By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007
Whenever a football is wobbling along the ground during a practice drill, even if it's the result of an incomplete pass, Gregg Williams expects one of his defensive players to pounce on it. A dead ball is no impediment to the pursuit of takeaways for the Washington Redskins, not after last season.
The Redskins set a modern NFL record in 2006 by producing a scant 12 turnovers -- lowest ever in a 16-game season -- which had as much to do with their 5-11 record as anything else. The defense also set a franchise low with 19 sacks, and, while there is no established statistical formula to prove it, the club probably set some sort of mark for fewest big plays from a defense.
The Redskins did not score a defensive touchdown in 2006, and Williams's unit slipped from its perch in the top 10 to 31st, second worst in the NFL.
The Redskins have emphasized turnovers during practice throughout Coach Joe Gibbs's second tenure with the team, spending additional time on catching and tip drills for defensive players, running drills aimed at causing fumbles, and harping on the need to both protect and steal the football. Now, they are employing more extreme measures, expecting defensive players to treat even mundane drops, deflections and spikes as a live ball, and an opportunity to gain possession.
"Anytime the ball is on the ground in practice on an incomplete pass, we want to make them think that's a fumble," said Williams, assistant head coach-defense, "because we've got to get used to scooping and scoring. Anytime the ball is out there at all and we have a chance to take the ball as a defense, we've got to make that a habit. It's not that we weren't doing it last year, but we've got to create better luck for ourselves by the emphasis we place on it."
In one defensive drill, a ball is tossed in the air, a defender comes down with it and his teammates help create lanes for him to score. Each time a quarterback makes an errant throw in 11-on-11 drills, or a pass gets redirected, one can almost sense the eyes of the entire coaching staff boring into the nearest defender, waiting to unleash a verbal diatribe should he fail to make the interception.
After reviewing the film of every game during the offseason, the coaches determined that cornerback Carlos Rogers dropped 10 potential interceptions in which he got both hands on the ball. Linebacker Marcus Washington dropped half as many. Had either managed a competent rate of return on those opportunities, perhaps it would have been a different season.
"You've got to be able to have negative yardage plays -- not only sacks but takeaways, big plays," said Williams, who stood within earshot and peered intently as his linebackers worked through a receiving drill yesterday. "We've got to have big plays on defense to set up our offense. Our offense two years ago was the number one offense operating on a short field. We didn't give them any short fields [in 2006]. We've got to give them some short fields this year, and that's how we identified and set the style of play we're going to play."
To many players, the uncomfortable realities of last season do not seem possible. Twelve turnovers? All season? A five-game turnover drought? Seven total takeaways in the final 12 games? It was incomprehensible for a defense predicated on attacking the quarterback and swarming the football. Cornerback Shawn Springs took a ribbing all offseason from former Redskins cornerback Walt Harris, who was discarded by Washington then produced as many takeaways -- although two of his forced fumbles were recovered by the other team -- with the 49ers in 2006 as the entire Redskin defense. "We trained together in Arizona and I told him, 'Walt, whatever you're doing, I'm doing,' " Springs said. "I'm going to have a Walt Harris year."
"It was unfortunate, but it was real," said end Andre Carter, who was signed in 2006 to mount a sustained pass rush but did not come on until late in the season. "It's mind-boggling all the little things that could have given us an opportunity to win those close games we were in. Last year was very disappointing, but hey, 2007 is a new year, a new opportunity, and I'm hungry. I think we're all as hungry as ever."
Coaches and teammates believe Carter is primed for a breakthrough, finally comfortable in his new surroundings after a long free agent adjustment period. Williams plans to assault the quarterback with more four-man rushes this season, sources said, relieving linemen such as Carter of heavy run-stopping responsibilities at times. He is also committed to sending more defensive backs on the blitz, believing the team has more depth and is healthier in the secondary. Washington, one of the team's top playmakers, will line up on the outside more often as an end and the scheme is designed to free him of blocking ability and blitz on obvious passing downs.
The system was retooled with Washington, tackle Cornelius Griffin, safety Sean Taylor, new linebacker London Fletcher and Springs in mind. Griffin will be aligned to shoot the gap and pressure the pocket from the interior more with Fletcher, a stout middle linebacker, behind him. Taylor is being deployed more like a center fielder in a zone defense scheme, able to put his heavy hitting and ball-hawking tendencies to use.
"We're going to get more of a pass rush, you'll see," end Phillip Daniels said. "Gregg is a great coach and he does a lot of things to help us out up front, and this year he's done some things to let us get after it more and help us out. I feel confident of that."
Ultimately, it will be incumbent upon the players to make it work. After muffing a few early interceptions at the start of training camp, Taylor has been hauling them in routinely in team drills. Rogers said he still believes he has sure hands. He said it's just a matter of better concentration and focusing on making the catch before he worries about storming downfield and scoring a touchdown.
"It would have been a whole different season if I could have just caught half of the balls I dropped that hit my hands," Rogers said. "This year I need to get in that same position, and just catch the ball."