-a-year range. His lack of game-changing plays complicates this decision.

There are only a handful of linebackers in that range. Does Orakpo deserve to be among them? I took a look at five linebackers who earned big deals.

Robert Mathis is on this list, though he spent the bulk of his career at defensive end in a 4-3 until moving to outside linebacker in a 3-4 in 2012. He signed his new contract with the Colts knowing he’d be shifting to a 3-4. I also included DeMarcus Ware, now a defensive end, because his money was earned as a 3-4 linebacker. Only 3-4 outside linebackers were included on this list.
After seeing these breakdowns, what would you pay Orakpo?

Green Bay’s Clay Matthews
Age: 27
Contract: 5 years, $66 million (2013)
Signing bonus: $20.5 million
Guaranteed money: $20.5 million
Average per year: $13.2 million
Analysis: Matthews earned NFC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2010 with 13.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. He’s made four Pro Bowls and was twice named All-Pro. Matthews had recorded double-digit sack totals in three of the previous four seasons before his new contract. Matthews has missed a combined nine games the past two seasons. He was considered very good against the run this past season.
Game-changing plays: He has 50 career sacks to go with 10 forced fumbles and four interceptions in five seasons.
Worth it: Yes. There’s only one year to go on in the new deal, so it’s tough to say he isn’t. But injuries the past two years make this a shakier yes than anticipated.
Orakpo comparison: Matthews clearly is the better player, a more dynamic force who causes more worries for an offense.

Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware
Age: 31
Contract: 7 years, $78 million (2009)
Signing bonus: $20 million
Average per year: $13 million
Guaranteed money: $25,591,176
Analysis: He earned this deal in a big way with 53.5 sacks in his first four years, including 20 in 2008. He’s made seven Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro four times and was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He never missed a game until this past season, his first as a 4-3 defensive end.
Game-changing plays: He’s intercepted only two passes in his career (one this past season), but has forced 32 fumbles. He’s recorded 117 career sacks he had a combined 35 sacks in 2009-10.
Worth it: Yes, though the Cowboys might now have to cut him to clear salary-cap space.
Orakpo comparison: There’s no comparison. Ware was a more dynamic player during his prime. If healthy, he can still play.

Kansas City’s Tamba Hali
Age: 30
Contract: 5 years, $57.5 million (2011)
Signing bonus: $15 million
Guaranteed money: $35 million
Average per year: $11.5 million
Analysis: Hali earned his deal with a big 2010 season with an AFC-best 14.5 sacks – his first year with double-digit sacks. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler and has made All-Pro twice, including this past season. He’s played in at least 15 games every season since entering the NFL in 2006.
Game-changing plays: Hali has forced 27 fumbles in eight seasons, but intercepted only two passes. He has 46.5 sacks since signing his new deal and 73.5 for his career.
Worth it: Yes. His production has improved and, with two more years left on his contract, he shows no signs of decline.
Orakpo comparison: Hali makes more game-changing plays, though his contract is a direct result of 2010 (he was a 4-3 end until 2009). He also has more talent around him. Orakpo has not had a breakout year, rather he’s consistently been between 8.5-11 sacks in his four full seasons.

Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley
Age: 29
Contract: 6 years, $61.5 million (2011)
Signing bonus: $13.5 million
Guaranteed money: $17 million
Average per year: $10.25 million
Analysis: Woodley earned his contract after recording a combined 35 sacks over three straight seasons. But since then, he’s recorded a combined 18 sacks and missed a total of 14 games because of various injuries. Sacks don’t measure everything, but there’s been a drop-off in pressure and he got the big deal because of his sack total.
Game-changing plays: Since signing his deal, Woodley has intercepted two passes, forced two fumbles and recovered two others.
Worth it: No. Whether because of injuries or other reasons, his play has slipped.
Orakpo comparison: At this point, Orakpo is better. But Woodley posted better numbers – and more game-changing plays -- in getting this contract (albeit while surrounded by much better defensive talent). Orakpo has forced six fumbles and intercepted one pass.

Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis
Age: 32
Contract: 4 years, $36 million (2012)
Signing bonus: $15 million
Average per year: $9 million
Guaranteed money: $17 million
Analysis: Mathis flourished this past season with a career-best 19.5 sacks – eight more than his previous best. Mathis has 111 career sacks, playing opposite Dwight Freeney as a 4-3 defensive end for most of that time. Mathis drops into coverage probably less than 10 percent of the time and rushes with his hand on the ground quite a bit. Two years ago, Mathis recorded eight sacks in 12 games.
Game-changing plays: He forced eight fumbles this past season and 48 for his career to go with one interception.
Worth it: Yes.
Orakpo comparison: Mathis signed his deal before playing in a 3-4, though the Colts already knew they were going to switch to that front. If Mathis, who turns 33 Wednesday, were up for a new contract this season? He’d top $10 million per year. He’s a more dangerous pass-rusher than Orakpo, who has six forced fumbles in his career. But Orakpo is asked to do more.

