By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007
In three years under Gregg Williams, the Washington Redskins' defense was characterized by its numerous personnel packages and intricate schemes. Williams required his players to master responses to the opposing offense's every move, even as they carried out a series of pre-snap movements to conceal where the defensive pressure would be coming from.
In 2004 and 2005, the Redskins' defenders and their coach were completely in sync and became one of the fiercest units in the NFL. But as the unit's collapse last year revealed, the precision and choreography demanded by Williams could be undermined by a single misstep by one player.
As the team began a three-day minicamp at Redskins Park yesterday, there was a new buzzword for the defense: simplicity.
Williams's system has been pared down for 2007, players say, still emphasizing the principles of speed, aggressiveness and discipline but relying more on individual talent than collective obedience. There are fewer schemes for players to memorize and more alignments are designed to accentuate key players' strengths. There will be less of a burden on Williams and his staff to out-scheme the opposing offense every week.
"We've definitely simplified things," said linebacker Marcus Washington, one of the players who could benefit most from the changes. "And I think that was Gregg looking at us last year, all of us in it together, and nobody likes to be at the bottom, especially when we're used to being at the top.
"That was Gregg being the sharp mental guy he is, and being smart about it, saying, 'I'm just going to let these guys play. We have some talent here, and when I put them in the right position, I'm going to let them play and sit back.' And that's what we're going to do."
Williams, who declined to comment for this story, told players this offseason that he plans to get his best players to the point of attack as much as possible and give them more freedom, they said. Williams is using more traditional five- and six-defensive back formations in passing downs. The addition of linebacker London Fletcher and cornerbacks Fred Smoot and David Macklin through free agency, and the selection of safety LaRon Landry with the sixth overall pick in the draft in April is expected to provide a major boost as well.
"You've got to have the right balance between players and scheme, and you've got to have the right players to make the scheme work," lineman Renaldo Wynn said. "We saw examples of that last year -- without mentioning any names -- when we brought in different guys and they just didn't fit our scheme. If you've got the players and the scheme, it can be successful as you saw our first two years. Now, with Gregg simplifying it makes it even better, and guys can be even more aggressive and not have to think as much."
The area that bore the brunt of criticism last year -- the defensive line -- was surprisingly the position impacted the least through offseason player acquisitions. Despite a porous interior against the run and an inept pass rush, the Redskins made no significant changes to the roster at tackle or end.
During season-ending meetings with the linemen, the coaches expressed confidence in them, players said, and told them that they would have more chances to get after the quarterback this season.
Williams gave the linemen less pass-rushing support from safeties and corners than usual in 2006 -- the lack of talent at those positions was a huge factor in that decision -- and opposing quarterbacks enjoyed too much time to pass the ball. With Fletcher, a stalwart on Williams's defense when both were with the Buffalo Bills, anchoring the interior as middle linebacker now, the Redskins believe they will be more stout against the run. Also, Williams is more willing to overload the line of scrimmage to stop the run, players said. Concerns about the woeful secondary prevented that last year.
Starting end Phillip Daniels anticipates playing inside much more this season to help against the run. "That gives Gregg the opportunity to put more speed on the field" outside, he said. Tackle Cornelius Griffin, by far the Redskins' most accomplished lineman, is healthy after playing last year with a surgically repaired shoulder and significant knee injury.
Griffin is being used as what in football parlance is called a three-technique, players said, giving him more opportunities to rush the passer. A three-technique player lines up opposite the outside shoulder of the offensive guard and is charged with disrupting the offensive pocket by attacking the line and getting into the backfield. Tommie Harris played that role for the NFC champion Chicago Bears last season, players said. The Redskins defense will adopt many of the Bears' tactics this year.
"It's a little more aggressive. There's a little more freedom," Griffin said.
Williams also has been calling more all-out blitzes and four-man rushes, players said. "Now I know I can feed off a guy like Griffin, because I know now he's going to be trying to penetrate that gap," said defensive end Andre Carter, who struggled in his first season in Washington. "So that'll give me a two-way go and we'll both come out smoking. This year they really want to rely on our talent on the front four itself."
Marcus Washington, the Redskins' best linebacker since joining the team in 2006, will have an expanded role. He's preparing to play as a rush end, with his hand down, on many passing downs and is expected to be used much less in pass coverage.
"Putting my hand on the ground, I hadn't done it in awhile," Washington said. "But [defensive line] coach Greg Blache and the rest of the defensive line, they've been helping me through it and it's something I'm excited to do."
The Redskins expect to have two new starting linebackers, Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh, who the team says has had a superior offseason and finally has a firm grip on the defense after a difficult rookie season. McIntosh, with good speed, will be used to cover tight ends and running backs downfield, players said. Fletcher also excels at pass coverage, which will allow the Redskins to toggle between him and McIntosh, leaving offenses wondering which linebacker will be dropping back on passing plays.
The biggest change for the defense will be in the defensive backfield, where coaches are hoping for a dramatic improvement.
Lacking confidence in the unit last season, Williams was not as aggressive rushing the quarterback, players and coaches said, and relied on what's known as a cover-2 zone defense -- with the two safeties playing deep and the cornerbacks conceding yardage to receivers at the line of scrimmage. The Redskins expect to use significantly more man-to-man coverage in 2007 -- with their corners no longer stationed five yards back but jamming receivers at the line. The cover-2 has been relegated to only some passing situations.
"With the changes we made, teams are going to look at the film of us from last year and try to pick up things, and it's totally different now," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, whose play regressed last year after a solid rookie season. "We're doing a lot of pressing, a lot of things where we can get in on that receiver and Gregg's making things a lot simpler for us. I really like what we're doing, but at the same time we've got to step up, because they could tear our corners up, too, always being out there by yourself."
The Redskins also are using what is called a cover-1 alignment, with safety Sean Taylor the lone man back, playing the football equivalent of center field. The coaches want to find a way to get Taylor, a natural ballhawk who has just three interceptions the last two years, to the ball more often. Landry, the No. 1 draft pick, has the size and tenacity to play close to the line of scrimmage to rush quarterbacks and help on run defense, similar to how Chicago uses safety Mike Brown.
The Redskins are using the designation of free safety for Taylor and strong safety for Landry, and the team feels that their athletic ability will allow them to cover as much ground as any safety duo in the league. Taylor's size makes him suited to playing in close to the line as well, which can keep opponents guessing.
"I would like to put Sean Taylor in a position to go and get the ball," Williams said during rookie camp. "I think LaRon is going to help us do that."