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Trent Williams: The key to Donovan McNabb's season and the Redskins success
September 10, 2010 - 03:03 pm
Mike Shanahan won't say whether he thinks water is wet. He won't admit that toast is brown. He refuses to comment on the rumor that the sun rises in the east. But Captain Can't Confirm has shown his hand in one very important way already, with the season opener against Dallas on Sunday looming. He showed it four and a half months ago.
Like every other NFL coach, he's scared witless about his quarterback's blind side. And that's why the Redskins didn't move up in the draft to take Sam Bradford, and didn't move down to secure more picks. That's why Shanahan and Bruce Allen went for Oklahoma's Trent Williams with the fourth pick overall. Taking a left tackle instead of a potential franchise quarterback is the new normal in the NFL, and it's a move on which Shanahan’s long-term success in Washington could depend.
Trent Williams was drafted to block DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys' dynamic linebacker, for the next 10 years. And the Giants' Mathias Kiwanuka and Osi Umenyiora. And the Eagles' Trent Cole. And Dwight Freeney and [link widoczny dla zalogowanych] and Julius Peppers and Mario Williams, too. But Ware first, on Sunday night, in front of the football world.
If Shanahan and Allen are right about Williams, the rebuild of this once-proud franchise will continue apace. If not . . . well, let's just say Dan Snyder's body of work when there's a football decision-making vacuum in Ashburn hasn't been sterling.
The Redskins have five of the league's top 10 sackmasters from last season on their schedule this season, and eight of the top 16. All but one of them play right defensive end or right outside linebacker in a 3-4, and it's a major part of Trent Williams' job portfolio to neutralize them.
Nobody can scheme an offense better than Shanahan; few have had as much success wearing down opposing defenses over the years. But none of the plays that either Shanahan -- Mike or son Kyle, the offensive coordinator -- come up with on Tuesday nights at Redskins Park are going to amount to jack if Washington can't keep Donovan McNabb in one piece. The Cowboys were a top five defense last season, and it's blocking Ware, with 64.5 career sacks entering this season, that is the first order of business in every team's game plan.
Williams could handle Ware on 48 straight snaps on Sunday, and if he has one error in technique on play 49, one time when he gets bull rushed off his feet or succumbs to a swim move, McNabb could get broken in two. And there goes the season. That's unfair to Williams, but left tackles get drafted high and get paid well -- even when their teams stink -- for their efforts.
"It just goes along with the game, man," the decidedly angst-free Williams said this week. "Playing it for a long time, that's just how the game goes."
Of course, Williams hasn't been playing left tackle all that long -- one year, to be exact. He was a guard in high school and a right tackle his first three years at Oklahoma before switching before his senior season last year. His unique combination of size and quick feet made the conversion a natural one. The Redskins, picking fourth in the draft, viewed Williams as a better, more athletic prospect than Oklahoma State's Russell Okung, who went two picks later to Seattle, and he replaced Phil Loadholt, now with the Vikings, without much of a hitch.
No one doubts that Williams has the potential to become a top-notch pro lineman. But right now, he's a rookie, and rookies make rookie mistakes. That has to give McNabb night sweats.
He got the welts three years ago, on another Sunday night, when the Eagles, inexplicably, gave second-year tackle Winston Justice next to no help blocking Umenyiora in Giants Stadium. And with the Eagles calling passes without end, the result was devastating. Umenyiora racked up four sacks against Justice and finished the game with six, setting a Giants record for the most sacks in a single game. The Giants' defense totaled 12 sacks against the Eagles that night. Ever since, the Eagles have used backs, tight ends and receivers to chip Umenyiora -- who is now second string on New York's depth chart -- and limited him to three sacks total in the teams' last three meetings.
I suspect McNabb has made his feelings on the subject known at Redskins Park in the last seven months, even if it means keeping in a tight end like Chris Cooley or Fred Davis that he'd rather have in the passing game, or taking the risk of using a receiver like Santana Moss to pitch in on his way out into the pattern. Do the Shanahans concur with that approach? I guess we'll find out Sunday.