Suggs' deal shouldn't lessen Orakpo's

February, 17, 2014
This was not supposed to be Brian Orakpo Day on the blog, but that’s what it turned into. Not only is there discussion about whether or not he should receive the franchise tag, but now you have to wonder about the impact of Terrell Suggs’ deal on Orakpo’s next contract.

Suggs has the impressive career numbers and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. Orakpo has not come close to that sort of honor (it took Suggs nine years to reach that point). Suggs has played on defenses that are much better than any Orakpo has been on, which perhaps has given him more chances to rush the passer.

But there’s a difference between the two and it’s why Orakpo likely won’t have to settle for a similar deal.

Suggs will turn 32 during the season and exiting his prime; Orakpo will be 28 next season, still in his prime (though it’s always better to catch players at the beginning of their prime, not midway through it).

That’s why the Ravens could reduce his salary Monday, taking him from a contract that would have resulted in a $12.4 million cap hit to $7.4 million. But he was able to receive an extension plus $16 million in guaranteed cash; that’s not bad. So, in essence, he’s getting $8 million per year the next two seasons. It's better than the deals received by 30-something pass-rushers Dwight Freeney and John Abraham a year ago, giving Suggs a good reason to take this deal. I'm guessing Orakpo will probably get a deal that averages around $10 million a year, just because he has a couple more years left in his prime.

And here’s what ESPN.com’s Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley, who has covered the team a long time, wrote about the deal: “There is some risk involved in extending Suggs. His game has been in decline the past two seasons. He missed half of the 2012 season after tearing his Achilles tendon and he picked up weight in the second half of the 2013 season, which led to one sack in his final eight games and a reduced number of snaps. But, considering what the Ravens have to address in the draft and free agency, they didn't have the luxury to spend money in free agency or use a draft pick on a pass-rusher this offseason.”

The linebacker it probably impacts more is Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, who is at a similar age and, like Suggs, was under contract.

Orakpo is coming off a strong finish -- seven sacks in his last seven games -- and had no issues with the torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for 14 regular-season games in 2012. He’s the best available pass rushing outside linebacker scheduled to hit the open market -- how good remains up for debate. I don't view him as elite, but rather as an above average player. Last offseason Paul Kruger received a deal that averaged $8 million per year in Cleveland with $20 million guaranteed (the number that matters most). Orakpo is better.

The demand for pass rushers hasn’t lessened. In fact, while Seattle’s secondary received a ton of attention (by myself included), it’s the Seahawks’ pass rush that allowed them to play a certain way.

It’s hard to imagine that Orakpo won’t benefit from his first foray into free agency, even after Suggs’ deal. Their situations are different.

Experts' take: What to do with Orakpo?

February, 17, 2014
The Redskins face numerous questions this offseason. Too many to mention, perhaps. But there are a number that can be addressed and answered -- with the help of people who know the game much better than me. So all week I'll pose a different question to two experts -- former NFL executive, player and scout Louis Riddick (now an ESPN NFL Insider) and former NFL and college scout Matt Williamson (now ESPN's NFL scout). These also are the sort of discussions that are taking place at Redskins Park. And you'll see that even smart football men won't have the same opinion on a player or situation. The most talked-about Redskin this offseason has been linebacker Brian Orakpo. Naturally, that's where we'll start this series.

What would you do with Brian Orakpo?

Louis Riddick: It’s interesting. He’ll be a tough comparable for me right now, only because of not knowing exactly what they were asking him to do from an assignment perspective, and not being on the inside, I don’t know if I’m seeing the whole story with him. I read and heard that he thinks he can have a lot more production in the pass rush, whether it’s QB hits or hurries or sacks if he had more freedom, but that he was trying to play within the confines of the defense. But at the same time, just watching him as a one-on-one pass-rusher, would I value him as a top five or top 10 pass-rusher in the league? No, I don’t think I would do that. Let’s put it this way: Greg Hardy, Robert Mathis, Robert Quinn, DeMarcus Ware, when healthy. I don’t put [Orakpo] in that category. He’s somewhere in that second tier and I’m saying because of supply and demand being where it’s at, he could wind up – if he hits the market – getting something that far exceeds what I’m comfortable paying him.

There’s not a number for how I would value him. It’s going to be tricky. Would I want to keep him? Yes. Would I want to extend above and beyond and get him into the nose-bleed area for guaranteed money in the first three years? No, I would not. ... I’d be very prepared to let him walk. That being said, there aren’t a lot of good pass-rushers available in free agency and there aren’t a lot of guys who will win one-on-ones early in their career in the draft so that will work in his favor.

