By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Many Washington Redskins still flash back to 2004, a time when no running back wanted to face their defense, opposing quarterbacks feared them and Gregg Williams, the group's mental, physical and inspirational beacon as assistant head coach, had the uncanny ability to coax a career year out of seemingly his entire roster and befuddle opponents with his aggressive scheme.
For them, remembering those days only makes the current plight of the defense more depressing -- it ranks 26th in yards allowed per game midway through this season, 30th against the pass and 15th against the run, and has few identifiable strengths. Williams, whose results were beyond reproach in his first two seasons in Washington, suddenly is under pressure to correct widespread deficiencies on his side of the 2-5 team. His no-name defense of overachievers now is littered with under-performing players who routinely fail to tackle or cover adequately and who have been given a refresher in defensive basics leading up to Sunday's meeting with rival Dallas.
"I think we've got quite a bit over there to work on," Coach Joe Gibbs said.
Washington's fundamental breakdowns have been shocking. Players lose assignments and receivers roam free downfield. Running backs break tackles too easily, and defenders take poor angles or dive wildly in attempts to bring down the ballcarrier. Penalties cripple momentum. The Redskins falter repeatedly on third down, even third and long. There appears to be little chemistry between the various positions, and players have spoken repeatedly about the lack of cohesion and communication on defense.
The Redskins have allowed 30 passes of 20 yards or more, the second most in the NFL and only four fewer than the entire 2004 season. Opposing quarterbacks have a 14-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- second-best in the NFL -- and a 101.4 passer rating, fourth worst of any defense and more than 30 points higher than last season. Washington has allowed 110 points in the past four games, and the top tailbacks for its last three opponents (Joseph Addai, Travis Henry and Tiki Barber) rushed 66 times for 386 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry.
"I don't know what to say, man," said starting cornerback Shawn Springs, who signed with the team as a free agent in 2004. "We've just got to perform. I think guys just have got to step their games up and play. I don't know what else to say."
The defense has taken a precipitous fall from the swagger it unexpectedly developed in 2004. That unit came in with few proven impact players and one real star, linebacker LaVar Arrington, who got hurt in Week 1 and never made an impact again before leaving this past offseason. During the preseason, Williams was pestered about the talent level, about the nondescript nature of his line and how difficult it would be to restore a punishing defense.
Yet the Redskins dominated Tampa Bay's offense in their first game that year and never looked back. They allowed an NFL-best 3.1 yards per carry, harassed opposing quarterbacks (17 passing touchdowns to 18 interceptions) and ranked third overall in yards allowed (best in the NFC).
After the 2004 season, Williams was willing to let starting cornerback Fred Smoot and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce leave via free agency -- the loss of Pierce may be the single most crushing blow to this season's defense -- and after a slow start the Redskins became known for sacks and causing turnovers in the second half of the 2005 season, keying a five-game run to the playoffs.
They ended up ranked ninth overall in yards allowed, and although the unit gave up many more big plays by the pass or run in 2005, it exhibited a bend-but-don't-break mentality. Washington allowed more than 20 points in just one of its final nine games (including the postseason), with largely the same nucleus as the season before.
Williams was expected to maximize free agent signees Andre Carter and Adam Archuleta in 2006, but instead of the defense reaching new heights, the Redskins rank last overall in sacks per pass play and are tied for last with five forced turnovers.
The reversal has some around the league questioning the talent level of the defense and wondering how quickly Williams, the highest-paid assistant in the NFL, can reverse the trend.
"On defense, the book on them had been, 'How in the world has Williams done it?' " one longtime general manager said. "They were overachievers. They were aggressive and they played as one and they flew to the football. They just don't look the same now and I can't entirely put my finger on it. They just look a half-step slow on things, and some of the depth guys they brought in just are not good enough. They just don't seem to have that extra step. Maybe their overall ability has caught up with them."
A longtime NFL general manager and a personnel executive from another team who assessed the Redskins' defense came to similar conclusions. The defensive line is aging and beat-up and -- except for tackle Cornelius Griffin, who has been injured parts of the last two seasons -- lacks individual talent. Linebacker Marcus Washington remains a potential playmaker, but teams prefer to avoid him and attack the opposite side of the defense. Lemar Marshall is not playing to Pierce's level since being moved to middle linebacker, and weak-side linebacker Warrick Holdman appears to be nearing the end of his career, they said. Springs's injuries to start the season hurt the secondary immeasurably, but the pairing of Archuleta and safety Sean Taylor has not worked out for either player and cornerback Carlos Rogers, the ninth overall pick in 2005, has been erratic.
Both league sources said they were surprised that rookie linebacker Rocky McIntosh -- the Redskins traded a 2007 second-round pick to move up in the draft and select him -- had not played at least somewhat regularly, given what Washington dealt to get him and the fact Holdman was struggling. Archuleta and Carter have stumbled weekly, and the sources also questioned the youth and depth of the roster, with few recent defensive draft picks filling in solidly as reserves.
Williams, whose gruff nature set a tone for his defense, has sounded a consistent note after most losses. Where in 2004 he routinely credited defensive line coach Greg Blache and linebackers coach Dale Lindsey for the development of unheralded players, this season he has spoken frequently about the lack of execution from his players. Williams said he needs to be better at timing and disguising his blitzes, but has cited the repeated missed tackles, mental errors and general mishaps of his players as the most glaring deficiencies.
Against the run, the Redskins generate almost no penetration from their front seven, and rookies Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery were thrust into the tackle rotation because of injuries. Carter and Holdman frequently are targeted by opposing runners, and the linebackers have not been as active around the line of scrimmage as in the past. As opponents complete long passes with frequency, things open up for the run.
"We aren't aggressive at the point of attack," tackle Joe Salave'a said. "We're putting ourselves in a situation where the offense is dictating to us what they want to do. I think the game plans are simple, it's just playing-wise we're not at the level we were at two years ago where we knew exactly where we needed to be and it was just a matter of cutting it loose.
"Now a couple of things are negating our aggressiveness, and we can't do that. That's not us. Despite if we are short of players or have young guys playing or whatever, we still have to go out and perform and we haven't done that."
Against the pass, the Redskins fail to put sustained pressure on quarterbacks. The slumping and injured defensive backs rarely have been used on the blitz and passers have far too long to operate. In essence, the Redskins have made every quarterback they have faced look like Peyton Manning; only he has a better passer rating (108) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-2) among all individual quarterbacks than the collective numbers put up against Washington.
The six quarterbacks the Redskins played other than Peyton Manning have a 94.05 rating against Washington and a 76.59 rating against the rest of the NFL. A 94.05 rating would be seventh best in the league right now, and a 76.59 rating would be 24th. Quarterbacks are thriving at the Redskins' expense.
"It's always like a different guy's not doing his job, and they seem to exploit that one guy every time," end Phillip Daniels said. "I think it's an issue of being where we're supposed to be, and being accountable."