By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
After suffering his worst year in Washington, a year in which the Redskins finished 31st in the NFL in total defense, 23rd against the pass and 27th against the run, it would have been easy for assistant head coach Gregg Williams to overhaul the defense. The questions were too apparent to ignore.
But Williams resisted whatever temptation may have existed to rebuild from scratch. His reasoning has been consistent since the end of last season: He and Coach Joe Gibbs believe that last year's inability to make plays was an aberration, one of those years when players were in the right spots, had chances to become playmakers, and simply did not.
The result is a defensive unit that this year desires to vindicate the faith Williams has shown in the group. Nearly half of the regular players on the defense were brought to Washington by Williams in his first two seasons or have a prior relationship with him in Buffalo or Tennessee.
"I know I've got a lot to prove," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "After the year we had last year, you don't want people to think this is what you are. The more guys who play like they have something to prove, the better."
The defensive line produced 13 sacks, which could have been construed as proof that it could no longer be the game-changing force it had been in 2004, when the Redskins were a top five defense, and 2005, when the Redskins ranked in the top 10 in total defense and made the playoffs.
The argument could have been made that they were old and battered and that while Williams had squeezed strong performances out of a gallant group, last year proved it was time to move on.
The linebackers, because of injury and ineffectiveness, did not produce big plays, and the weak side -- where former Redskin Warrick Holdman played last year -- was weak against the run.
The defensive backs were beaten down the sidelines in man-to-man coverage and throughout the seams in zone situations. Only New Orleans gave up more pass plays of 40 yards or more than the 15 given up by the Redskins, and the Redskins yielded an NFL-worst 55 passes of 20 yards or more. Some of the trouble could have been attributable to a weakened pass rush, and some of it to a lack of playmakers in the defensive backfield.
During the offseason, the Redskins adjusted, but did not overhaul. They replaced safety Adam Archuleta with LSU safety LaRon Landry, who yesterday agreed to a five-year contract with $17.5 million in guaranteed money. They replaced Lemar Marshall at middle linebacker with London Fletcher, another Williams protege from when he coached in Buffalo. Williams left the defensive line intact.
In other places, Williams added Fred Smoot, who is returning to Washington from Minnesota, as a nickel cornerback, and Omar Stoutmire at safety. He signed former Arizona cornerback David Macklin. Holdman is gone, and Rocky McIntosh, the second-round draft pick the Redskins traded for in the 2006 draft, is the starting weak-side linebacker.
For his part, Williams seems rejuvenated. He now sports more of a crew cut and lost considerable weight in the offseason -- he estimates 25 pounds.
"We've got a lot to prove. We've got to prove ourselves again. I think that I'm a better coach when we're in that fashion, with a chip on our shoulders," he said. "Nobody should be feeling good about last year. I'm certainly not feeling good about last year. We've got a bitter taste in our mouths."
Williams strives to return to a defense that changes the course of a game. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray refers to Williams's defensive approach this season as a return to his aggressive roots.
"Gregg is trying to get back to what he knows, the same thing he did in Tennessee, the same thing he did in Buffalo," Gray said. "Last year, he had personnel issues. This year, instead of having personnel issues, he put guys out there who can go after it, and we'll see what happens."
In the offseason, the Redskins refocused on blitzing and pressuring the quarterback, which the defense did effectively in 2004 and 2005. Players have said they expect Williams to play more defenses that allow the strong safety -- presumably Pierson Prioleau or Landry -- to line up closer to the line of scrimmage, as well as overload different sides of the field to create matchup problems for offenses.
"I think we're definitely going to go after it a lot more," said defensive end Andre Carter, who finished with six sacks -- four in his final five games -- to lead the team last season. "I think they're going to cut us loose more on the defensive line. That's what guys want, the responsibility to go get it done."
Williams said he expects more pressure from the line, especially from Carter, who starts his second year in Williams's system.
"When he got here, because he played so many different positions, he struggled with his footwork," Williams said. "He struggled with his hand placement. He struggled with the commitment of being a full-time defensive end again. . . . I really believe you're going to see a breakout year for him."
What Gray and Williams feel best about is their comfort level with leaving their cornerbacks exposed as they provide more pressure up front. Last season, the Redskins were not able to blitz as effectively because their depth and ability at cornerback was suspect. This year, with Shawn Springs and Smoot, and Carlos Rogers entering his third year, the coaches believe they can better trust their corners in one-on-one matchups.
"I don't think it's all personnel on the back end. It's the linebackers and the d-linemen understand that this guy is in a one-on-one situation, so they're saying to themselves, 'Let me get there faster,' " Gray said. "To me, Carlos took a big step last year because he spent a lot of time as the number one corner. He's past the growing stage and can play some real football. We need Shawn Springs healthy, and we'll have Fred Smoot. To me, we've got some good guys on the field. Let's see what kind of chemistry we have."