By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006
One series Sunday afternoon exposed every weakness in the Washington Redskins' secondary. All of the lingering problems ailing the defensive backs -- poor coverage, miscommunication, sloppy tackling -- were on display in one four-play, 82-yard, fourth-quarter drive, and the failures of the cornerbacks and safeties nearly undermined Washington's eventual overtime win.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were the latest team to feast on Washington's downfield errors, and those struggles have become the primary concern for the defense ahead of Sunday's game in New York. The Giants (1-2) have a plethora of talented targets for quarterback Eli Manning, while the Redskins (2-2) are preparing for yet another game without top cornerback Shawn Springs and seeking to cover up for this vulnerability.
"You've got to be able to keep them from getting big chunks thrown on you," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I'd say that's one thing our defense is focused on."
Jacksonville produced six passes of 20 yards or longer -- an unacceptable figure for any defense much less one with the Redskins' pedigree -- and even when Washington knew the Jaguars were reduced to essentially passing on every play to get back into the game (they had just six rushes in the second half), it could do little to stop the attack. The Redskins led by 10 points with about 12 minutes to play when quarterback Byron Leftwich plundered the defense's most glaring weak spot -- directly over the middle -- on the first play of the possession.
Wide receiver Reggie Williams split cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Adam Archuleta for an immediate 47-yard gain. Leftwich was sacked, then tossed a screen pass that rookie tight end Marcedes Lewis carried for 31 yards, with no Redskin in sight. On the next play Williams again went over the middle, nestling between corner Kenny Wright and safety Sean Taylor for a 21-yard touchdown despite having his helmet dislodged by Taylor's hit. The drive took just 2 minutes 4 seconds off the clock and set the stage for overtime. Jacksonville scored 30 points despite rushing just 15 times for 33 yards.
The Redskins have allowed 17 passes of 20 yards or more through four games -- tied for second-worst in the league -- and have been picked apart on deep passes since preseason.
"We've got to do a better job of playing together," said Springs, who could be out several more weeks. "With all the new guys, we've got to do a better job of not worrying so much about what the other team is doing, and do a better job of knowing what our assignment is. The new guys have got to get all on the same page and the whole secondary has to play as one. That's the reason those big plays are there."
Journeymen Wright, Mike Rumph and Vernon Fox have been thrust into bigger roles than expected because of injuries to Springs and nickel back Pierson Prioleau, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff of the season. Archuleta, a free agent signed in March to the most lucrative contract given to a safety in NFL history, has languished in many aspects of play. Rogers, a second-year cornerback, has been victimized in Springs's absence (groin and abdominal problems have sidelined Springs since the preseason opener), and Taylor, in his third season, is still trying to cultivate the kind of chemistry with Archuleta that appeared to be second nature with former partner Ryan Clark, who departed via free agency.
"Our new guys are still getting indoctrinated into the way we play, and it's showing out there on the field," safeties coach Steve Jackson said.
The Redskins, ranked 26th in passing yards allowed per game, have allowed five touchdowns of 20 yards or longer -- that number would be even higher if not for dropped passes and pass interference penalties -- and opponents are showing no mercy. Minnesota's Troy Williamson caught a 46-yard pass on the first series of the season, and Terry Glenn's 34-yard catch set up Dallas's first-quarter touchdown in Week 2. Houston's Andre Johnson caught a 53-yard bomb over the middle on the first drive of Week 3 and Williams scored a 33-yard touchdown about 11 minutes into Sunday's game.
"It's just the little things that we do," Wright said. "It's like we're giving them plays. The only thing we can do is just keep on plugging away at it, come out, work on our technique, work on our communication and just getting guys where we need them to be in certain spots."
Wright and Rogers -- the starting corners -- have been talking about refining the "little things" since training camp, but the progress of all involved in pass coverage, including the linebackers, has been slow. Receivers are granted too substantial a cushion, safeties are in the wrong spot or late arriving, and the tackling of all involved has been far too erratic.
"You look at most big plays in the league," Jackson said, "and there's either a missed tackle or somebody turned down a tackle."
Washington's limp pass rush had been hampering the coverage, too, but Sunday the defensive front established regular pressure and sacked Leftwich four times (the Redskins had three sacks total in the first three games). Yet the secondary had its worst game.
Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, regularly deployed Archuleta near the line of scrimmage for the first time Sunday, trying to play to his strengths on the blitz, but that tactic produced mixed results. Archuleta posted his first sack as a Redskin but was easily picked up before getting close to Leftwich several other times, including on Williams's fourth-quarter score and Maurice Jones-Drew's 51-yard touchdown reception, which was littered with blown tackles by linebacker Lemar Marshall, Rogers and Rumph.
"I feel like every time I'm sent [on the blitz] I should affect the play," Archuleta said. "That's my mentality. When I'm blitzing, other guys have to cover, and their butts are on the line. So that's my responsibility."
Through four games, there has been enough blame and responsibility to go around.