By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Gregg Williams pulled into Redskins Park around 9 a.m. Sunday, barely five hours after Washington's assistant head coach-defense arrived home from a preseason game at Tennessee. The players were off, and most were still in bed, but Rocky McIntosh's car was already in the lot, with the linebacker beating even his coaches to work.
Williams's staff had not begun to review the game film, but McIntosh was already watching tape, critiquing himself, eager for feedback. The extra session was an extension of McIntosh's offseason, in which he spent more time at Redskins Park studying, inquiring and working out than any player save for quarterback Jason Campbell. A year after being essentially left behind -- getting selected in the second round of the draft but starting only in the final two games -- McIntosh, 24, is determined to have a better season.
He has largely overcome deficiencies in his knowledge of defensive schemes and his pass-coverage abilities, and his grasp of the starting weak-side linebacker position is firm. His mind is catching up to his body, as evidenced by a strong performance against the Titans on Saturday, and it was all captured on film.
"He was excellent. He really graded out very well," Williams said. "He snapped the linemen's heads back, he snapped the fullback's head back. He ran to the football. Not only did he strike the blocks when he had to, but he was able to make plays on the ballcarrier when he had to as well.
"There was an offensive tackle that came out and just cut Rocky; he hit the ground and got right back up like lightning, just like our up-down drills, fighting, and hit the ballcarrier for a no-gain. I wish I could say I coached that, but it has nothing to do with me. That's all Rocky."
Attacking the football and delivering crunching hits came naturally to McIntosh at the University of Miami, but making his way in the NFL has been a chore. Williams's defensive system was more complex than any he'd seen before.
Last year's linebackers coach, Dale Lindsey, did not believe McIntosh was ready to play beyond special teams. Even in the final two games a year ago, when McIntosh started, he was feeling his way, able to use his explosiveness on one play but appearing puzzled the next.
McIntosh's teammates could sense his unease. While he honed his tackling skills and understanding of the game as a key member of special teams, McIntosh's stunted development overall was a source of consternation. Learning to read and react to offenses and drop back in pass coverage was all trial and error and his practice sessions were often shaky.
That's no longer the case. Teammates say McIntosh has taken to new linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who is less gruff and more forgiving than Lindsey. And through long hours and dedication McIntosh has earned the respect and admiration of his coaches and peers. Williams also scaled back his system and curtailed the number of personnel packages after last season, wanting to free players like McIntosh to play with more abandon and aggression.
"Last year the wheels were turning so fast," said McIntosh, a soft-spoken, well-mannered native of Gaffney, S.C. "This year, they're turning a little bit slower because I put in more time towards it."
Said Williams, "I really appreciate his energy and urgency of wanting to improve, because I think he has a chance to be really good."
McIntosh has advanced to the point where he can take some tight end pass-coverage responsibilities from fellow linebacker Marcus Washington, Williams said.
"Rocky knows all the plays now and knows all of his adjustments," veteran linebacker Khary Campbell said. "What I notice now is when a play is called and he breaks the huddle, he's already on his checks and his assignments and adjustments right off the bat with no hesitation. . . . Now, it's like no wasted movement, no scrambling around, and he's just ready to come downhill."
Simple repetition means that McIntosh processes information much more quickly.
"He looks more comfortable, and he's more relaxed now," Washington said. "You have a sense that he really knows what he's doing, and of course that makes him faster, and you see his athletic ability now, because he knows what going, on and he's using his God-given ability now."
That's not to say all hurdles have been overcome. In terms of playing time, McIntosh is essentially still a rookie with much to learn.
In the Redskins' scrimmage with Baltimore on Aug. 4, for instance, he gave a "check," or personnel indication, that was actually the responsibility of middle linebacker London Fletcher. McIntosh then got tangled up in coverage of Ravens Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap and failed to tackle him, allowing for a big gain down the middle of the field.
"Oh boy, did I hear about that one," said McIntosh, who has absorbed his fair share of verbal abuse in his brief career.
Williams paid special attention to determine if the problems recurred in Tennessee. At this point, the results came as no surprise. "We didn't see them rise up again," Williams said. "He's correcting them."