Redskins offensive line coach Bill Callahan said it was important to raise players' standards upon his hiring last season, leading to better results and a division title.*
For a good chunk of the 2015 season, the Washington Redskins featured four first-year starters along their offensive line.
By season's end, however, the unit had allowed just 27 sacks of quarterback Kirk Cousins – a figure less than half of the 58 sacks allowed by the Redskins in 2014.
So what was the difference? How could the Redskins, at times being forced to fill in holes along their front line, see such positive results?
The answer, to Bill Callahan, was a culture change brought about in the meeting room and on the practice field.
Callahan, a longtime, well-respected NFL coach, was hired by the Redskins last year to do just that – bring his brand of old-school, tough-nosed offensive line play to the team – and he said this week that his players definitely bought in.
"I think it's important to capture the culture and it's important to set your standards and convey them and articulate them where everybody understands what the expectation level is," Callahan told host Larry Michael on "Redskins Nation." "I think once that's established and helping individuals on a daily basis to improve their game, to improve their craft becomes more meaningful and I believe when a player knows you care about him, they care a little bit more about what they're doing."
Callahan came to the Redskins knowing that he certainly had some talent to work with to get his brand established early. The leader of the group, Trent Williams, had long-since established himself as one of the top left tackles in the game, while veterans Shawn Lauvao and Kory Lichtensteiger were experienced pieces at left guard and center, respectively.
The right side of the line, meanwhile, was completely open. The team selected Brandon Scherff, a mean, talented Iowa product, as the No. 5-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, originally slating him to start at right tackle, while second-year lineman Spencer Long headed into training camp as the team's right guard.
But the emergence of Morgan Moses, a second-year lineman out of Virginia, forced Callahan and the Redskins to make a move mid-training camp, as the team shifted Scherff to right guard and put Moses at right tackle.
From the start, Callahan got his linemen used to staying on the field long after practice was over, going through various drills and techniques until they were near perfect. That trend would continue with marathon sessions in the meeting room, where Callahan constantly picked apart the play – the good and the bad – of his players.
Callahan said the team's video staff would film "everything" that the linemen did in practice so they could "sit down and view yourself and see where you can make those individual improvements, tweak your game somewhat … so you can refine it to where you want it."
"I think that was important for everybody," Callahan said. "So it was a little bit of a new dimension and I think it was one that the players appreciated."
That approach certainly paid off when the offensive line got affected by the injury bug throughout the season.
First, Lauvao was placed on Injured-Reserve after suffering a serious ankle injury in the first quarter of the Redskins' Week 4 game against the New York Giants. His replacement, Long – who was originally penciled in as the potential starting right guard – only played sparingly in five games, mostly on special teams, in 2014, his rookie season.
Then Lichtensteiger went down with a neck injury two weeks later. His replacement? Josh LeRibeus, a natural guard who had spent the offseason working out at center to be the team's backup at that position should an emergency need arise. Though Lichtensteiger was placed on the short-term IR list, he wouldn't return to action until the team's first-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.
So, from left to right, the Redskins' offensive line past Week 6 featured one experienced starter (Williams), and four first-year starters at their positions (Long, LeRibeus, Scherff and Moses). Journeyman Ty Nsekhe even made his first two career starts throughout the year, subbing in for Williams in Weeks 6 (injury) and 17 (rest).
Through it all, the Redskins, as a team, accomplished their goal of winning the NFC East, while the offensive line accomplished its goal of allowing less than 30 sacks on the year.
"Yeah, it was a good year in the sense, it was my first year and to come in and to take a new group and raise their standards and the level of their play was important to everybody," Callahan said. "And I couldn't be more proud of what they accomplished during the course of the year."
Moving forward, the Redskins now have plenty of experience along their line to build off of entering offseason workouts for the 2016 season. One of their main goals this time around is to improve in the run game, as their 3.7 yards-per-carry average ranked 20th in the league in 2015.
Callahan thinks success in the run game will come with more total rushing attempts from week to week. The Redskins were tied for 14th in the league with 429 total rushing attempts last season, but some weeks the team really focused in on its passing game in order to keep up.
"I think there were about four or five games where we didn't even crack 20 attempts," Callahan said of 2015. "And that's circumstantial because every game is different and so some of the games that we got into … we didn't have those opportunities. But going forward, we're looking to always work for and towards a 30-plus-attempt game."