Matt Williamson: That defense needs everything, it really does. He’s their best player on defense, they have a lot of cap room, they can’t let him go. He’s one of the few free agents that you have to give the big money to. If that means franchising him, I think he’s worth it. He’s an all-around player. He’s their best pass-rusher, probably one of the best 10 pass-rushers in the league in his prime and he recovered from his injury. I thought he had a good year. He was a constant pressure guy. He’s a quick-twitch athlete who can get low and still be powerful. He explodes off the ball and he’s a high-motor guy. I don’t think he’ll be elite. He won’t be Dwight Freeney in his prime, and if you looked at his strengths and weaknesses as a pass-rusher, he’s not extreme in any of them but he’s above average in many. Freeney was so low and explosive off the snap, you always remember those things with him. Orakpo doesn’t have one trait that you say, ‘Wow, I’ve got to stop that.’

Cousins avoiding hits, sacks

December, 24, 2013
ASHBURN, Va. -- The sacks and hits piled up, prompting Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan to make a change. The main reason Shanahan said he benched quarterback Robert Griffin III was to keep him healthy for the offseason.

Griffin was sacked 24 times in his last five games and hit on a number of other plays. Through two starts, Kirk Cousins has been sacked once and avoided many other hits. Some of that stems from Cousins’ ability to be more decisive and make quicker throws. And he’s more comfortable operating that way than Griffin.

But keep in mind, too, that Griffin’s ability to extend plays leads to more chances for sacks and hits by the opposition.

“Kirk has had a lot of practice getting rid of the ball quickly,” Shanahan said. “Robert will do that as well. That’s one reason I did not want him to take as many shots as he was taking. ... Sometimes it’s the quarterback, sometimes it’s the offensive line. Kirk has had more repetitions getting rid of the ball quickly. That’s some of it.”

Cousins rarely extends the play so he has to unload in a hurry. It forces him to get off his primary target in a hurry if he doesn’t like what he initially sees. On a third-and-9 late in the game Sunday, the Cowboys rushed six. Cousins looked right, where Pierre Garcon was one of two receivers aligned. But it was clear off the snap that Garcon would not get open quickly. So Cousins looked back to the middle and hit Aldrick Robinson on an underneath cross for 14 yards – all in 2.4 seconds. Another tenth of a second, or two, and Cousins would have been sacked.

Another time, Cousins faced a four-man rush. Dallas looked to be in press man before the snap and the Redskins had a pick play on the left side to free Garcon. But Dallas switched to a zone at the snap. Cousins saw this and quickly left Garcon, hitting tight end Fred Davis over the middle in 1.6 seconds. He avoided more disaster when DeMarcus Ware drove right tackle Tyler Polumbus into his lap on a 19-yard crossing route to Garcon (2.9 seconds).

Almost every pass he threw was unloaded in less than 3.0 seconds.

Again, all this means is Cousins does a good job of avoiding hits. At times in order to avoid hits he threw down the middle of the field and had two passes almost intercepted. He was bracing for a hit on his one interception; not sure his feet were set in the right direction either and that led to a throw behind Santana Moss that was tipped. Two other near interceptions occurred under pressure.

Mobile quarterbacks tend to get hit more often. And, as Dallas’ Tony Romo displayed time and again, the ability to extend plays is vital. But getting rid of the ball faster is still an area Griffin must improve.

“It’s like anything; it comes with practice,” Shanahan said.

Redskins game day: Ten thoughts

December, 22, 2013
1. There’s a good chance Sunday will be receiver Santana Moss’ last home game. He’ll turn 35 in the offseason and, though he can still contribute, it’s hard to imagine him returning. That’s not a guarantee, of course, and he could be re-signed on the cheap. I don’t think he’ll have a lot of suitors. It could be that Washington brings him back as insurance in case Leonard Hankerson’s recovery from knee surgery takes a while (if this staff remains, Hankerson would get a lot of time in the slot). But even then Moss would still have to make the roster.

[+] EnlargeSantana Moss
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsSantana Moss has consistently provided the Redskins with production and professionalism.
2. For what he’s done in Washington, he deserves as much applause as anyone. Moss has caught 567 passes with the Redskins. He’s been as steady as anyone I’ve covered in Washington in terms of how he’s dealt with the media. He doesn’t come with an agenda; he doesn’t shy away from any questions; he doesn’t play games. Moss sits at his locker during the open locker room sessions, listening to music and if you ask for a minute he always accommodates. He’s been a true pro since joining the team in 2005.

