LANDOVER, MD – When most NFL rookies head into their first game ever as a pro, it’s natural to expect them to have the jitters. The speed of the game is so much greater than in college or even preseason. First-year players just hope to make a play -- any play -- in their first NFL game.
Redskins rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, though, didn’t just make a play in his first NFL game against the New York Giants on Sunday. He made the play. After the Redskins' 28-14 win, Kerrigan and others on the Redskins walked me through his interception of Eli Manning that gave the Redskins the lead for good early in the third quarter.
It is third-and-11 on the Giants' 19-yard line, and the Redskins are in a bind. As Manning comes to the line of scrimmage, he looks around and sees the Redskins coming in a maximum blitz. Barking out signals from shotgun, he changes the play at the line of scrimmage to exploit Washington’s aggression.
"The crazy part [about Kerrigan’s play] is we had a max blitz," defensive captain London Fletcher says. "They checked to a ‘Rocket Screen.’"
That meant the ball is coming Kerrigan’s way. "Rocket Screen" is designed to be a quick hitch to Hakeem Nicks, who would then run behind the vacated area for what would be a big play offensively for the Giants.
The blitzers are Fletcher, linebacker Rocky McIntosh, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe and, of course, Kerrigan. The Purdue product is lined up outside of right tackle Kareem McKenzie’s outside shoulder. He is planning on turning the corner on him and engaging Manning.
But before he blitzes, Kerrigan notices that the Giants’ quarterback has called an audible. He immediately realizes a quick pass is coming in his direction.
"I knew it was a quick pass, because [McKenzie] was trying to cut [block] me," the rookie recalls after the game.
The play itself
McKenzie goes low to block Kerrigan, but the Redskins’ top draft choice is quickly able to shed that block. Most importantly, he keeps his hands where they needed to be in order to make a play on the ball. It comes down to a very basic principle about being a linebacker at any level of football. If you can’t shed a block, you can’t make a play.
Kerrigan is able to do that in his first regular season game playing his new position, which is something that isn’t lost on his teammates.
"It’s very difficult [do shed a cut block]," linebacker Brian Orakpo says. "Because you want to get after the quarterback and all of a sudden, they go low on you."
From there, it is all about instincts and hand-eye coordination. Kerrigan bats the ball high into the air. At that point, most fans would have settled for the deflection, as it would have simply ended the drive. But Kerrigan’s awareness after the ball is deflected is what changes the game. He tracks the ball mid-air and comes down with it, rumbling his way into the endzone to give the Redskins a lead they would never relinquish. It is his first defensive touchdown since high school.
"That wasn’t too much coverage right there," he says of the play. "That was just playing the cut block and getting my hands up, and fortunately the ball found my hands twice and I got into the endzone"
As the stadium explodes in jubilation, Kerrigan’s teammates swarm him in the end zone. They mob him, as if to say, ‘Welcome to the NFL!'
It's the type of play that shows the Redskins veterans and coaches what they can expect from a player that can make plays no matter where he is lined up. It's the type of play that makes the team's brain trust know they made the right decision to trade down and select him in the 2011 NFL Draft. It's the type of play that Kerrigan himself will remember forever, seeing as it was his first touchdown since high school.
"I just remember not really being able to see anything as I was getting mauled by my teammates," Kerrigan says. "[I’ll remember] just a great feeling that was. A moment I will always remember."
Most importantly, it was the type of play that won a game. From that point on, everything changed on Sunday.