- With seven sacks in eight games, Brian Orakpo is on pace to surpass last year's Pro Bowl season total of 11. (Photo: Associated Press)
It’s becoming a regular occurrence. Washington Redskins’ linebacker Brian Orakpo can’t go a game without being held. It doesn’t always get called, but the second-year pro insists it happens, and not just once a game.
“It’s going on a minimum of being twice, whether they call it or not,” Orakpo says. “It’s been consecutively. But usually you might get a holding call and then go another three games before getting a call. But it’s been consistent. But I can’t worry about it. They’re gonna hold me. They’re gonna hold me and that’s what they’ve been doing all season. I just have to keep going, keep getting pressure and keep getting these sacks.”
Indeed, “they” have been holding Orakpo all season long. It started in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas tackle Alex Barron had to resort to holds early and often, and finally got called for it on the last play of the game when Orakpo would've sacked Tony Romo. Instead, the hold gave Romo time to complete what would’ve been a game-winning touchdown pass. But the infraction was committed right in front of an official, the touchdown was called back and Washington won.
Orakpo sprinted off the field and stormed into the locker room, pumped up, yelling, "They can't hold me! They can't hold me!"
Offensive linemen have certainly tried holding Orakpo this season, but their results have been pretty shabby. Through eight games, he ranks among the league leaders in sacks with seven, and also has drawn at least six holding calls.
When he’s not getting held, Orakpo often finds himself drawing double-teams, which is a change from last year. But given the success he had in 2009, racking up 11 sacks and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl, the extra attention is understandable.
“This season has been somewhat different than last year. Obviously last year I was just getting my feet wet, being a rookie, and being the new guy, they left me one-on-one a lot,” the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Orakpo says. “They didn't really mind me too much. Obviously we had Andre Carter and [Albert] Haynesworth. They left me alone a lot and I took advantage of that. This year is different because they're counting me as a premier guy and I see a lot more double-teams, a lot more chips, a lot more slide protection, holding calls, you name it. But it's a compliment, because it means obviously I'm doing something right and I’m getting to the quarterback like I should. You just have to work with it. That’s what all of the great pass-rushers do.”
When he started to notice that getting to the quarterback would be more of a challenge this year, Orakpo began searching for moves and techniques to add to his repertoire. He picked the brain of fellow current defensive players, and also sought the advice of standout pass rushers of old.
When former Redskins defensive end Charles Mann traveled with the team for their game to Chicago while filling in as chaplain, Orakpo learned a few moves from him before hand and in that game came up with two sacks. Within the last week, he also sought out Bruce Smith for pointers.
“I’m always trying to get that edge,” Orakpo says. “All these great guys that have been part of this game, part of this organization especially, help me tweak my game to become a premier pass-rusher in this league.”
One of the most important things Orakpo learned from Mann and Smith was to stay low as he attacks the edge in pursuit of the quarterback. In the past, he always relied just on his power and speed to get into the backfield. But with linemen using different tactics, he tries to switch things up as well.
“I’ve started getting lower under their hands where they like to punch, you know, at the point of attack. You seen in the Colts game, I got lower and was able to dip and get under the guy and to the quarterback,” Orakpo says.
The play he referenced came early in the third quarter when on second-and-5 at the Indianapolis 21, Orakpo dipped under his man and sacked Peyton Manning and stripping him of the ball. Carter recovered for Washington at the 13-yard line.
“He is relentless,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan says of Orakpo. “To have him playing 100 miles per hour all the time gives you a chance to make plays both in the running game and the passing game. He is relentless in his approach, he studies the game extremely hard and he is going to be a big play guy for years to come.”
Further making Orakpo’s production impressive is the fact that he still is learning the linebacker position. At the University of Texas two years ago, he played defensive end and always rushed out of a four-point stance. Last season he split time between linebacker and defensive end, and routinely blitzed out of a three-point stance. This year he is asked to rush out of a two-point stance, which has required more studying and adjusting.
“I’m glad we started working on it in OTAs,” Orakpo says. “It took me a while because I'm not even a three-point stance guy. I was a four-point guy, I would explode and stay low. The trick when rushing out of a two-point stance, and the hardest thing about a two-point is, you're automatically up and you're exposing your chest, so the difficult thing for me was to stay low out of the two.”
Although more natural, Orakpo doesn’t wish for a return to playing with his hand in the dirt. On pace to surpass last year's sack total and at least tie his tackle total from a year ago, he is confident he is on the right track.
“I love how this defense is, how they’re using me,” he says with a smile. “And remember this is only the first year. It can only get better.”