3. Corner DeAngelo Hall also could be playing his last home game. He said he’d love to return to Washington but, “I think I’ve done enough; I think a lot of guys have done enough to definitely get a job somewhere, whether we’re playing for the Washington Redskins or one of these 32 teams. That’s all we can do.”

4. A win over Dallas would not suddenly erase the stench of this season, but it certainly would make next week feel a little better for the players. So this has become a de facto playoff game for them, knowing it’s their last home game, knowing it might eliminate Dallas from playoff contention. London Fletcher’s retirement added a little incentive. “It’s not just for Fletch, it’s for each other, it’s for the fans, it’s for the rivalry,” Hall said. “But knowing it will be the last time out there with him, absolutely it gets you more excited to go out there and hit somebody and make a play and celebrate with him on the field.”

5. It’s not hard to see why Dallas’ defense struggled a week ago. The Cowboys were decimated at linebacker and needed to shuffle players around, leaving some out of position. The same could happen Sunday. Without Sean Lee on the field, this defense really struggles. It’s not just on coordinator Monte Kiffin.

6. Two other factors have led to the decline. DeMarcus Ware is fading as a player, which automatically weakens the pass rush. Ware has been in and out of the lineup for a couple years because of injuries and it’s taken a toll. He made a couple plays against the Redskins, and can be a backside threat against the run. Still, the sense is that he’s on the downside. Also, the Cowboys’ transition to a 4-3 has been rocky. There are times when one defensive back, for example, is playing a leverage that does not match with another defensive back on his side. That leads to gaps; that leads to completions.

7. Keep this number in mind Sunday: 4.85. That’s how many yards the Cowboys have allowed per carry this season, putting them 31st in the NFL. They also rank last in the NFL in allowing 297.36 passing yards per game. They’ve allowed 5.07 yards per carry in the past two games; the Packers ran well last Sunday in part because of a couple long runs rather than a steady diet of solid rushes.

8. And that’s what Redskins running back Alfred Morris did against them in the first game, cracking a 45-yard touchdown run on a stretch-zone to the right. The linebackers flowed hard playside, he cut back and broke a tackle and scored. With all this shifting at linebacker, the ability to do that will be there again. Which, of course, will set up nicely for Kirk Cousins to run play-action off the stretch-zone. It can buy almost as much time as play-action off zone-read. The Cowboys used plenty of eight-man boxes in the first game, especially when facing I-formation. Hello, play-action. I’ll be curious to see what defense Dallas plays inside the 10; some soft zones against Green Bay last week that led to easy scores. Later, the Cowboys played man in these spots.

9. The tricky part, of course, will be Washington’s ability to stop the Dallas offense, which ranks seventh in the NFL in scoring at 25.4 points per game. But the Redskins have done a solid job against him over the years. In fact, Romo’s career passer rating against them is 85.4, his worst against an NFC East team (not by a lot as it’s 85.7 against Philadelphia; 95.4 versus the New York Giants). And another fact: that 85.4 rating is his second lowest against any team he’s faced at least four times in his career. He has an 81.3 rating in four games against the Chicago Bears. Romo has thrown 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions against the Redskins.

10. Romo owns four fourth-quarter comeback wins over Washington, his most against any team. He has three against Philadelphia and two over the Giants. Yes, he’s had some spectacular interceptions to stymie fourth-quarter comebacks. Since 2006, he’s thrown an NFL-high seven picks when tied or up by one score in the fourth quarter or overtime. And I don’t get this stat: Dallas has thrown 65.4 percent of the time when leading this season, second to Cleveland. DeMarco Murray is a good enough back that this shouldn’t be the case. They will try to spread the field and run him into a six-man box. That’s why Murray has averaged 3.87 yards before any contact, most in the NFL.

Friday Conversation: Brian Orakpo

November, 29, 2013
Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo provided strong insight into his season, coming back from two torn pectoral muscles and answers whether or not he’s an elite pass-rusher.

You’ve talked about shaking off the rust. When you look back early in the season, how did you see it affecting you?

Brian Orakpo: It’s kind of hard. It’s not really rust. It is rust, but it’s more so -- I’m trying to make it easier to understand. It’s just going out there and believing. When you miss a year, your normal routine is just not the same. Going out there and playing full games, man, it’s different. That means your vision is not correct, your tackling is not up to par as you’d like it to be. Everything comes into play and you can see that. Even though I’m still feeling good, I want to do more. As the season progresses, that’s when I start to play a lot better and make more plays. That’s what I mean when I talk about getting the rust off.

Do you feel you’ve gotten your strength back?

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsAfter missing nearly all of the 2012 season with a pectoral injury, Brian Orakpo has collected 6.5 sacks in 2013.
Orakpo: Strength-wise, I felt good. I just had to trust my body again because at times I’ll be put in a position where I need to make a tackle with one arm and I wasn’t too sure. Stuff like that I wasn’t sure how my body would hold up going a full game again. You’re scared because you don’t want it to happen a third time. So you’re going out there timid at times and really not being as aggressive. But as the weeks go on you get better and better. That’s what’s happening.

