With his unit still trying to overcome injuries along the front and in the secondary, Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett continues to search for answers and experiment with different combinations of players.
Since Brian Orakpo was lost for the season in Week 2, Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson have split time at the right outside linebacker position. In three games, Jackson and Wilson, who have been primarily special teams players for most of their four and five-year careers, respectively, have combined for just half a sack. Both are still acclimating to their new roles, but Haslett continues to tinker in an effort to play to each player’s strengths.
In Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, the defensive coordinator used Jackson on first and second downs, and then brought in Wilson on third downs. The coach wanted to take advantage of Jackson’s abilities as a run-stopper and Wilson’s skills in pass-rushing and pass coverage.
“We just feel the best thing for us last week was to have Chris in there [on third downs], and Chris covered a back a lot and did different things, and Rob played on first and second down,” Haslett said. “I think Rob does a really good job in the running game. He pounds the heck out of the tight ends. He’s really good in the running game. We’d obviously like to get more pressure from those two guys. But we’d like to get more pressure from everybody. We as coaches have to mix things up and put them in better positions.”
Haslett mixed up his defensive fronts, rushing three linemen most of the time as he dropped additional men back in coverage in an attempt to limit the Falcons’ passing game. At other times, the Redskins rushed four players or dialed up blitzes.
But Washington had little success in disrupting Matt Ryan’s flow. On 52 drop-backs, Ryan was sacked only once, and the Redskins pressured him only three other times.
“We kind of mixed it up,” Haslett said. “We’ve got to find ways to get more pressure on the quarterback. I thought we hung in there pretty well last week, doing what we had to do to win the game.”
Nose tackle Barry Cofield recorded the only sack of the game, giving the Redskins their first by a defensive lineman this season. Last season, defensive end Stephen Bowen recorded six sacks, and fellow end Adam Carriker – now on injured reserve – notched 5.5. Haslett praised Bowen’s play, particularly against the run, but said he wants to see Cofield and second-year end Jarvis Jenkins get more involved in the pass rush. Defensive linemen find themselves outnumbered when a team elects to rush only three or four, but the Redskins acknowledge that they need to do a better job of winning their matchups and being more disruptive.
Cofield hasn’t played as much in nickel packages until recent weeks, and says that although he relishes pass-rushing opportunities, he still is feeling his way along.
“The more you do it, the more you learn little intricacies, little places here and there where you might be able to get some penetration,” Cofield said. “But especially with a guy like [Christian Ponder], who’s so athletic, you can’t be out of control. It’s got to be controlled chaos. … Trying to make the quarterback uncomfortable, trying to get your hands on balls when you can. And another thing in the three-man [front], you want to keep him in the pocket. Keep him in the pocket, but not make him feel so comfortable that he can stand back there and play seven-on-seven.”
Without Orakpo, second-year pro Ryan Kerrigan has drawn a lot of attention, Haslett said. Rather than the one-on-one matchups he saw while rushing opposite Orakpo, Kerrigan now faces double-teams and is chipped by tight ends and running backs as he tries to come off the edge.
“Ryan Kerrigan’s the real deal. He can do everything,” Haslett said of the linebacker, who is the only player with multiple sacks so far (3.5). “He’s just got to find ways to beat the double team.”
Experimentation continues in the secondary as well, thanks to the ongoing absence of injured strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who has yet to make it onto the field despite being signed as a starter.
The Redskins hoped to have Meriweather and fellow free agent addition Tanard Jackson at strong and free safety, respectively. But Meriweather’s knee injury will keep him out another four weeks and Jackson is out for the year, serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Madieu Williams has started all five games at free safety, recording 30 tackles and four pass breakups. Second-year pro DeJon Gomes started the first three games in place of Meriweather, but his play has been uneven, so Haslett started Reed Doughty the last two games.
On Sunday, Haslett rotated third-year pro Jordan Pugh in and out with Gomes and Doughty. Pugh was signed in the second week of the season, so he still is learning the schemes, Haslett said. But Pugh said his comfort level is increasing each week. The Redskins had him primarily line up in the box where he could help against the run.
“He’s a good athlete. He doesn’t know what we’re doing yet, but he’s smooth when he runs, he’s a smart guy,” Haslett said. “We’re just trying to find the right combination. Meriweather will probably be out for a little while, and we’re going to use all the four guys that we have to put us in the best position to win games.”
The Redskins have sought consistency at the safety position ever since the murder of Sean Taylor in 2007 broke up what the team envisioned as a formidable tandem in Taylor and LaRon Landry. The Redskins struggled to find a replacement for Taylor and eventually moved Landry from free safety to strong safety. Chris Horton started at free safety in 2008 and some of 2009 before succumbing to injury as well.
Kareem Moore started 11 seasons at free safety in 2010, but his career was derailed by knee injuries.
In each of the last two seasons, Landry battled Achilles’ tendon injuries, and last season Oshiomogho Atogwe also struggled to stay on the field because of hamstring, knee and toe injuries.
Asked why it has been so difficult to find stability at the safety position, Haslett said, “They don’t fall out of trees, if that’s what you mean. Safety’s a unique breed. You’d like to have a safety that can play the run, who’s tough, smart and can understand both positions – play both strong and free – he’s got to be able to cover a receiver, and that’s not easily said. There’s not too many guys who can do that.”