Brian Orakpo Expecting Emotional Return On Monday
It will have been over 20 months since the outside linebacker played a regular-season game at FedEx Field when he does so Monday in his return from a torn pectoral.
BY ZAC BOYER
ASHBURN – If it weren’t for quarterback Robert Griffin III, Ryan Kerrigan thinks Brian Orakpo would have had the most dramatic return from injury.
“His recovery has kind of flown under the radar, but he’s been every bit as impressive in his ability to come back,” Kerrigan said.
Orakpo missed practically all of last season because of a torn left pectoral, but will make his return Monday when the Redskins host the Eagles in the season opener.
With the way the schedule played out, it will be the first time the outside linebacker has played in a regular season home game at FedEx Field in over 20 months.
“I couldn’t ask for a better picture than what we have in store so far, so it’s going to be exciting for myself,” Orakpo said Wednesday. “All the work I put in the offseason to get back to the top-notch level – I’m going to be excited to be back out there.”
Orakpo first tore his left pectoral in the final game in 2011, spent the summer rehabilitating it and returned in time to for the season opener last year. His return didn’t last long; he again tore the muscle, albeit in a different place, in a Week 2 road loss to the St. Louis Rams while sacking quarterback Sam Bradford.
And while he was a presence in the facility all season, joining his teammates in meetings and livening up the locker room with his jovially deep voice, his absence was noticeable on the field. Rob Jackson, a seventh-round pick in 2008 who had never before started a game, was thrust into that role. A natural pass rusher, Jackson was so timid early in the season that the Redskins substituted reserve inside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander into the game in pass-rushing situations.
That’s part of the reason why the Redskins’ secondary was so uninspired last season. Without any pressure, opposing quarterbacks were able to sit back in the pocket and pick away at the defense, one big gain to another.
Each time, Orakpo cringed.
“Obviously, there was some good times where I probably could have helped the team here and there – you know, not really having to blitz as much as we probably did,” Orakpo said. “That’s why I’m back. I knew I was gonna be coming back very strong, and I think we’re gonna do a great job this year getting after it.”
The Redskins sacked the quarterback 32 times last season, which ranked 23rd in the league. The lukewarm pass rush was responsible for 23.5 of those sacks, including a team-high 8.5 from Kerrigan, the left outside linebacker, and only one of the five defensive ends got to the quarterback – Stephen Bowen, who twice split a sack with a linebacker.
That should change. Orakpo, cleared to return to practice at the start of offseason workouts in April, averaged 9.5 sacks over his first three seasons. His return changes the dynamic for the offense, which will have to account for another top-level pass rusher: Kerrigan should face fewer double blocks, either in a man scheme or slide protection, and the defensive linemen should have an easier path to the backfield.
“He’s a guy you have to account for every snap, so when the offensive lineman is looking at Rak, he’s not looking at me, and that’s a good thing,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “When they’re planning to slide to Kerrigan and Rak, that gives Bowen and I some opportunities. Having a Pro Bowl, all-Pro type player makes the whole defense better. We play better up front. The secondary’s life is easier. We get off the field.”
With Orakpo back, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett finds limitless possibilities for getting to the quarterback. During training camp, he tinkered with the swift package, a six-linebacker look designed to disguise pressure and create mismatches in passing situations that was rolled out for the first time in the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
Exactly how Orakpo is used doesn’t particularly matter to him. That he’s finally available to be used is what’s important.
“I can’t wait to step back out there, man,” Orakpo said. “It’s been a long time and I’m ready to get back out there in front of the home fans and do a good job out there.”