One of the best performances of Jim Haslett’s successful coaching career occurred, as good things often do, out of necessity. When you’re in charge of a defense best known for giving up long touchdown passes, it’s time to make changes, so Haslett tried a different approach midway through this Washington Redskins season. Haslett’s new move has resulted in surprising improvement from a unit that still isn’t very good — but recently has been good enough.
After a 3-6 start, the surging Redskins (8-6) are two victories from winning their first NFC East title since the second Clinton administration. Haslett’s willingness to scrap his preferred way of doing things in an attempt to overcome the loss of injured starters — during the past month, he has platooned players, played more people and blitzed more frequently than he ever did before this season — is as much a part of the Redskins’ comeback story as Robert Griffin III’s game-changing ability or Kirk Cousins’s stellar relief work.
With the stakes rising, Haslett has no interest in revealing what has worked best during Washington’s five-game winning streak (in the past three games combined, the defense has given up just 21 second-half points).
“Why don’t you just write about the players?” Haslett asked me the other day. “They deserve the credit.”
Referring to strategy, Haslett said, “We really don’t want to get into that.”
Fortunately for Redskins fans, we do. And you don’t need to understand each linebacker’s responsibility on every zone-blitz play to follow the bouncing ball. Some of what Haslett has done to improve Washington’s defense is obvious. For the more complicated stuff, we’ve brought in help.
What Haslett did, according to two longtime NFC defensive assistants who have studied film of the Redskins, was utilize the entire defensive roster, try to put players in favorable matchups based on their skills and, when all else failed, Haslett went after quarterbacks with every blitz in his playbook.
Most coaches would rather have 11 great players requiring minimal substitution. Haslett isn’t so lucky.
It’s not uncommon for coaches to use more players late in a season when starters are worn down (by December, not even columnists are 100 percent). But according to one of the NFL assistant coaches, during the winning streak Haslett has expanded the defensive rotation to 19 players, an unusually high number. It seems that the Redskins’ defensive players have had more pep in their step during the fourth quarter compared with opposing offenses, which don’t rotate as much.
“When a lot of guys play and contribute, it just makes it easier on everybody, especially” after halftime, lineman Kedric Golston said. “Coach Haslett is coming up with ways to help everybody be at their best.”
Haslett is finding the right spots to use players. Call it situational hitting.
When Brian Orakpo was injured, outside linebacker Rob Jackson moved into the starting lineup. Orakpo was an every-down player who made big plays against the run and pass. Jackson is as productive against the run, but Haslett has used special teams standout Lorenzo Alexander, a pretty good pass rusher, on the majority of passing downs. Combined, throughout the streak, they’ve become an effective replacement for Orakpo.
During the streak, Haslett has done his best work in mitigating the team’s lack of talent at safety. Before the season, Tanard Jackson, a projected starter, was suspended indefinitely for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy for a third time. Brandon Meriweather, who was supposed to team with Jackson, played in only one game late in the season before an injury sidelined him for the team’s remaining games. The other safeties — Madieu Williams, Reed Doughty, Jordan Pugh and DeJon Gomes — are in the lineup because someone has to be.
On film, Pugh has displayed some ability to make plays close to the line of scrimmage, the coaches said, so that’s where Haslett often puts him. Although Williams clearly has lost a step in his ninth season in the league (he sure seemed ready for retirement on that Eli Manning-to-Victor Cruz 77-yard stomach punch in October), he’s smart. He’s sort of a coach on the field. Haslett is getting something out of everyone.
Haslett needed a new nickel cornerback after Cedric Griffin was suspended for the final four games for violating the substance abuse policy. He went with D.J. Johnson over rookie Richard Crawford, and Johnson has had some good moments in coverage.
“We’ve definitely had a lot of guys get chances they might not have gotten in other seasons,” Alexander said. “It shows that [Haslett] is open to trying some new ideas if that’s what’s needed.”
Haslett’s outlook hasn’t changed when it comes to blitzing. He has been among the game’s most aggressive coordinators since Bill Cowher hired him to run Pittsburgh’s defense in 1997. In all of his coaching stops, including in New Orleans, where he was selected the NFL’s coach of the year in 2000, Haslett has emphasized blitzing.
Both coaches I spoke to said Haslett has blitzed this season at a higher rate than even he’s accustomed to in an effort to help the porous secondary as much as possible. Less time for quarterbacks to throw means less of a chance to pick on Washington’s defensive backs.
“People don’t understand what a job Haz has done,” said Orakpo, who tore a chest muscle on Sept. 16 against the St. Louis Rams. “You lose the guys we have, and guys are stepping up now. Haz is moving guys around, doing [different things] and we’re getting after it.”
No one would mistake this Redskins defense for that of the 1985 Chicago Bears. But Haslett has found a way to help the Redskins win despite their limitations. And that’s one nifty bit of coaching.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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