Turf fields provide some unique challenges for NFL players, especially those who have suffered injuries in the past, something the Redskins will focus on when the travel to Ford Field this Sunday.
Right after the Redskins defeated the New York Giants last month, they gathered in the visitor's locker room relieved and excited with their first victory of the season, but also deeply bruised.
The turf field at MetLife Stadium hadn't been particularly kind to the team's secondary, evident in the crutches that cornerback Bashaud Breeland and safety DeAngelo Hall balanced on during their postgame interviews. Breeland suffered an ankle injury, which forced him out of the next two games, while Hall tore his ACL and was eventually placed on Injured Reserve.
That's not to say the field conditions were the sole blame for these unfortunate maladies – as cornerback Greg Toler will tell you, football has a 100 percent injury rate – but it certainly didn't help prevent them from occurring. Ask most players in the Redskins locker room what kind of field surface they prefer to play on, and turf is rarely a first choice. It's often loathed.
This is relevant primarily because the Redskins are travelling to Detroit this weekend to play the Lions, a team that plays on FieldTurf inside their home at Ford Field. This will be the second of three times Washington plays a team on turf this season (they visit the Cowboys on Thanksgiving), and accordingly practiced in its Indoor Training Center on Friday to help prepare players for the conditions in store for them.
Head coach Jay Gruden didn't seem too concerned with players being more prone to injurious situations on turf, noting that practice sessions inside help more with adjusting to the speed of the surface and the noise in an opposing stadium.
"I think you have got to understand it's a fast track and they have a fast team with Marvin Jones and obviously Golden Tate," Gruden said. "So it's different tempo, I guess, so to speak. And then the noise in a dome can affect you, especially offensively, with the cadence. We learned that against Baltimore. We had a couple instances where we had penalties, false starts, ball snapped before the quarterback was ready or anybody else was ready. So that's the issues we're trying to work out in there."
Playing on turf fields is nothing new to players – and in fact, it was commonplace in most stadiums from the last century – but the type of pain and injuries they can foster have led more teams to switch to grass (Baltimore converted its FieldTurf to grass this year), hoping to spare complaints about sore joints and bones.
For Toler, who played indoors with the Colts for three seasons, the harder surface always reminded him of his torn ACL he suffered in 2011 with the Cardinals.
"Turf has been a monster to some. I do feel my knee from time to time from 2011. You're like, 'man,'" Toler said. "Grass is just more friendly to your joints…you really notice the difference. Playing with older guys in the league, guys fortunate such as Larry Fitzgerald, I talk to him often and he's like 'Bro, my career has lasted so long because I've been on grass.'"
Especially at skill positions, the difference between surfaces can have a bigger impact.
Check out these photos of the Redskins' defense and special teams preparing for their Week 7 game against the Detroit Lions Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
"You're always making those vicious cuts," Toler said. "I never looked at it like that, but it does play a factor career-wise, how long you can withstand putting pressure on those body tendons."
"[Turf is] faster," Breeland said. "You've got really get in and out of your breaks, because if you get stuck, nine times out of 10, you can roll your ankle, or tear a knee. Because it's so hard, you're not breaking through. It just sticks there."
"It doesn't give like grass sometimes," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said. "If you go around it might give, it might come up. But on the turf it stays the same and you get turf burns, all that good stuff."
Practices like Friday can help start the adjustment and get players used to making the kinds of cuts that can potentially be season-threatening. Before the game is also a crucial time for players to test out their footwear on the surface, make cuts and plants and feel the way the turf reacts to their movements.
The ground can certainly affect other positions. Left guard Shawn Lauvao, who has suffered ankle injuries on two consecutive trips to MetLife Stadium, said he has to be more cognizant of his footwork and laments the fact that when he falls down making a block this Sunday, it won't be on a "putting green," as some grass-stadiums feel.
"In the game, you can't just go out there and play on it," Breeland said, "you've got to get a good feel for it."
An equal concern is the way a player feels after a game on turf. Old injuries have a tendency to flare up after the beating they take on a harder, slicker surface, and turf burns have a tendency to stay with a player into the week.
"I'm old enough where I did play on Astroturf, my freshman year at Boston College," said safety Will Blackmon, who has plenty of experience at Ford Field during his years with the Packers. "We actually switched from Astroturf to FieldTurf and there was no difference in terms of how my body felt afterwards. There's no give, it's still rough on your body, joints, all that, it is going to be achy."
Blackmon has accrued 10 seasons in the NFL and has an accurate gauge on the way his body feels. After holding court with reporters for 10 minute on Thursday, he finished with what sounded like a politician's plea.
"Everybody needs to go to grass," he said. "It almost feels like [other stadiums are] saving money so it looks pretty. Nah, man, get that grass. Pay those groundskeepers, create more jobs…We save bodies, people get jobs."