This is a group that saw some change in the offseason last year, with the addition of Purdue DE converting into 3-4 OLB Ryan Kerrigan. The Redskins also added veteran inside linebacker Keyaron Fox for his experience in the 3-4 system. This isn't a group that was horridly weak to begin with, rather just not an immediate fit for the 3-4 defense. This year, the pieces were in place, and the guys who didn't fit the scheme were out of here.
London Fletcher: London Fletcher turned 36 during the offseason, and showed his leadership to not only the linebackers, or the defense, but the entire Washington Redskins team, when he organized the team workouts during the lockout. Fletcher even brought the majority of the plays he studied so hard to learn the year before in order to coach his teammates into position to win. Fletcher's knowledge and leadership show every single play, whether it be when he's countering Tom Brady's calls at the line pre-snap, when he's shifting his own players at all three levels of the defense vs. the no huddle, or when he's chasing down LaRon Landry after a blown coverage surrendered a touchdown and yelling out "I know my defense! I know my coverage and my responsibilities!" London Fletcher doesn't amaze me with his knowledge anymore, but he does amaze me in that he seemingly gets better every single year. London Fletcher finished the year 1st in the league in tackles with 163, 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles. London Fletcher lays the wood, and while he's not the fastest guy in the league, he's not limited in his athletic ability to the point that he can't play in coverage (as seen when he deflected the pass that Oshiomogho Atogwe made the spectacular interception against Eli Manning). Fletcher continues to play at the highest level imaginable, and it still infuriates me that anyone on this team could play anywhere below their highest and most passionate level, when you see one of the oldest guys on the team playing at the highest level he can, which is much better than most of the NFL. London Fletcher doesn't have to make the Pro Bowl to be recognized as the consummate pro, there's not one opponent, teammate or coach who would suggest otherwise.
Rocky McIntosh: McIntosh was coming off of a decent year in 2010, and was looking to improve and become a much improved player. He started off the 2011 season looking like perhaps the best player on the defense, but then bad angles were taken and his coverage looked shaky for the first time in his career. McIntosh was eventually benched for Perry Riley, and eventually shut his own season down when he was rumored to have missed curfew on New Year's Eve in Philadelphia. I thought Rocky was one of the hungrier guys on this team who would handle adversity a lot better than what it turned out he did, so I don't expect him to be back in Burgundy and Gold going forward.
Grade: D- (he started off with an A through 5-6 games, so that tells you how far he fell)
Perry Riley: Riley eventually took over for Rocky McIntosh and provided a huge spark for the fan base. Playing alongside London Fletcher, it did come as a bit of a surprise when, through a 5 game stretch at one point, Riley was registering the most tackles on the team (of course until London closed the gap with a 17-tackle game). Riley's speed helped him out in coverage and beating blockers when he did get to blitz. Riley was constantly seen in offense's backfields and making sound decisions (probably mostly by Fletcher's ability to identify the play pre-snap). Later on in the season, there were a couple instances where Riley was beat outright in coverage, and other times when he whiffed on tackles. He's still a very young kid though, and his potential shines bright.
Brian Orakpo: Year 2 in the 3-4, Orakpo was expected to improve a lot. No matter how you look at it, he really did. Orakpo drew line-slides and double-team blocking. He drew more holding calls than last year, and even more seemed to be missed. For everyone who says he needs to run through those holds, I still want to remind you an arm around your neck is too dangerous, and it's on the league to recognize that instead of allowing offenses to keep doing it. God forbid either he or Kerrigan have to be paralyzed by it before the NFL adjusts its officiating of those penalties. Orakpo was much better against the run this year, and was far improved when they dropped him into coverage. He improved on his sack total from a year ago to lead the Redskins. If the NFL does what is right and addresses these holds, those numbers should skyrocket (I don't see Jared Allen or Ware getting held like that) and when teams stop shifting support against Orakpo because they're worried also about Kerrigan, Orakpo will dominate. In fact, I've argued that Kerrigan's life was made easier by Rak's presence and drawing extra blockers, and I maintain that with the sack total from the defensive line as well. Rak played a far better year than most seemed to want to give him credit for (even considering trading him away)... Rak is here for the long haul, so don't consider not buying a 98 jersey.
Ryan Kerrigan: The rookie linebacker... this kid did something nobody else on the defense did, and something that happens so rarely for any player that it's actually remarkable. Ryan Kerrigan didn't come off of the field for a single play this entire season. Some argue he hit a wall, others argue that it wasn't wise to tire him out, but I look at it differently. This is a kid at an entirely new position, with entirely new responsibilities, learning to play at an entirely different speed than he's ever encountered. It was wise because it maximized his learning for the year, and for every mistake he made early on, he never repeated those mistakes. 91 took advantage of his opportunity and didn't complain one bit, he just went out and played and learned and improved his game all year long. His week 1 tip/INT/TD against the Giants was a huge play and foreshadowing of a good season, and he registered 7.5 sacks on the year. His growth in year two should be infinitely better, which means we have a lot less to worry about, especially when we CAN start giving him rest from time to time. The kid has a motor, and while his explosiveness was lost at times late in the year, he never stopped pushing through offensive linemen and trying to wreak havoc.
I know there are other linebackers on this team, but none of them played enough in reality to fairly grade their performance, although I was pleased by the play of Rob Jackson when he got opportunities. So what do I think of the unit as a whole?
B-; that grade is only brought down from an even A out of the reality that Rocky McIntosh's grade DOES count and matter. This unit is full of iron, these guys fight and are all blue-collar, all accountable and all making an effort to play with a passion and have fun (all except Rocky McIntosh). If there's one unit I'm most looking forward to next season on the defense, it's this one, solely because I know stability DOES exist with this group.
Next up - Defensive Line