Are you past that point?

Orakpo: I’m completely past that. It’s night and day as far as where I began and where I am now.

You’ve talked about how you rush more by instincts. Can you have countermoves if you go by instincts? How do you feel you do there?

Orakpo: It’s hard to say. Everyone wants the countermoves, but the way we’re predicated on rushing we don’t have a lot of options to do it because we have a lot of other obligations. The time we do have, you have to understand we have rules within the defense. It’s hard to do something outside of that because a lot of times we have a game on. We have interior guys rushing inside. We’re basically coached and taught to contain rush the majority of the time. There are times you can use that and be effective. But at times you want to go inside, you want to do stuff but you can’t because of the defense. That really goes a long way with trying to do the other stuff.

What is an elite rusher and do you feel you’re in there?

Orakpo: Absolutely I feel like I am. Absolutely. Anybody will tell you that.

What makes someone an elite rusher?

Orakpo: Just being effective when he can. We don’t rush a lot, me and Ryan [Kerrigan], like a lot of other 3-4 'backers, like people would think we do. We don’t. You want to be effective, you see a lot of 3-4 'backers… we do way more than others in the league in terms of everything. I would love to work a tackle. It’s a chess match. I’d love to work a tackle play after play. That’s not the case so the times I do go out there we will give it our all as far as getting off the ball and trying to make a play happen. Another call may change what you’re doing the next play. You don’t have time to sit there and learn what you did on the previous play on a guy. You’re very limited what you can do at times depending on the defense.

When you say you’re doing more, you mean in coverage?

Orakpo: Just from the 3-4 outside 'backer we play, it’s very different from what Terrell Suggs does in Baltimore in his 3-4 and what DeMarcus [Ware] would do in Dallas where they’re going forward at all times. We do way more than what a lot of guys are doing in the league. People need to understand that. We’re not selfish players. I could go to the coaches and say, ‘I’m tired of always dropping. I’m tired of doing this. I should be going for it. Look at all these guys with 10 sacks already. I only got 6 1/2. I can do that.’ You’re trying to be a team player. That’s what I’m all about.

Sacks are good for your next contract, but obviously this team knows what you are doing.

Orakpo: Around the league everyone knows what type of player I am. I have no worries in the world. Every day I have coaches tell me how much a player I am, how great a player and, ‘I wish we had you on our team.’ Steady compliments about what you bring to the table. That’s what keeps me satisfied. These coaches praise me every day, what I’m capable of doing and what I do out there and how much my game progresses year after year. It keeps me trying to get better. That’s what I can hang my hat on.

Redskins stung by red zone failures

October, 18, 2013
ASHBURN, Va. -- The red zone struggles shouldn’t be surprising. The Washington Redskins are 1-4, they’ve sputtered throughout large moments of games on offense – in some cases doing little until the second half. They’ve had problems on third down. They’ve had problems with turnovers.

So, yes, they also have problems in the red zone, where they rank 22nd in trips with 14 and tied with nine other teams with a 50 percent touchdown rate. It makes sense.

“Last year it came a lot easier for us,” Redskins guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “It just falls back to how inconsistent we’re playing right now.”

In Sunday’s 31-16 loss at Dallas, the Redskins cost themselves eight possible points, which in most games would make a difference between winning and losing. A 1-4 team can’t afford to waste chances. It also hurt them in a 27-20 loss to Detroit when they had two red zone trips and managed one turnover and three points.

“Yeah, we’ve got to get better, and we won’t win if we can’t score in the red zone,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said.

No runs

The same thing that makes a team good between the 20’s should make them good inside the 20. For the Redskins that starts with the running game. But they’ve been unable to generate a consistent rushing attack in the red zone, partly because of poor play and circumstances.

[+] EnlargeAlfred Morris
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsWould more carries for Alfred Morris in the red zone help Washington's struggling offense?
That’s why the Redskins have run the ball only 11 times in the red zone, second lowest in the NFL (compared to 25 drop-backs).

But they have success when they do, averaging 3.82 yards per carry, second best in the league. More numbers: Last season, running back Alfred Morris averaged 3.25 carries per game in the red zone; this year it’s 0.83 – he has five for the season.

The Redskins ran only one red zone play in the opening half of the first three games. Just one. When they finally did get in the red zone later in the game in Weeks 1 and 2, they were so far behind they had no choice but to throw. So of their first 10 plays in the red zone in those games, eight were designed passes.

