Redskins' Taylor Put On the Hits Sunday

Planting Brad Hoover in the turf on this play, Sean Taylor's six-tackle, one-interception performance earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors.
Planting Brad Hoover in the turf on this play, Sean Taylor's six-tackle, one-interception performance earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

When the Washington Redskins drafted Sean Taylor fifth overall in 2004, they envisioned afternoons like Sunday. Taylor would help stifle the run, hit like a linebacker, bruise receivers and track down long passes for interceptions. On Sunday, Taylor did all of that in a 17-13 victory over Carolina, but it was the highlight of an otherwise pedestrian season.

Taylor struggled along with the entire defense, languishing in coverage, racking up personal fouls and seemingly being out of sorts at times as the Redskins won only three of their first 10 games. On Sunday, he seemed at ease, dancing along with the rest of the players during timeouts and working with new starting safety Vernon Fox, who was filling in for injured Troy Vincent. With about two minutes to play, Taylor made a swooping, one-on-one tackle on wide receiver Drew Carter, driving him to the ground two yards shy of the marker on fourth down. When the Panthers drove again a minute later, Taylor read quarterback Jake Delhomme's long pass and intercepted it in the end zone to cement the victory.

"That game was testament to him as a player, his all-around tackling and going after the ball," Fox said. "You got to see every facet of his game Sunday, and we're just hoping that as the weeks continue to progress you'll see more of that. He's a great player, and when he's clicking on all cylinders you get to see those types of performances."

Taylor, who, teammates say, can be difficult to get to know, politely declined to comment for this story yesterday when his six-tackle, one-interception performance earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors.

Coach Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, have been lauding Taylor all season ("Sean's play has been a bright spot for us," Gibbs said) and they did so again Sunday. It was without a doubt Taylor's best game, including the Dallas game, when his return of a blocked field goal attempt set up the game-winning field goal. Against Carolina, there were no missed tackles on critical plays. Instead, he was focused throughout, reacted well to the ball in flight and did not get turned around or pursue poor angles to the ballcarrier.

"As a team we had high expectations and we're still trying to get where we want to be," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "I wouldn't say that's all Sean. He's missed some tackles, but he's made more tackles than he ever has in his career."

Redskins safeties did not have an interception before Sunday -- Fox picked off Delhomme on an overthrown ball in the first quarter as well -- and the team had yielded more passes of 20 or more yards than any other team through 11 weeks. The Panthers have perhaps the best offensive weapon in football in wide receiver Steve Smith, but did not complete a pass of 20 yards Sunday, a first for the Redskins' defense this season.

In planning for the Panthers game last week, Williams and his staff decided for the first time this season to have the cornerbacks play man-to-man coverage instead of employing more zone defenses, like the cover two. Nothing else within their previous approach changed, but the defensive linemen finally mustered a pass rush, making Delhomme uncomfortable.

Top corner Shawn Springs, finally fully healthy after a sport hernia, had an outstanding game shadowing Smith, and Carlos Rogers stopped Keyshawn Johnson; the Panthers' wideouts were not allowed to get directly into their routes, with the corners instructed to jam them at the line.

"Nothing [schematically] changed from the previous weeks except we matched up," Jackson said. "When we execute, we do well. When we don't, we won't."

The cornerbacks "got their hands on the receivers, which makes it lot easier for the safeties on the back end," Vincent said. "Now you can read the quarterback and make some plays on the ball." The coaches have been pleading with the safeties not to bite on pump fakes and stop-and-go moves, and Sunday they adhered. The safeties remained deep throughout the game, doing whatever possible to keep Smith in front of them.

"The plan was to not give up those big plays," Fox said. "It's something we allowed to happen in previous weeks, and at some point you've got to stop the bleeding, change it and make it different for us. That's the first time we've been able to do it on a consistent basis, so we saw the results. So if that's what we've got to do -- stay back and play over the top -- then that's what we have to do."

Taylor was stumbling when paired with high-priced free agent bust Adam Archuleta in the first half of the season, and on Nov. 5 Vincent (and now Fox with him ailing) took Archuleta's starting job.

On Nov. 19, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran many of the same plays that they used in Washington's 2005 playoff victory, sources said, yet produced nearly 400 yards of offense in a 20-17 victory with rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski behind center. The secondary became the focal point for many critics.

"People never look at all of the breakdowns or another person not getting there," Rogers said. "They always see Carlos not covering his man or Sean didn't get to his man, and so we talk about it and we sit down and watch things on it. But we continue to play ball and not worry about what people say."

But Sunday, the secondary had its best game. Vincent and Fox are better in pass coverage than Archuleta and their diverse skill sets have helped, players said privately. Fox and Vincent said they both feel they are beginning to get closer to Taylor and learn what makes him tick.

"I can see in the last month our communication getting better," Vincent said. Everyone on the team cautions that Taylor remains a work in progress, and Vincent, a former perennial all-pro, said that while he is not in a class with Ed Reed (Baltimore) or Brian Dawkins (Philadelphia), one day he may be.

"Not today," Vincent said of those comparisons. "He has the potential to be better [than them], but it takes time."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company