The Redskins didn’t do much right defensively in 2010. Amidst a tricky transition to the 3-4 defense, the unit finished the season ranked 31st. The change in philosophy was made more difficult by the lack of true 3-4 personnel, and so naturally Mike Shanahan made wholesale changes during the offseason.
It started in the draft when Shanahan passed on several quarterbacks and selected Ryan Kerrigan to bolster the NFL’s 25th ranked pass rush.
The Redskins envisioned him forming a solid outside linebacker tandem with Brian Orakpo, and thus far it’s been effective as the two have combined for 14.5 sacks and 73 quarterback pressures through 14 games.
Kerrigan himself leads the team in sacks with 7.5 and has 48.5 combined quarterback hits, pressures and sacks, putting him in the upper echelon of rookie pass rushers. Only two other rookies -- Von Miller (58.5) and Aldon Smith (55) -- have higher totals.
Kerrigan also has four forced fumbles, leads all rookie linebackers in passes defensed with five, and is the only rookie with an interception return for a touchdown.
Impressive numbers -- especially considering Kerrigan is still learning the linebacker position after playing 4-3 defensive end at Purdue.
“You don’t see too many rookies that handle themselves like he does, especially guys that go from defensive end that were a normal defensive end in college to a linebacker position in the pros,” Shanahan said.
What sets Kerrigan apart is his football IQ. Players and coaches around the league have noticed his awareness including Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick who told reporters: “You don’t see him get beat by the same thing twice.”
Being a quick study has helped Kerrigan make an instant impact, but it’s also his work ethic that’s made a difference. The rookie has shown an ability to make adjustments quickly and use his strength and athleticism to his advantage.
“He’s very mature, very intelligent, very physical,” Shanahan said. “He’s what you look for. If we had all rookies like that, you’d be in pretty good shape.”
Shanahan certainly appreciates the workman-like approach Kerrigan has taken to every aspect of the game. He’s been on the field for all 933 defensive snaps and has played a variety of roles as a pass rusher, in pass coverage and in run defense. There’s no aspect of the game that escapes his attention to detail, and it’s yielded a fruitful rookie season.
But is it good enough to be in the discussion for defensive rookie of the year?
In another season, Kerrigan might have had a shot at the award, but given the performances of Miller and Smith, he’s not likely to win it.
Miller has been one of the driving forces in the Broncos’ playoff push. He has 11.5 sacks and is arguably in the running to win defensive player of the year outright. Smith leads all rookies with 13 sacks -- nearly double Kerrigan’s total while playing almost half the snaps (446).
Kerrigan has been a steady player, but his production doesn’t touch Miller’s or Smith’s even though he’s had more playing time. He’s been held without a sack in seven games, and hasn’t quite been the explosive presence the other two have been.
However, that hasn’t stopped him from being part of the defensive revival in Washington. The Redskins are ranked 12th in total defense this season and with another year using the 3-4 scheme in the books, expectations will be higher in 2012.
“I think the more you learn the scheme, the better you get,” Jim Haslett said. “[Other teams] make up for a lot of things because they know where they’re going and what they’re doing and they’ve been together for a while and they just fly around. That’s where we’ve got to get to.”