KEEP­ING FRESH

Feel­ing re­wards of rest, Ker­ri­gan more well-rounded

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY NORA PRINCIOTTI

RICH­MOND | As of right now, the mid­dle of train­ing camp, the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Red­skins defense is its new­ness. New scheme. New coaches. New per­son­nel.

Amid all that, coach Jay Gru­den stopped to com­pli­ment one of the pil­lars of his defense, Out­side line­backer Ryan Ker­ri­gan, some­one who has been a Red­skin for much longer than the shiny new ob­jects of fas­ci­na­tion.

“Yeah, you know, not a lot of peo­ple talk about Ryan any­more,” Gru­den said Sun­day. “He’s just al­ways there, he’s a main­stay for us and he’s a very pro­duc­tive player.”

Ker­ri­gan has started all 16 games of ev­ery sea­son since his rookie year in 2011, so, if he’s hid­ing, he’s do­ing it in plain sight. He’s a bea­con of con­sis­tency, but he’s also changed a lot over the course of 98 ca­reer games.

Ker­ri­gan is 28, go­ing on 29 this month. Rest and re­cov­ery are more im­por­tant than when he was a 23-year-old rookie. He plays a lot, but he’s not on the field for ev­ery down like he was ear­lier in his ca­reer.

Last year, Ker­ri­gan played a ca­reer-low 71.58 per­cent of de­fen­sive snaps. He had 11 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. Dur­ing his other Pro Bowl sea­son, 2012, Ker­ri­gan was on the field with the defense 99.16 per­cent of the time, sev­enth-most among NFL lineback­ers. Last year, Ker­ri­gan’s per­cent­age of play time on defense ranked 45th and, as a re­sult, his body felt bet­ter.

“The dif­fer­ence I found last year was in games in late Novem­ber and early De­cem­ber ... I was feel­ing a lot fresher at that time of year than I had in years past when I was play­ing a higher vol­ume of snaps,” Ker­ri­gan said. “I think play­ing, hav­ing that many guys that can ro­tate in is re­ally key.”

In years past, he said, he’d re­ally feel the ex­haus­tion of a sea­son on Tues­day or Wed­nes­day af­ter a game. He’d go back to Red­skins Park to be­gin pre­par­ing for the next op­po­nent feel­ing worn down, not fresh.

A day or two of rest af­ter a game wasn’t do­ing it. The bet­ter he played, the more tack­les he made, the more ex­hausted and sore he’d feel the next week.

By play­ing a bit less in 2016, Ker­ri­gan avoided some of that ex­haus­tion. With a fresher body each week, Ker­ri­gan made up for his lost snaps with more ef­fi­cient pro­duc­tion. His 72 quar­ter­back pres­sures in 2016 ranked third among out­side lineback­ers, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus. His 23 pres­sures on 136 third-down pass­rush snaps were some of the few bright spots in the Red­skins league-worst third-down defense.

There’s no rea­son that shouldn’t con­tinue into 2017, es­pe­cially be­cause Ker­ri­gan is still feel­ing the re­wards of rest.

“I feel bet­ter than I have in the past cou­ple of years,” he said.

Ker­ri­gan has had a pro­duc­tive train­ing camp, and he’s also spent plenty of time in the cold tub and got­ten a veteran’s day off of prac­tice as the

Red­skins com­mit to keep­ing him fresh dur­ing this time, as well. The coach­ing staff’s ex­pec­ta­tions are high, as usual, and Gru­den ex­pects that Ker­ri­gan is “still go­ing to be a dou­ble-digit sack guy for us.”

Ker­ri­gan has been that, or near that, his en­tire ca­reer, but he’s be­come a more well-rounded player as he’s got­ten older.

“He’s an ex­cel­lent player against the run, which goes un­no­ticed some­times by a lot of peo­ple,” Gru­den said.

Ker­ri­gan’s 26 solo tack­les in 2016 were a ca­reer low, which doesn’t say any­thing good about his run defense, but the fact that he got only seven as­sisted tack­les il­lus­trates that the is­sue was one of the whole defense, not just Ker­ri­gan.

In part, Ker­ri­gan has be­come a bet­ter run de­fender out of ne­ces­sity. Over the course of his ca­reer, he’s watched of­fenses spread out and de­fenses re­spond by mov­ing hefty de­fen­sive tack­les off the field in fa­vor of cor­ner­backs. Of course, there’s been an equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion to that, too.

“Yeah that’s the chal­lenge with foot­ball nowa­days,” Ker­ri­gan said. “Ev­ery of­fense is try­ing to get you in your nickel per­son­nel and then run the ball.”

On pass­ing downs, Ker­ri­gan may be one of the big­ger play­ers on the line of scrim­mage, so he’s got to be ready to stop the run if the of­fense tries to sur­prise him. He plays with his hand in the dirt more than he used to.

“You ob­vi­ously have less beef on the field, less run stuffers on the field, so that be­comes the chal­lenge for the guys in the box, for us, the in­te­rior guys, the off-the-ball lineback­ers, it re­ally puts the onus on us to squeeze gaps and re­duce run lanes,” Ker­ri­gan said.

With more ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing in those sit­u­a­tions, Ker­ri­gan’s got­ten bet­ter at an­tic­i­pat­ing plays, read­ing the tackle’s set and mak­ing ed­u­cated guesses.

“I think just hav­ing a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of sit­u­a­tions, you know, know­ing, even if it’s sec­ond and seven and an of­fense might, that’s typ­i­cally a pass­ing sit­u­a­tion but nowa­days [with] of­fenses, that’s a 50-50 down,” Ker­ri­gan said. “Of­fenses could run or could pass so you re­ally have to not get too far up­field in your ini­tial take­off.”

When the Red­skins suit up for Week 1, the sight of Ker­ri­gan’s No. 91 lin­ing up will be a fa­mil­iar one. But while it’s easy to see the sev­enth-year player as a sym­bol of con­sis­tency and sta­bil­ity, Ker­ri­gan has shown adapt­abil­ity, as well, to the nu­ances of to­day’s game and to the re­al­i­ties of ag­ing. He prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been able to keep up the same level of play with­out it.

So, if Ker­ri­gan proves Gru­den right and has an­other dou­ble-digit sack year in 2017, he’s not just do­ing the same old thing he’s al­ways done, no mat­ter how fa­mil­iar it looks.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Red­skins out­side line­backer Ryan Ker­ri­gan (91) played a ca­reer-low 71.58 per­cent of de­fen­sive snaps last sea­son. He had 11 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. By play­ing less in 2016, Ker­ri­gan avoided ex­haus­tion he felt in years past and ex­pects si­m­il­iar pro­duc­tion this sea­son.

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