Starters: LT Trent Williams, LG Kory Lichtensteiger, C Will Montgomery, RG Chris Chester, RT Tyler Polumbus
Reserves: Maurice Hurt, Tom Compton, Jordan Black, Josh LeRibeus, Adam Gettis
Number of note: The Redskins used seven starting line combinations in 2011. This past season, they used only two.
Analysis: There was concern about this group entering the season, but if Mike Shanahan’s career has taught us anything it’s that the scheme can help out the line in a way that lessens any negatives. The stretch zone does not call for maulers who must plow forward and win one-on-one battles (though on occasion it’s a must). Rather, the linemen must be smart and quick, able to play angles and step the proper way. If you do that, you can play well in this system.
Now, there’s a little more to it than that when it comes to having success. It’s tough to play well in your first year of this system, as those now starting would attest – and have said. You could see this in the young players, especially LeRibeus and Gettis, when it came to executing combination blocks and knowing when to cut a player. There were some timing issues with Polumbus early on, too, when having to cut on the backside.
Was the line perfect this year? No. Was it one of the best in the NFL? No. But they were definitely not an issue. For a while, there were some issues with cutback lanes. But the more Alfred Morris played and set up his blockers, the more lanes became available. His patience enabled the blockers to then do their jobs at a better pace.
I also think this group is better collectively than individually. Most good lines are that way. And the fact that they had one set lineup for all but one game made a major difference. For those wanting to spend more on the line and upgrade certain spots, consider that the Redskins averaged 5.2 yards per carry, something they had never done. It also was the best showing by one of Shanahan’s teams.
Of course, having a quarterback who rushes for 815 yards and averages 6.8 per carry. But let’s take away Robert Griffin III’s 815 yards and 120 carries for a moment. The Redskins still averaged 4.7 yards per carry, which would be tied for fourth most ever by a Shanahan team. The point: They ran the ball well. You can attribute it to scheme; Griffin’s presence and the zone read game; and Morris’ ability to make defenders miss. But you also have to credit the group up front.
Trent Williams earned his Pro Bowl bid, partly for his willingness to continue playing hurt. Williams estimated he was around 70 percent efficiency after his thigh bruise and you could see the impact when he tried to push off on his left foot. He got beat inside more because of it and he did not explode with the same power. But he was still effective and, throughout the season, his athleticism enables him to reach defenders others simply would not. And that, of course, changes the play-calling. As much as anything, Williams cut down on mental mistakes and that led to more steady play in between flashes of his athleticism.
Center Will Montgomery was consistent all season. An underrated part of his job was being able to snap in the pistol formation and still attack as a run blocker. Typically in shotgun you’re going to pass protect so it’s easier to snap and then set up to block. But in the run game you need to be aggressive right after the snap. Montgomery was effective; he also clearly handles line calls well as you rarely saw the line confused in protection.
I give Kory Lichtensteiger a lot of credit for playing all year after tearing multiple ligaments in 2011. And then he needed more surgery early in camp. Yet ‘Steiger played all 16 games, though he did have to leave the playoff loss early because of his sprained ankle. When you return following such an injury, inconsistency is a natural result. Sure enough, early in the season ‘Steiger often was a Stud (twice) or a Dud (once). Part of that, too, reflected some of the early competition as the Redskins faced excellent interior players, including Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins and Atlanta’s Jonathan Babineaux. For what it’s worth, ‘Steiger was a Stud after the Bengals’ game. He moves well and understands the angles. He’ll never be a road grader, but that’s why he’s in this system.
Chris Chester benefitted from a second year in the system without a doubt and, like Montgomery, was consistent all season. He was solid in protection and did a good job working off his blocks to the linebackers. Just a steady, effective season. You need to remember his example – or maybe I do – when trying to gauge new players to this system. Heck, look at all of them. The difference in Year 1 to Year 2 for the linemen is major.
Polumbus had an uneven start to the season. OK, he struggled. A big issue was his inability to stay low, which is difficult for a 6-foot-8 tackle to do. You lose strength and quickness when you can’t. In an ideal situation he would have been a backup. But the Redskins couldn’t afford an upgrade last offseason and then hoped Jammal Brown would stay healthy, a plan that was not the best as it turns out. So they went with Polumbus, who started 16 of 17 games. Polumbus did have enough games where his play was solid and if he becomes a backup in the future the Redskins are in good shape.
2013 outlook: Not bad. Yes, the line could improve with a higher level of play at, say, right tackle. But given the Redskins’ cap situation, landing that guy isn’t realistic. The real key is maintaining good health, which then leads to a starting five that is familiar with one another and that leads to success. The stretch zone relies on that sort of familiarity as much as any blocking system. They really do work in concert and you see it not only in the combo blocks, which are a huge part of this offense, but also in stunts.
I did not see enough to say LeRibeus would be able to handle a starting job in 2013, but that doesn’t mean he can’t or isn’t ready. It’s just that we didn’t see enough in practice to say much. He did do fine when forced to play late in the season. The knock on him was that he did not know what to do in certain situations and that would lead to trouble; he’d look lost. But the coaches felt that when he got it, he was good. He does have good size and footwork. He’s not yet comfortable at center.
Compton is worth watching in camp. Last summer there were times when his feet appeared to be slow when countering a rush. In reality, it was a strength issue. His inability to redirect or bump a rusher off his path caused him to get in trouble. The coaches like his footwork and say he’s stronger. We’ll find out in August.
Gettis still looks like a backup—he’s not bumping Chester from the lineup next season– and he’ll have to work on his technique. He’s a naturally strong kid and he has a knack for anchoring even when he’s stood up. That’s not easy to do. But getting into that position leads to other issues and he’ll have to work on that in order to improve. He’ll work some at center in the offseason.
Hurt will have to prove himself in camp. Yes, he started a game at right tackle and the Redskins survived. He missed on a lot of blocks in that game, but it also was his first start at that position so you have to a) cut him slack and b) give him credit for not screwing up. Hurt, though, is the only one on the roster who can play guard or tackle.
It’s hard to imagine Jordan Black returning. He’s not sure he wants to play anymore, but if Compton progresses and Polumbus returns then there’s no need for Black.
Offseason goals: Decide what to do at left guard and right tackle. Money will be an issue for both spots and could prompt some changes. They drafted LeRibeus for a reason and if they’re struggling to get under the cap they could opt to let Lichtensteiger walk. However, his ability to serve as a backup center helps them as LeRibeus is still learning center. (I would not be surprised if Lichtensteiger eventually ends up as a starting center somewhere). They would be able to keep him at a good price. As for right tackle, the best ones on the free agent market – Sebastian Vollmer, for example — will be too expensive. Others come with their own headaches (Gosder Cherilus, for example). That means they could have another year of a Polumbus-Compton depth chart at right tackle, with one as the starter and the other as the swing tackle. The coaches do like Compton. Also, Shanahan almost always drafts a lineman (only once in his last 17 drafts has he failed to do so). It would be hard to find a starting right tackle in the draft (or one who could start immediately), but there are intriguing possibilities in the middle rounds for the future.