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So Far, Mostly Good For Redskins

By ZAC BOYER | zboyer@freelancestar.com | @ZacBoyer

This story appeared on page B1 of Monday’s Free Lance-Star

ASHBURN — When Rex Grossman made the proclamation during training camp that the Washington Redskins would win the NFC East, it was dismissed by many as, if not an outright foolish sentiment, certainly a lofty expectation.

This was, after all, a quarterback who had only marginal success in his first nine years in the NFL now leading a team that had finished 6-10 a year before. There were significant issues with the team’s offense and defense, and as a result, training camp opened with several new players whom the coaching staff hoped would provide some type of answer.

Though entirely through the Redskins’ own doing, Grossman’s guarantee looks a bit more reasonable four weeks into the season. Washington (3-1) leads the NFC East and exits its bye week with the chance to put greater distance between itself and its rivals with a game Sunday at FedEx Field against Philadelphia.

“You’re only four games into it and there’s some positives and there’s always some negatives, but this is a game-by-game league,” head coach Mike Shanahan said. “Our guys are smart enough to understand what happens in this league.”

The start to the season isn’t necessarily surprising. Washington caught division rival New York when the Giants were struggling with injuries, defeated an Arizona team in a rebuilding year and beat the winless St. Louis Rams.

Only a two-point loss at Dallas — one in which the Redskins struggled to run the ball and were unable to finish the game — stands between the team and an undefeated record.

“We’re never satisfied,” linebacker London Fletcher said. “We’re always striving to get better. Yeah, we like our record right now, but we know we can play a lot better football and there’s a lot better football to be played.”

Fletcher should know. It was the defense that, a year ago, caused the Redskins their greatest pains by allowing the second-most yards in the NFL.

But those issues seemingly have been rectified this season behind a unit that has five new starters and is allowing 296.5 yards per game, fifth in the league after four games.

Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo has accounted for 3 sacks and two forced fumbles and has greatly improved his pass coverage skills, and fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, a first-round draft pick, has been nothing but stellar with 17 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown.

“We didn’t want to be all about talk,” Orakpo said. “We wanted to prove it. Guys are playing together, man, and it really pays off right now.”

The successes by Orakpo and Kerrigan have translated elsewhere on the defense. The line has been stout, with nose tackle Barry Cofield showing he can apply pressure to the quarterback and not just eat up blocks and play a role as a run stopper.

Even defensive ends Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker, whose names aren’t necessarily supposed to appear in the box score in a 3-4 defense, have surprised coaches with their abilities to get to the quarterback when the linebackers can’t.

“I think if they can’t focus on the outside guys, all of a sudden we’re coming free,” Carriker said. “If they focus on us, they’re coming free. When everybody’s getting pressure, it helps everybody.”

Even the offense is doing its part. Behind Grossman — who started the final three games last season and beat John Beck in a competition during the preseason — the Redskins ranked 15th in the NFL in total offense entering the bye and average 356 yards per game.

The running game has played a steady role in that, with the 126.8-yard average led by Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain and Roy Helu tied for sixth in the league through four games.

“We have three talented runners with a little bit different style to them, and we complement each other really well,” said Hightower, a former University of Richmond standout who was acquired early in training camp in a trade with Arizona.

“I think it’s on us, really. The O-line is going to be great. They’re going to do what they do. The system is not changing. It’s going to come down to every single one of us in practice like we’ve been doing — just pushing each other.”

And while the Redskins could get more on special teams, including from Brandon Banks in the return game, its struggles have been minimized. Graham Gano has missed three field goals, two of which have been blocked, but has routinely been able to pin opponents deep on kickoffs, and punter Sav Rocca put 12 punts inside the 20-yard line in his first four weeks — more than any other punter.

Continuing the momentum earned through the first four games will be key for the Redskins, who have never finished with a losing record when entering the break above .500 since 1990, when bye weeks began.

“What we’re trying to do is play our best football in November, December and January, and you want to keep on getting better through the season,” Shanahan said. “That’s what I’m hoping we can accomplish through the remainder of the 12 games of the regular season.”

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