It was the kind of game that made you feel as though the defense would have to score first, and Ryan Kerrigan delivered. In the second quarter of a surprisingly scoreless game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the second-year Washington Redskins linebacker made one of the hightlight-reel plays of the season. Having beaten his man and arrived in the backfield looking to damage Atlanta's cause, Kerrigan wisely paused to consider his options. Then, when Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw the ball, Kerrigan leaped in the air, swatted it, caught it and ran it all the way back to the end zone for a touchdown.
The play was smart, instinctive, athletic and difference-making. And even though he's just now embarking upon the second month of his second NFL season, Kerrigan has fit all of those descriptions and has emerged as the superstar leader of the Redskins' defense this year.
Injuries to Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker and Brandon Meriweather, as well as the struggles of an undermanned secondary, have dominated the discussion about the Redskins' defense in 2012. But through it all, Kerrigan has been a consistent, relentless force from his outside linebacker spot. It's one thing to know you're going to get extra attention because Orakpo's no longer playing on the other side, but it's quite another to demand it and to repeatedly overcome it. Through four weeks, Kerrigan was the top-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in the league according to Pro Football Focus's grades. His scoring play in Week 5 offered some evidence as to why.
The Redskins took Kerrigan in the first round of the 2011 draft, so they believed he could be a difference-making player in their defense. He has turned out to be just about perfect. Those who would like the sack totals to be higher miss the point. Kerrigan could launch himself after the quarterback on every play and possibly get more sacks. But what jumps out when you watch him is that he makes good decisions. Sometimes, instead of overpursuing, he'll hold back and bat down a pass, or wrestle a running back to the ground. The Redskins' defensive scheme sometimes asks Kerrigan to play in coverage, which is an area of his game that doesn't come naturally but has improved since his arrival.
Basically, as simple as it sounds, the Redskins want Kerrigan to create chaos in his portion of the field. Even with all of the injuries, there remain quite a few very good players on the Redskins' front seven. London Fletcher, Perry Riley, Stephen Bowen and Barry Cofield are a few of the guys who have played well this year, and they all benefit from Kerrigan's play-to-play ability to win his matchups and disrupt the offense. The secondary even covered well, for the most part, in Sunday's game against some of the best wide receivers in the league. It was a team defensive effort that came up just short but surpassed expectations, and Kerrigan set the tone.
The Redskins will miss Orakpo at times this year, if for no other reason than it's better to have two hyper-disruptive outside linebackers in your 3-4 defense than one. But the way Kerrigan has played this year, including the play he delivered Sunday, shows that he might be good enough right now to rescue the Washington defense from its problems. He's got the ability to be one of the best defensive players in the league, and so far this year that's exactly what he's been.