Trying To Get Back to Basics

Redskins' James Thrash makes a 20-yard reception on Aug. 19, then draws a face-mask penalty from the Jets' Justin Miller to set up a second-quarter TD.
Redskins' James Thrash makes a 20-yard reception on Aug. 19, then draws a face-mask penalty from the Jets' Justin Miller to set up a second-quarter TD. (By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

As they headed for their first practices of the week, assorted Washington Redskins players recalled the film sessions of their 41-0 shutout at the hands of the New England Patriots with looks that ranged from complete dread to anger to embarrassment.

If it wasn't middle linebacker Lemar Marshall reflecting through clenched teeth on how Patriots tight end Ben Watson danced between the hash marks as if he were on a Sunday stroll, catching passes without taking a single punishing hit, it was defensive end Renaldo Wynn, his expression quizzical, his palms facing upward, rendered speechless that the Patriots shredded the Redskins' vaunted first-team defense for 228 first-half yards and that quarterback Tom Brady didn't take a sack and barely a solid hit for nearly three quarters.

The Redskins say they have not unveiled their regular season game plan on either side of the ball; individual stars have not run their signature routes, and as a whole the offense has not utilized the multiple shifting and formation variations that are a trademark of the offense of associate head coach-offense Al Saunders. Defensively, the Redskins have attacked, assistant coach-defense Gregg Williams said, but without the complexity and game-day detail reserved for the regular season.

The coaches instead say they stress the basics -- tackling, technique, positioning and competition -- over the dynamics of their schemes. But in preseason games, it is in those fundamental areas where the Redskins appear to have been the most deficient. Losing these individual confrontations -- what the players call mano a mano battles in which toughness wins out -- seem to be more of a concern to the players than to the coaches.

"Right now, we're at the point where we're not doing the little things, and those are the things that amount to the big things," defensive tackle Joe Salave'a said. "There's a reason why we like to be basic. Before you can take the next step in terms of scheme and game plan, you have to be fundamentally sound. You can compete all you want, but if you don't have the basics down, the fundamentals, you won't be able to crack the win column, and we haven't gelled yet as a team."

Williams said he wanted to watch his team compete and tackle, but in the last two losses it has been beaten at the point of attack by the Jets -- who had the ball for 12 minutes in the third quarter -- and in the open field by the Patriots' Watson, who burned them for 97 yards on eight catches.

Williams said the tackling has been passable, and that the top defensive players hadn't suffered the types of breakdowns that have marred the preseason, adding that the big plays that have negatively skewed the numbers were all given up by players who, in Williams's words, "won't be on our team anyway."

"Our tackling hasn't been too bad. It's never going to be good if you have one missed tackle, but we monitor what we call YAC -- yards after contact -- and my first year here, I almost gagged," he said. "The first two games it was almost 150 yards YAC, and now, we've never approached the 70-yard mark. You give up one big play for 35 yards and it gets tacked on against a guy that won't be on our team anyway."

But Williams's best players have been beaten. On the Jets' first possession of the second quarter on Aug. 19, wide receiver Brad Smith took an end-around 61 yards for a touchdown against the Redskins' starting defense. Smith blew past Wynn, cornerback Mike Rumph and safety Adam Archuleta.

On Saturday, New England produced one play of 24 yards, three of 35 or more, and nine of 10 yards or more -- all against Williams's first team. Carlos Rogers, Sean Taylor, Archuleta, Lemar Marshall, Marcus Washington, and Pierson Prioleau -- all top players on Williams's defense with no danger of being cut -- were credited with the tackles on those game-breaking plays.

On several occasions, the Redskins' offensive line was confused when the Patriots used stunts in their pass rush. This was true on the strong side, where tight end Christian Fauria was deficient in his blocks, and on the weak, where linebackers Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin beat right tackle Jon Jansen and right guard Randy Thomas for sacks.

"Everyone gets paid to play this game and play it hard," Thomas said. "They brought some things that messed us up."

Afterward, Coach Joe Gibbs and the players expressed disappointment in how the Patriots' defense exploited miscommunication on the offensive line, resulting in three sacks of quarterback Mark Brunell.

"You have to have a sense of urgency. For most of the game, at least in the first half, it was starters on starters and they pretty much handed it to us," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "And there's no other way to look at it than that. The good thing about it is that there's time to get it fixed."

The same is true for special teams, which suffered big-play lapses against the Bengals and the Jets. In those games, the Redskins used young, unproven players.

But against the Patriots, the Redskins used a regular season caliber special teams unit -- two starters, Taylor and Rumph as well as special teams stalwarts James Thrash and Prioleau -- and still opened the game by giving up a 36-yard kickoff return to rookie Laurence Maroney. The punting game also declined Saturday. The Redskins signed punter Eddie Johnson yesterday afternoon to compete against Derrick Frost but cut him later in the day.

But perhaps the most telling image came yesterday from Salave'a, all 6 feet 3, 317 pounds of him, sitting in a tub filled with water and ice and convinced that, even without game-day planning, the Redskins are not yet executing or competing to an adequate degree.

"The pride is hurt right now. It took a lot of gulps to find my composure after [Saturday's] game," he said. "It hurt watching the film because we did it to ourselves. It has to happen now for us because there's no time once the season starts to fix it."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company