And in the first three games they ran just one play in the red zone during a time in which they could remain balanced -- Griffin’s interception versus Detroit from the 19-yard line when he rolled to right. Later in the game they ran five plays in the red zone, but they were down 10 and threw on each down.

The last two games provides a better example of their performance. They ran seven plays in the scoring zone against Oakland, with three runs and four passes, scoring a touchdown each way.

If quarterback Robert Griffin III starts to run more it could help inside the 20. Just look at last year for the impact his legs had. He carried 17 times for 72 yards and five touchdowns in the first 10 weeks. But Griffin did not carry the ball in this area over his final six games as defenses changed their looks, opting for more man coverage. However, during that time he completed eight passes for six touchdowns (compared to 16 passes and four touchdowns in the first nine games).

“Obviously just him running is invaluable because of the attention,” Paulsen said. “Defenses have to get to it and we see a lot of man coverages. That’s something that will be advantageous to us.”

Missed chances

In some cases a missed opportunity was overcome. Against Oakland, for example, a Roy Helu run was well executed except for the fact that Logan Paulsen was unable to block the outside linebacker, who shot to the inside as tight end Paulsen pulled around the end for a tackle. But one play later Griffin connected with Pierre Garcon for a touchdown so it didn’t matter.

But against Dallas at the end of the first half, the Redskins lost a chance for a touchdown. Garcon was aligned to the right in a tight formation facing man coverage from Brandon Carr. Though the Redskins did not do well against man coverage Sunday, this was an advantageous situation. And Garcon gained an edge off the line, but Griffin threw a slant to the left for Leonard Hankerson that was incomplete. It would have gained five yards.

There was also Griffin’s quarterback draw in that same game, when linebacker Sean Lee made a terrific stop while getting off center Will Montgomery’s block. Dallas presented them the proper look in zone coverage for it to work but thanks to Lee it didn’t.

In both cases the Redskins were left with third-and-long situations, which are tough to convert at any spot on the field let alone where there’s less room to operate.

“There have been miscues and poor execution and we get ourselves in different situations like third and long,” Paulsen said, “and we get bogged down and then have to make extraordinary plays to get out of it. It’s a combination of everything. It’s no one thing.”

Defenses also have taken away some of what can be tough to stop in the red zone: the bootleg. Against Oakland, the Raiders end rushed at Griffin as he circled out of the bootleg. In this situation he’s supposed to stop and then throw; Paulsen, the primary target, is open. Griffin then threw incomplete outside to Garcon. Against Dallas, end DeMarcus Ware rushed at Griffin on a bootleg, forcing an off-target throw to running back Alfred Morris, who then dropped a pass to his inside.

The more Griffin becomes a threat here with his legs, the more other aspects will work like zone read fakes – a year ago teams had to decide if Griffin or Morris would get the ball only to be burned by a pass in the flat to wide open fullback Darrel Young.

“Whenever coordinators have the option to do both, they know they can be successful doing it, it puts the defense in a bind,” Redskins defensive end Kedric Golston said. “You can’t settle in on the calls you want to run that will put you in the best situation.”

And for the offense that means getting in the end zone.

“Any time you get field goals, you really can’t count on winning,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to get touchdowns."
ASHBURN, Va. -- His sack totals earned him attention and eventually a big contract. His sack totals this season, though, have only led to questions: Is Julius Peppers, at 33, fading?

Through six games the Chicago Bears defensive end has one sack. Naturally, Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams, who will match up against Peppers on Sunday, doesn’t see any change in his game.

“I don’t see a difference,” Williams said. “He’s still a disruption in the backfield. Maybe production goes down but that’s because everyone keys on him. And the [Bears'] line is banged up so it allows you to send extra guys to his side.”

Williams hasn’t faced Peppers since Williams' rookie season of 2010. Peppers did not record a sack in that 17-14 Redskins victory. Williams is obviously a different player since his rookie season, adding strength and experience.

He knows Peppers will be a challenge. Since the 1982 season, Peppers ranks 19th in the NFL with 112.5 sacks (and No. 3 since 2002) and his 38 forced fumbles are the fourth most in the league since 2002.

“He’s been doing this for a long time,” Williams said. “He’s very athletic, fast, strong. He’s scrappy. He’s a household name for a reason. … He approaches the game a little different. He has speed, he has power. He also has an array of moves that can get any offensive tackle off guard. It’s going to be a tough matchup.”

Williams said he still loses sleep over individual matchups like this one. He faced Dallas' DeMarcus Ware last week, though Ware left the game early with a leg injury. Williams played well against Green Bay's Clay Matthews, but has been inconsistent at other times.

“It’s Julius Peppers, man,” Williams said. “It doesn’t get too much harder than that. He’s definitely one of those guys that stays on your mind until after the game.

