Players are expected to never take any plays off in the NFL, but the margin for error has never been smaller for Ryan Kerrigan.
The franchise's all-time official sack leader has seen a noticeable dip in playing time in his 10th season; he has played in 37% of the team's defensive snaps this year, which is a steep drop from the 82% he averaged in the previous eight season. With No. 2 overall pick Chase Young joining the team, such a change was expected to come for the four-time Pro Bowler.
The decrease in snap counts has not hindered his production, though, as Kerrigan's 5.5 sacks are second on the team and tied for 21st in the NFL. His role may have changed, but his desire to help the Washington Football Team win games, no matter the amount of snaps, remains as intense as ever.
"That's my mindset when I get out there," Kerrigan said after Washington's 20-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. "I still want to be making plays, and I know I still can make plays. So yeah, whenever I'm out there, my focus is trying to be a productive member of the team."
For the most part, Kerrigan has played as Washington fans have come to expect from the former first-round pick. He has at least 0.5 sacks in four of the past five games, including one on Bengals backup quarterback Ryan Finley for a seven-yard loss.
Despite only averaging a career-low 24 snaps per game, Kerrigan has remained an effective pass rusher. His pass rushing grade of 69.1 on Pro Football Focus is the second-highest among Washington's edge defenders behind Montez Sweat.
"I think that works well for him," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Oct. 26. "I think he's fresher when he's able to go in in small doses and do what he does well. He's our sack leader, our all-time sack leader here in this organization and he knows how to rush the quarterback. He does a great job taking advantage of his opportunities. We love making sure he gets his opportunities. It's not about how many snaps you take; it's what you do with the snaps that you take."
When there was outside speculation that Kerrigan could possibly be traded in early November, head coach Ron Rivera pointed out how productive Kerrigan has been, even in a limited capacity. He has brought pressure on about 10% of his 132 pass rushing plays, which is down from his 13% average, but it is still the third-highest among Washington's defensive linemen.
"He understands what it takes to prepare each week, to play physically and mentally," Rivera said. "Because he does that, he has success. Secondly, he's also a guy that understands his role. He's a proud player. He wants to play, but he also understands that when I get an opportunity, I have to make the most of it."
Kerrigan has done exactly that all season, starting with the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. He only had an opportunity to rush Carson Wentz 15 times but managed to get three pressures and two sacks to become the official all-time franchise leader. He also had two tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery that helped seal Washington's first victory.
"Kerrigan is one of the dudes that's going to make plays," Young said after the Eagles' game. "I was definitely happy for him. He made a lot of plays today. What that does for me, I go ask him question after question and ask him: 'How did you get your game like that?' I feel like every play R.K. makes, I try to make."
Del Rio said Kerrigan is past the point in his career where he can play 70 snaps per game and finish the season; that's what happens with players as they age. However, the team still believes the 32-year-old can produce at a high level, and the coaches want to help him tap into that talent with smaller doses of action.
"I love the approach of having a guy be able to set the example of what it looks like to be a pro, handle your business, be prepared, take advantage of the reps you get and remain very, very positive," Del Rio said. "In everything he does, he's a professional. Every day he sets great examples of what it should look like. [I'm] super happy for him. Obviously, he's the [Washington] Football Team's all-time [official] sack leader now, so tip of the cap to him for that. It's outstanding."
With six games left in the season, Kerrigan has a chance to improve his place among the all-time sack leaders in the NFL. He is currently on pace to finish the year with about 9.0 sacks, which would move him past the likes of Warren Sapp, Mario Williams, Dexter Manley and Joey Porter. With Washington milking the most out of his skillset with fewer reps, he has a chance to meet or perhaps exceed that projection.
"He's been exactly what we'd hoped he'd be. He really has," Rivera said. "He's contributed, he's made impact plays for us, he's impacting our defense, he's impacting our young players on our football team, he's setting the example."