Redskins’ defense looks to improve

On the second day of training camp, the Washington Redskins’ defense was a bit scattered. Two starters were nursing injuries and couldn’t practice. Three others were new acquisitions and thus had to leave the facility to lift weights. Those who could hit the practice field knew at least one thing: They couldn’t get much worse than a year ago, at least statistically.

That unit was ranked 31st in the league, which prompted a major overhaul. While much of the offseason attention has focused on the Redskins’ quarterback situation, the team’s defense has seen perhaps as big a makeover as any unit in the NFL.

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“It’s a totally different team than when I first got here,” said linebacker Brian Orakpo, who has all of two seasons under his belt.

As many as seven of the 11 defensive starters could be different this year: two in the secondary, two in the linebacker corps and perhaps all three along the line.

In their first year running the 3-4 defense, the Redskins had all the wrong pieces and allowed an average of 389 yards per game, worse than all but the Denver Broncos. The Philadelphia Eagles alone amassed nearly 600 yards in a single game. Urgent personnel changes were needed and the Redskins have been aggressive, trying to plug in several possible starters rather than funneling their resources to one superstar.

The biggest changes thus far have come on the defensive line, where the team will have at least two and possibly three new starters. Gone are Ma’ake Kemoateu, Phillip Daniels, Albert Haynesworth, Jeremy Jarmon and Kedric Golston. In training camp Saturday,Adam Carriker and second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins were with the first-team defensive ends, and Anthony Bryant lined up at nose tackle.

Watching just a few feet away were Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, signed last week as free agents. The two could watch film, observe practice and attend meetings, but until a new collective bargaining agreement is ratified, they can’t participate in practice or even lift weights at Redskins Park. They had to drive to an off-site gym to lift and an area high school for conditioning.

“We’re all foaming at the mouth, ready to get onto the field,” Cofield said.

While Cofield will likely anchor the line, Bowen is the front-runner to start at right end and either Carriker or Jenkins will likely play on the left side. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett likes to rotate players, so everyone will see plenty of snaps.

Cofield will have to adjust to playing in a 3-4 defense, but after reviewing film of him with the New York Giants, coaches don’t think that will be a problem.

“I thought he was the bell cow of their defensive line,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “He was a guy that was in the majority of the time and you could tell he was a team leader.”

If the line is solidified, the rest of the defense should have a chance to make more plays. The inside linebackers — London Fletcher and, for now, Perry Riley — should especially benefit. Last year, the front three failed to generate pressure and open lanes for pass rushers.

“We can get to the quarterback a lot better if the guys are moving, pushing the pocket,” Orakpo said. “At times last year, all we were doing was running in circles and the quarterback was able to step up. We got some real good force this year where we can corral the quarterback.”

Also watching Sunday’s practice off to the side was newly added cornerback Josh Wilson, who is expected to take Carlos Rogers’s place opposite DeAngelo Hall. The team also signed safety O.J. Atogwe to complement LaRon Landry in the defensive backfield. In the early days of camp, Landry is the biggest question mark of the group.

Landry injured his Achilles’ tendon midway through last season, and the Redskins had to place him on injured reserves late in the year. Nearly eight months have passed and coaches are still wary about letting him go full speed. Shanahan said the lockout certainly didn’t help matters. Landry, like all players, was barred from the team facility and unable to meet with trainers and rehab under their watchful eyes. So the Redskins now have to monitor Landry closely these first few days of camp.

“Any time a guy has an Achilles’ [injury] and he’s not able to go through rehab with your organization, you feel like there is going to be a setback,” Shanahan said.

For now, Landry is listed on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list, which means he’s attending practice but not able to participate in all the drills with his teammates.

“I feel healthy,” he said, “but like I say, taking it a day at a time, making positive strides and look forward to getting back on the field.”

There doesn’t seem to be a specific timeline in place for Landry. The team has already waited eight months for the Achilles’ to heal, so it’s not clear when he’ll finally get the green light.

“I’m not worried about LaRon,” Haslett said. “LaRon would do anything to play football.”

Though players aren’t expected to put on pads for several more days and have only limited physically contact, Landry isn’t the only injury concern. Linebacker Robert Henson and safety Kareem Moore are both recovering from knee surgeries and are on the PUP list. And rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan had to sit out Saturday morning’s practice after suffering a bone bruise on the first day of camp.

Kerrigan, the team’s first-round pick out of Purdue, said he felt better Saturday morning but wasn’t certain when he’d return to practicing with his teammates.

“We’re just going to take it day by day and see how I respond,” Kerrigan said.

Because of the lockout, Kerrigan didn’t have the benefit of offseason workouts or minicamps to learn the defense. Compounding matters, he’s moving from defensive end to linebacker, so he must learn a new position in just a few weeks. Every practice in camp is important and coaches are eager to see him going full speed.

“Hopefully, it won’t be long before he can get back and practice,” Shanahan said. “But you’ve got a bone bruise. When you got a bone bruise, you have to wait for it to heal. Will it be one or two days? Will it be five days? I don’t know.”

 
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