Yet three seasons marred by injury and inconsistency have raised serious doubts about the team's first-round pick in 2009. But in his last four games, Orakpo has finally begun to look like the dominant force he is supposed to be in this scheme.
He has timed his dominance perfectly, as he is set to hit free agency this offseason. His performances have been enough to merit a new deal and even ensure the Redskins shouldn't ditch the 3-4 just yet.
Dominating on the Edge
Orakpo has always had the potential to thrive as an edge-rusher. That is just what he has been doing since Week 10.
His run of 5.5 sacks in four weeks began on the road against the Minnesota Vikings on the game's second play. Matched up against promising left tackle Matt Kalil, Orakpo used speed to attack the edge.
He then executed a familiar move to get around his blocker.
Once he made it to the edge, Orakpo used a dip-and-rip move to get underneath Kalil's grasp.
That let him close on quarterback Christian Ponder for an early sack.
This type of dip-and-rip technique has become Orakpo's signature pass-rush move. But it is not the only weapon in his arsenal.
Expanding His Repertoire
One of the keys to Orakpo's revival is how he has expanded his repertoire of pass-rush moves. A particularly effective wrinkle has been an inside move across the face of tackles too eager to take away his outside rush.
Orakpo used this exact combination to thwart left tackle Will Beatty against the New York Giants in Week 13. He started to the outside on an edge rush and then slanted across Beatty to the inside.
Orakpo's initial outside move made Beatty overplay things on the edge. As the blocker planted his foot on the outside, he was poorly positioned to react to a quick inside rush.
That let Orakpo break free and close on quarterback Eli Manning for the first of his two sacks against Big Blue.
Orakpo has been combining more technique and smarts with his natural power and speed. He is now starting to set up tackles for crafty second moves more often.
But as well as a more thoughtful approach to pass-rushing, Orakpo has also displayed a greater appetite for making plays in recent weeks.
Greater Hustle Is Paying off
Consistent effort hasn't always been a notable aspect of Orakpo's game. The lack of it helps explain why he has tended to get most of his career sacks in clutches and why he can disappear for stretches during games.
But in recent weeks, Orakpo has been one of the few members of the Washington front seven who has hustled to make plays. The effort has been paying off, as it did against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11.
Orakpo was prepared for a trademark rush off the edge. But the Eagles would try to slow him down by faking some run action and using a cutoff block.
As tight end James Casey came across the formation to cut him off, Orakpo was challenged to diagnose run or pass.
Once he determined that quarterback Nick Foles still had the ball, Orakpo began driving Casey back into the passer.
He used a powerful bull-rush to force Casey backward and then shed him to gain his second sack of the game.
The effort the Eagles made to deceive him is a compliment to Orakpo's threat off the edge. That he couldn't be fooled is a testament to his improved instincts and recognition skills, as well as his desire to hustle for a big play.
While increased effort is helping Orakpo make a more consistent impact, he has also been aided by a new willingness to move him around to create mismatches in pass protection.
Moving Around the Formation
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has been moving Orakpo around a little more often. Rushing him from different angles is creating matchup nightmares for protection schemes.
Earlier in the game against the Eagles, Orakpo was aligned in an inside linebacker position as a standing pass-rusher. He was put on the same side of the formation as fellow rush end Ryan Kerrigan.
The two ran a stunt with Kerrigan going first and taking an inside move. As he crashed inside, Orakpo looped around to come off the edge.
He beat a confused blocker around the corner and took Foles down.
Moving Orakpo around creates different pressure combinations and makes it harder for blocking schemes to identify and shift toward the defense's best pass-rusher.
It is a schematic ploy the Redskins should use far more often than they do. A more creative and expansive deployment of this 3-4 scheme and its personnel would benefit Orakpo the most.
Improvement vs. the Run
Orakpo hasn't limited his recent dominance strictly to rushing the passer. He has shown significant improvement against the run.
He is making quicker reads at the line and aggressively attacking downhill once he diagnoses run. A prime example came against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12.
The 49ers shifted their offensive front pre-snap by bringing tight end Vernon Davis over to Orakpo's side of the formation. But Orakpo would beat his block by making a quick dart to split the gap between Davis and left tackle Joe Staley.
Because he made his mind up so quickly, Orakpo came through the line untouched to drop running back Frank Gore for a loss.
Orakpo's improved recognition and greater downhill speed is making him a terror against runs aimed at him and even those going the other way.
He snuffed out an example of the latter against the Giants. Big Blue put tight end Bear Pascoe over Orakpo, who slanted to the inside as soon as he read run.
Pascoe tried to cut off Orakpo, while the O-line shifted to lead for a power play away from him. But Orakpo's inside move was too quick for Pascoe.
He slanted inside and attacked downhill to chase down running back Andre Brown from behind.
This was a classic pursuit play against the run all premier, athletic 3-4 outside linebackers have to make. It was a telling sign of Orakpo's evolution into the main impact player on this defense.
Hidden Impact and Creating Plays for Others
Orakpo has been playing like the kind of defensive linchpin who creates plays for every member of the unit and even makes an impact outside statistics.
In the second quarter against the Giants, an edge rush from Orakpo forced Beatty into committing a costly holding penalty.
Because of Orakpo's speed off the corner, Beatty was forced to choose between a penalty or giving up a hit on his quarterback.
Beatty chose the second option as Orakpo's pressure forced Manning to flee the pocket. He was stopped short of a first down, but the Giants punted after Washington declined the penalty.
Many Redskins fans have seen violations like this against Orakpo go uncalled. It is no coincidence that his improved performances are finally alerting officials to the lengths opponents will go to stop him.
It is a measure of the problems he is creating for offenses every week.
In the third quarter, Orakpo struck again. This time, his pressure on the outside manufactured a big play for the secondary.
After again beating Beatty around the corner, Orakpo closed on Manning, hurrying and disrupting his throw over the middle.
That pressure forced a high pass that was tipped, leading to an interception by safety Brandon Meriweather.
Orakpo directly contributed to a turnover thanks to his ability to collapse the pocket and alter the timing and trajectory of a pass.
These kind of ripple effects from his performance are invaluable to the whole defense. They show how the 3-4 can still be a success in Washington.
Re-Signing Orakpo Should Mean Retaining the 3-4 Scheme
While it is often tricky trusting dominance produced in a contract year, Orakpo is earning a new deal with his recent performances. He is also making it clear that the 3-4 can work for the Redskins.
Keeping Orakpo in town should also mean keeping the scheme that has yet to produce a solid defense. With Orakpo playing like this and Kerrigan on the other side, the Redskins have the key pieces to get the most from the system.
Many, including this author, have lobbied for a switch to a 4-3. But the fact is the team does not boast the ideal pieces for a credible four-man front scheme.
Yes, Orakpo and Kerrigan can play full-time end in the pros, but how well? Yes, nose tackle Barry Cofield can man the interior of a 4-3, but what about the other tackle spot?
The Redskins have better fits up front for a 3-4. What they need more than a switch of fronts is a schematic overhaul.
Players like Orakpo need more creative and consistently aggressive play-calling. A new coordinator with more expansive concepts can encourage Orakpo to remain with the team and continue his current dominance next season.
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