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Keys To Washington's Defense Department

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The Washington Redskins defense will only go as far as Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan can take them. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
The Washington Redskins defense will only go as far as Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan can take them. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Pressure: it is kryptonite for any NFL offense and the ultimate superpower for defenses. The highest picks in the NFL Draft are dominated by quick-witted quarterbacks, offensive tackles that keep those quarterbacks upright and defensive players — long, lean and athletic — that can consistently crash the party in the pocket — that small and chaotic space where games are won or lost.

Plays are made or blown up by fractions of an inch; you’ve seen the ridiculously thin margin on replays. Did the quarterback slide around in the pocket and create just enough space and time to deliver the football? Did the offensive line cling to a pass-rusher or diagnose an exotic blitz just before all hell broke loose? Did a defensive lineman get a fingernail on a ball? Did an outside pass-rusher get around the edge just enough to dislodge the ball with his outstretched hand as the quarterback cocked and loaded?

Al Davis was spot on when he, referring to the other team’s quarterback, said, “the quarterback must go down … and the quarterback must go down hard.” And to finish the thought, your quarterback must start the game with a clean jersey … and finish the game with a clean jersey. As complicated as professional football can be, if you had to provide only a few commandments to the pigskin-ignorant, that formula would have to be one of them.

True To The Formula

Since Mike Shanahan took over the reins of the Washington Redskins, he has stayed true the “protect thy quarterback and destroy thy enemy’s” formula. Shanahan inherited DE Brian Orakpo, drafted left tackle and quarterback blindside protector Trent Williams, LB Ryan Kerrigan and Robert Griffin III, an elusive and quick triggerman.  

Drafting Kerrigan to team with Orakpo — a dynamic duo I’ll call “BORK” or “OK” if you prefer your horrible acronyms more concise — seemed sound. In this golden era of the forward pass, stout pass-rushers are like beer. What’s better than one? Well, two. With Orakpo and Kerrigan, opposing offensives would have to pick their poison on obvious passing downs. One of them would be consistently single covered — a scenario favoring the ‘Skins in most cases … or so it seemed. Reality hasn’t matched expectations — yet. 

Orakpo has been plagued by injuries, and Kerrigan, without his opposite-side running mate for most of 2012, didn’t exactly light it up — he recorded 8.5 sacks — in his second season. 2013 is another year and one with great intrigue as it offers either an opportunity for this talented pair to realize its potential or big consequences if they do not.

Contrasting Styles

During the better part of the 1980s, Dexter Manley and Charles Mann were exceptional defensive ends in Washington’s 4-3 defensive scheme. Despite playing on opposite ends of a same D-line — just 15 or so feet apart — Manly and Mann couldn’t have been more different. Manly, the more gifted player and pass-rusher, was flamboyant and constantly hounded by off-field issues that threatened his availability. Mann was his calm, steady and reliable antithesis — a cerebral, articulate young man you only wish your daughter would find interesting.  

Two years into their joint tenure, similar contrasting descriptions could be used for Orakpo and Kerrigan. Orakpo, the superior talent, doesn’t have off-field issues anywhere close to Manley’s, but he, like Manley, had his troubles — courtesy of a now twice-torn pectoral muscle — remaining available. Meanwhile, Kerrigan has played in all 32 games of his NFL career and has been a solid contributor.

Another contrast, this one unique to Orakpo and Kerrigan, is their ability to play the ball. Orakpo played two seasons with Carlos “hands of stone” Rodgers and apparently caught his allergy to the football. Someone put butter in the dude’s stickum can. With a Velcro ball and a pair of matching gloves he might snag half of the balls thrown his way. As elite of an athlete as Orakpo is, he looks like a toddler with immature motor skills when an airborne football is in his vicinity. Kerrigan, though, has displayed an uncanny ability to defect passes and the soft hands to turn them into six points (he has a touchdown in each of his first two seasons).

Oh, there’s one more area of contrast between the two duos: production. In ’85 and ’86, Manly and Mann combined for 29.5 and 28.5 sacks, respectively. Orakpo and Kerrigan, consider that a challenge.  

To 2013 And Beyond

I’ve reduced myself to ripping off Buzz Lightyear phrases (whatever … it works). Orakpo’s and Kerrigan’s production is one of the big storylines to watch in 2013. The team has playmakers in the secondary now, but if the pass rush isn’t improved, it won’t matter — and Orakpo and Kerrigan are the players primarily bearing that burden. If both play the majority of the season, there’s no reason they shouldn’t combine for 20 sacks and contribute to a big jump forward for the ‘Skins defense.

If they fail, the Redskins have a problem. The team has invested mid-first round picks on Orakpo (13th overall) and Kerrigan (16th overall). If they aren’t a consistent, disruptive force and register a hardly-noticeable 12-15 combined sacks, then the ‘Skins have paid a steep price for something less than first-round production. Further, Orakpo is entering the NFL contract version of the great state of Missouri. 2013 is Orakpo’s final (or “show-me”) year of his contract. If he is unable to stay healthy or does not return to the player he was, 2013 could be Orakpo’s last in D.C. — and a roster strength may become a significant offseason concern.

I have to admit, my Orakpo and Kerrigan glass is half empty. Orakpo, despite having all the physical tools, has yet to develop any other pass-rushing “pitches.” He has a fastball — the speed rush to the outside — and little else. Since he’s been nursing injuries the last two offseasons, when has he lined up against an NFL offensive tackle and honed a diversified portfolio of moves? And while Kerrigan has a motor that won’t quit, he lacks the physical skills to overwhelm NFL right tackles. My eyes just aren’t seeing an All-Pro in the making. Maybe Orakpo and Kerrigan will prove me to be the fool I occasionally am; or maybe I’m right and the ‘Skins, like just about every other team, will be seeking pass-rushers next offseason. Time and the end-of-game appearance of opposing quarterback’s jerseys will deliver the verdict.