WASHINGTON — The Washington Football Team had just pared the Detroit Lions’ lead to a single touchdown when adversity struck. Left tackle Cornelius Lucas lay on the ground in pain after suffering an ankle injury, forcing the clock to stop as the team’s physician and trainers rushed to his side.
Washington’s offensive line, already stretched thin because of injuries, was suddenly down another tackle — its third — and had to scrape the bottom of the roster for help. But as David Sharpe strapped on his helmet for his season debut, right tackle Morgan Moses began to mentally prepare himself for a role he had not had since his rookie season, in 2014.
“In the middle of the game, I probably had a couple of ‘come to Jesus’ talks with myself before that first snap at left tackle,” Moses told reporters. “I had some self-talks, and I was able to get it done. Obviously in the heat of the game, they’re depending on you to come in and play well.”
Moses played the final 24 snaps at left tackle, sealing off the edge for Antonio Gibson’s game-tying touchdown run before Detroit knocked in the winning field goal. He then started and played left tackle for the entirety of the following two games, spurring a run game that ranked as the third-best in the league (173 rushing yards per game) in that span and helping Washington take the NFC East lead before the Giants reclaimed it.
Yet Moses’ switch was merely one of many for Washington’s patchwork offensive line this season. Four different starters have missed or continue to miss time because of injuries, and the starting group has undergone five different iterations through Week 12. Offensive line turnover is a challenging reality for many teams each year, but Washington has adjusted to three different quarterbacks this season, along with a new play-caller in offensive coordinator Scott Turner and a new offense.
And for the most part, the line has held up.
Over its past three games, quarterback Alex Smith has operated with a clean pocket on 72.2 percent of his dropbacks, the ninth-highest rate (minimum 50 dropbacks), according to Pro Football Focus. And over the past two games — both wins, against Cincinnati and Dallas — Washington has averaged the third-most rushing yards (173 per game) and totaled the second-most runs (12) of 10 yards or more. (Those performances were against two of the worst defenses in the league.)
Coach Ron Rivera credits coaching as the biggest reason Washington’s offensive line has fared well amid persistent changes. But he’s also credited the veterans up front in Moses, right guard Brandon Scherff and center Chase Roullier.
“We’ve got the right kind of guys,” Rivera said. “I say that because of their willingness to do the extra things that are asked of them. Their mental toughness to go through the tough work that [offensive line] coach [John] Matsko and [assistant offensive line] coach [Travelle] Wharton demand of these guys, that I think is huge.”
Roullier, a fourth-year center, is Washington’s lone constant, as the only player to take every offensive snap this season (740). Scherff missed three games at right guard because of a knee injury, but has returned to have arguably a career year with only nine pressures allowed, according to PFF.
“I really like what we’re getting from him. I think he’s done a great job, he really has,” Rivera said. “It doesn’t matter who he lines up next to, he’s a great communicator. I think that’s as important as it gets.”
Scherff is playing on a franchise tag and cannot begin to negotiate a new deal until after the season. If he and the team do not reach an agreement, Washington could choose to place the franchise tag on him a second time. Otherwise he would be eligible for free agency.
During Scherff’s three-game absence, Wes Schweitzer filled in and proved enough to earn a longer stay with the starting five. When rookie Saahdiq Charles was lost to a knee injury after two snaps, Schweitzer — not Wes Martin, the team’s first starting left guard this year — took over. Schweitzer has started the last five games at left guard.
“It’s definitely expected at this level,” he said of switching sides up front. “There are only so many people active on game day. But with this unique 2020 season with COVID-19 we were definitely putting a bigger emphasis on ‘you never know if someone’s going to be down, so you have to play all spots.’ “
Moses has prepared for this every offseason. He was working on one of his finest seasons at right tackle, before continuing on the left side, when Geron Christian and then Lucas went down.
“I train both ways throughout the summer and stuff like that, just to be mentally ready,” Moses said. “You never know. Coach Matsko told us as soon as we got here, hey you guys got to be ready to play all five positions.”
Rivera has stressed flexibility at multiple positions this season, in part because it creates more opportunity within the scheme, but also out of need. The NFL’s coronavirus protocols require six days of pre-entry testing for players brought in from the outside. So those teams in urgent need of, say, tackle help, rarely find relief in time for the next game.
With the league’s leading defense, the Steelers are the first team since Rivera’s 2015 Carolina Panthers to start a season 11-0. Through Week 12, Pittsburgh’s defense ranks first in the NFL in scoring (17.1 points allowed per game), passing yards allowed (193.2 per game) and quarterback pressures per game (12.8). It also has the most sacks (41), takeaways (23) and the third-highest blitz rate (41.2 percent).
Rivera has said the team’s upcoming stretch — against the Steelers and the 49ers on the road and against the Seahawks at home — will be measuring sticks for his team in development.
And it may all start up front.