Every week leading up to a game, defensive end Andre Carter spends hours studying the moves of his opponent, usually an imposing left tackle. He looks for ways to set up the offensive linemen through the course of a game.
It's a sound strategy. And Carter is the type of player who loves to out-smart offensive linemen in the course of a game.
But as Carter struggled to generate pass pressure earlier this season, he believes he may have out-smarted himself.
"I think that maybe I was doing too much thinking to a certain degree, especially when it came to rushing the passer," he said. "It was, 'How can I set [the left tackle] up?' Sometimes when you do that, you're over-thinking."
During the Redskins' bye week in late October, Carter met with defensive coordinator-defensive line coach Greg Blache. The two decided it was best for Carter to play more on instincts.
"From now on, just let it fly," Carter said.
The last three weeks, Carter has emerged as a force against the run and the pass. He has 20 tackles and two sacks in that span.
"I just finally made a stand for myself," Carter said. "I think the main thing was I was being responsible knowing what my technique was, knowing what my responsibility was, and playing hard."
In the Dec. 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons, he logged nine tackles and a sack of elusive quarterback Michael Vick.
Against Philadelphia on Dec. 10, Carter had a quiet first half, but he came out strong in the third quarter. On the Eagles' first possession of the second half, he had three tackles and a quarterback pressure.
On successive plays, he stuffed running back Brian Westbrook for no gain, tackled tight end L.J. Smith for a 4-yard loss on a pass in the flat, then pressured quarterback Jeff Garcia into an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-14.
Then, on Sunday against the Saints, he logged eight tackles and a sack of quarterback Drew Brees in the fourth quarter. With the game on the line in the final minutes, Carter tackled running back Reggie Bush on successive plays to force a 4th-and-7 at the Redskins' 16-yard line.
The Saints could not convert, and the Redskins held on for the 16-10 win at the Superdome.
Generating a consistent pass rush has been a lingering problem for the Redskins' defense all season. The defense has just 17 sacks overall, worst in the NFL.
Carter has answered the call, though. For the season, Carter has 44 tackles and leads the defense in sacks with three. Carter also leads the team in quarterback pressures with 15.
"There's always a level of setting your guy up--it does come into play," he said. "But at the same time, you just have to fly, too. When I went back to the film, I saw myself as too mechanical. One, two, and then I use my move. Now I go in without hesitation.
"If the inside move is open, I'm going in without hesitation. If I can challenge the edge and get around the corner, I'm going with it."
Carter, 6-4 and 265 pounds, signed with the Redskins last March after five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. In Washington, he shifted back to defensive end from outside linebacker, a position he played in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme in 2005.
For Carter, there was a transition to playing the defensive line again and matching up against 300-pound left tackles. As a classic speed rusher, he wants to use his quickness to get to quarterbacks and ball-carriers.
Oftentimes, teams have run directly at Carter, aiming to use size and strength to overmatch the right side of the Redskins' defense.
It's worked at times, but Carter has kept battling.
"Bad plays happen," he said. "You can't put too much focus on it, you just have to get ready for the next play and keep fighting."
Added assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams: "He is getting comfortable with what we want done here. He is in a groove, technique-wise. He has been back and forth from a linebacker and a defensive end, dropping here and rushing there. After a while he has gotten that repetitive technique down. I think he has improved all year long."
In recent weeks, Carter said he has played with more emotion on the field. He has taken his lead from the always-energetic Marcus Washington, who is always charged up during games.
"I've always had a passion for the game," Carter said. "It's been great to have three home games in a row like this so I can enjoy the crowd and get to know the fans. I love playing here and I love the organization. I'm going to come out and play hard with Marcus and Phillip and everyone on defense."