"There's a lot of ways to slow them down," McNabb said. "That was kind of our approach in Philly, to chip with the back, chip with the tight end, chip with the receiver. That's just respect for the guys that we played in the NFC East. You talk about guys like DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, and [Justin] Tuck, those particular guys. But here, in this offense, it's a little different. Obviously the approach is different."
With the passing game ascendant in the NFL, and quarterbacks dropping back 40 times a game regularly, left tackle--the blind side for most quarterbacks-- has become one of the top two or three positions on the 53-man roster. Nobody wrote a New York Times bestseller called The Center's Blocking Adjustments. But The Blind Side the book by Michael Lewis about the evolution of the importance of left tackle and the development of tackle Michael Oher, now with the Ravens, was read by millions and was adapted into a movie that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar this year. Oher has already become one of the league's best tackles in his third season; the Redskins need Williams to become their anchor on their O-line, taking over for six-time Pro Bowler Chris Samuels, who retired after suffering a neck injury last season.
It's a chicken-and-egg argument. More passing means defenses put an even higher premium on rushing the quarterback, which means they draft and develop more guys with a natural ability to rush the passer, like Ware and Brian Orakpo. Which means there's more emphasis on protection. "A-gap" blitzes -- right up the middle, against the centers and guards -- are increasing. But a shot on the QB's blind side is still the most potentially destructive -- both to the offense and the quarterback's mindset.
Williams did okay in the preseason. He started off well against Buffalo, and in the first quarter against Baltimore, and its great pass rusher, Terrell Suggs. But in the second quarter, Suggs went right around Williams for a sack. Williams adjusted and did better against Suggs most of the rest of the way in pass protection, but Suggs blew up a third and one running play for a loss. And by the end of the quarter McNabb had a badly sprained ankle that kept him out the rest of the preseason. (The play on which McNabb appeared to sprain his ankle came off a blitz up the middle, which was not Williams' responsibility.)
But the great pass rushers don't just rack up big sack totals. Their impact on the game is cumulative, forcing the opposition to keep in tight ends and backs to block them. And even if they don't get sacks, every time they put a hat on a QB, even after the ball is gone, is a hammer to the will. According to the great stat-crunching website Football Outsiders, Ware was fourth in the league last season in what FO calls "disruptions"--sacks plus hits on the quarterback, plus quarterback hurries -- at 55.5, with 11.5 sacks, 15 hits and 29 hurries, trailing only the Vikings' Ray Edwards and [link widoczny dla zalogowanych] and the Colts' Dwight Freeney. (Ware's teammate, Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer, was sixth in the league, with 54 disruptions.)
"You've got to understand, Trent is a rookie," McNabb said. "He's going to have some ups and downs. I think the good test for him, in that he can gauge himself and what he needs to do, is he got an opportunity to play against Terrell Suggs, a speed rusher that can get low up under your pads, the bull rush, something DeMarcus does as well. I think he did a great job against Suggs. He's a hard guy, very critical of himself, so he'll probably think he didn't do well. But we're all about getting better. It's going to be a challenge for us,[link widoczny dla zalogowanych], not just for Trent, but for all of us."
Williams has weapons at his disposal. He's big and strong with those quick feet. And Shanahan's offensive lines in Denver were notorious for cut blocking -- legally blocking opponents below the waist on the weak side of a play -- which leaves defensive linemen thinking about protecting their knees instead of coming down the line. And Williams won't be insulted if the Redskins give him some help. "That's just game-planning," he said.
Santana Moss knows Williams is young and green. "But my money is on him," Moss said. "I'm always going to bet on the Redskins."
Everyone starts showing their cards Sunday night.
David Aldridge is the NBA Insider for TNT and NBA-TV, and will be a regular contributor to TBD.com.
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