“It’s a chance for me to prove myself to my team and ultimately prove myself to me, to know that I can line up across from guys that are always on the All-Pro team and always in the Pro Bowl and come out and play effective.”

Redskins Film Review: RG III

October, 15, 2013
Thoughts and observations on Robert Griffin III's game against Dallas after watching the game again (and again):

  1. Robert Griffin III showed more explosiveness, which shouldn't be a huge surprise considering he has looked a little better running each week. Is he back to where he was? Close. But he's still faster than just about any other quarterback. It also helped that Dallas played a lot of man coverage, leaving certain plays open on the edges. Don't forget, in the season finale last year -- albeit with a different coordinator -- Griffin ran more zone read even with a gimpy knee. Why? Same reason: lots of man. In those situations, the receiver can run the corner out of the play.
  2. [+] EnlargeDallas' Jason Hatcher
    Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe loss to Dallas showed that Robert Griffin III needs to mind the football -- and his internal clock -- while in the pocket.
  3. Sunday should prove that it will take more than Griffin's legs to re-ignite this offense. But it was good for the Redskins to see what he did on the ground. And the more he can incorporate his legs, the better this offense will do.
  4. I liked, too, that Griffin has improved at scrambling yet keeping his eyes downfield. One of his better plays in this area was nullified by a holding penalty. Griffin stepped up and to the right and around the rusher and back to the left. As he neared the line of scrimmage, a linebacker in coverage, Sean Lee, started upfield. But that left an opening to throw to Leonard Hankerson for 21 yards. I've seen several examples the past two games of this growth; it's something he didn't do much of last season.
  5. For the most part Griffin handled the zone read option game fine, though there was one time in which he kept the ball that he probably should have handed off. And another time when he should have done the opposite.
  6. Griffin still needs to throw with a little more anticipation. There are (too many) times when he and the receivers aren't in sync. It's not always on the quarterback. Regardless, there are enough examples of this, two involving Pierre Garcon. On one hitch route, Griffin took a five-step drop, then took two small steps forward before releasing the ball; that's too many. Garcon had already made his cut, but because there wasn't enough separation, the corner, Brandon Carr, could recover and break up the pass. Later on that same drive, Griffin was too wide on a corner route to Garcon. Out of the gun, Griffin took three steps and then two more forward before releasing the ball. He then had to make a perfect throw because now there wasn't much field to work with, but did not.
  7. There have been several miscommunications between Garcon and Griffin this season. It happened again when Garcon ran a deep in-route, but Griffin read the play different and threw for an out. The corner played Garcon to the outside and the receiver was open when he turned inside. As he's turning inside, however, Griffin already is releasing the ball. The throw wobbled too much (this happened a couple times).
  8. At the end of the first half, there was another miscommunication. Coach Mike Shanahan said Griffin had signaled to Garcon to run a go route. Instead he ran a hitch. I don't think it would have mattered; the throw landed about three yards out of bounds and was high. Too many missed throws were high -- and a couple completions, too. Smarter people than myself will have to figure out why.
  9. Garcon was upset about the near interception in the second quarter (dropped by safety Barry Church). But I'm not sure that Griffin could have done anything different because of the pressure. The Cowboys rushed six and while Garcon was still running, Griffin had to slide to his left to elude pressure. He re-set and then started to throw -- Garcon was open as he cut. But with a defender crashing into him, Griffin's threw, delayed by the pressure, had no shot.
  10. It's easy to second-guess decisions in the pocket because they're made in seconds. But I'm guessing Griffin would like to have back his 17-yard completion to Leonard Hankerson in the fourth quarter. It was a nice throw under pressure and Hankerson gained 10 yards after the catch. But tight end Jordan Reed was all alone at the 50 -- his man blitzed on the play. The free safety was 17 yards from Reed. So a play that was good still turned out to be a missed opportunity.
  11. Another example of such a play: the 26-yard pass to Santana Moss. He had his man beat with a wheel route from the slot. Griffin completed the pass, but Moss had to stop and wait on the ball. Had Griffin hit him in stride he would have gained another 10 or 15 yards.
  12. Tough to knock Griffin for not hitting Alfred Morris in stride in the red zone. Dallas ran at Griffin just about every time he ran the bootleg and with DeMarcus Ware in his face Griffin just had to get the throw off. Morris dropped the ball, which was inside. Had he somehow led him, Morris might have scored.
  13. Griffin's interception is easily explainable: Moss slipped as he cut -- and just after Griffin released the ball.
  14. Griffin needs to take better care of the ball in the pocket when he's starting to look for an opening. It led to a fumble recovered by Kory Lichtensteiger. Griffin had time on the play, but the Cowboys had everyone covered.
  15. There needed to be a better internal clock on the fumble that Dallas recovered. Griffin had the ball in the pocket for 3.7 seconds -- on a night in which the protection broke down too often. Griffin could have thrown underneath to Garcon; it might have gained just five yards but it sure beat the alternative and they still would have had another down (and around 14 yards).

Redskins game day: Ten thoughts

October, 13, 2013
1. One thought I came away with Friday: Mike Shanahan must feel good about this matchup or the game plan they’ve put together. He was very loose on Friday in our dealings with him. After his news conference a few of us talked to him about heated rivalries. Al Davis’ name came up. So Shanahan told a story about a 1994 game in which San Francisco quarterback Steve Young nailed Davis with a throw in pregame (Davis was standing on the Niners’ side of the field, ticking off the players). This story is public knowledge so I’m not revealing anything new here. But it was Shanahan’s relaxed demeanor that was telling -- and his drop-the-mic exit after finishing the story. It’s not always that way.

2. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger is off to a good start and playing better than he did in 2012 when coming off knee surgery to repair multiple ligaments. He looks more like the player he was before the knee injury. By the way, one of his better plays this season occurred against Detroit when tackle Nick Fairley knocked him out of the way, only to have Lichtensteiger peel back and block him before he reached quarterback Robert Griffin III. The coaches loved the play. Alas, the league did not and fined him $7,850 for the block.

3. Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, who has a team-best four sacks, moves around a lot in the Cowboys’ 4-3 front. He’ll also stand up quite a bit, especially when on the right side. Redskins players say it’s clear he’s still adjusting to playing from a three-point stance. However, they also say Ware has been strong against the run from this position. It enables him to get into the pads of the tackles quicker and drive them back deeper. He will play on the left side, too. Redskins left tackle Trent Williams is a good matchup against Ware because of his athleticism and long arms. But one reason some tackles struggle against Ware (there can be many reasons) is because of his long arms. It’s tough for them to get control of him. Tyler Polumbus is not considered a long-armed tackle. Just something to watch.

4. The Redskins are fortunate to such depth at tight end. If Logan Paulsen doesn’t play they can still use two quality tight ends in Fred Davis and Jordan Reed so there’s no real reason to change what they want to do. Paulsen is the best blocker of the group and that enables the Redskins to use their play-action better. But Davis has improved over the years as a blocker, both with his footwork and hand placement. He does it well enough that they can easily sell the run with him in the game in this role. Reed is much more of a pass-catcher at this point.

5. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo has thrown well from an empty backfield set this season: 21-for-25, 393 yards and a touchdown. He’s only been sacked twice. Last week against Denver, Romo completed 11-of-14 for 272 yards from this look. This look allows Romo to get rid of the ball fast. He has plenty of weapons at his disposal, which helps as well.

6. Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo will face left tackle Tyron Smith for the first time. He got a scouting report from Ryan Kerrigan, who faced him two years ago when Smith played on the right side. “He’s a pretty good athlete,” Orakpo said of Smith. “He has great feet, a little lighter than most tackles but an athletic guy with a strong grip. That’s what I’ve noticed. Once he gets a grip on you he holds on. “

7. I know fans love the rivalry and the players say the right things about it being Dallas week. And some players definitely feel something different for a variety of reasons (they’re from Texas, perhaps). But in talking to some players off the record, there’s more of a sense that it’s big because it’s a division game. It’s just not different from playing the Giants or the Eagles.

8. Just a little heads up: Dallas tight end Jason Witten has been targeted 10 times in each of the past two games. He’s responded with 12 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown -- 121 of those yards occurred last week versus Denver. The Cowboys did a good job getting him one-on-one with linebackers, which could be a big headache for the Redskins. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said he liked Witten coming out of college and wanted to draft him when he was with New Orleans. “He’s deceivingly fast,” Haslett said. “He’s a great route-runner. He does a good job pushing off. He’s an excellent blocker. He’s one of my favorite guys to watch play. ... He’s consistently been the same guy from Year 1 to now. I don’t see any drop-off.”

9. I’m not sure any Redskins player has made more of a turnaround with the media than receiver Pierre Garcon. Last year, because he was hurt, he was reluctant to be interviewed. There were times he had to be (strongly) persuaded to answer questions. But I’ve yet to see Garcon turn down an interview request this season. It’s a pretty good locker room in that regard.

10. Garcon also plays with an attitude that few have. I see others who have skill, but few can match Garcon’s desire. “The way he plays on the field, he’s an angry guy,” Griffin said. “He plays with a hunger inside of him. And just his ability to run after the catch is what sets him apart, to run through tackles. He never gives up. Every time he catches the ball he’s trying to score a touchdown. That’s what you want from your receivers. You want him to fight for extra yards. You want him to make big plays.”