By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007
The first signature moment for the Washington Redskins' defense this season came from a rookie.
On a third-and-five play from the Washington 23-yard line in the preseason opener two weeks ago, safety LaRon Landry burst through the line on a blitz and drilled Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins in the backfield, forcing an errant throw that ended a Titans drive. It was the kind of aggressive play the Redskins' defense hopes to be known for this year.
Landry's appearance with the starting defense is notable, since Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach-defense, is known for burying younger players on the bench. Landry, the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft, is primed to be that rare rookie who starts immediately for the Redskins.
Williams and his assistants are intent on fostering a chemistry between Landry, 22, and fellow safety Sean Taylor, 24.
"He's a good player and everybody knows that," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "We're getting him in there to see where we are with him, where he is, what we need to work on, and things he's got to do get better."
Despite his ability to get to the passer and make plays, coaches have detected signs of Landry's inexperience during their review of film of the team's first two games. For now, though, they can live with that.
"He didn't have the best [film] grade of the group after the first game, and pretty close to the worst grade, but as a young guy you've got to expect that," Jackson said. "There are things he couldn't know, and things that you only learn with experience that he learned, little things you don't see on tape. You have to experience it for yourself, and that will make us better as a defense."
Landry has all the intangibles that Williams looks for in his stripped-down defensive system. The coaches would like to station him as close to the line of scrimmage as possible and use him to stop the run and the pass. That role allows Landry to concentrate on attacking the football, but he must also learn not to over-pursue, how to slide into position and what it takes to perform consistently.
Landry (6 feet, 213 pounds) has no choice but to check his ego, accept some verbal bludgeoning with a smile and heed the advice of veterans. None of that is a surprise to him. He came of age on LSU's national championship team playing for Nick Saban, another tough coach. Saban's defense mirrored the innovations of the pro game, giving Landry knowledge and experience to draw on. In college, there was no tolerance for making the same mistake twice. The same is true under Williams.
"He always feels there's something else he can learn, and when you tell him something he accepts it and goes out and corrects it," Jackson said. "You don't have to worry about it happening again. He learns from his mistakes; he's not a repeat-mistake offender."
After last week's game against Pittsburgh, there were again moments to savor as Landry plowed through blocks to get into the backfield, attacked the ball and showed the ferocity Williams likes to see. "That's why we brought him here," Jackson said.
Not that Landry didn't falter. "There were new mistakes," Jackson said. "Not a lot of mental mistakes. He's a little bit more behind everyone else, but he also has some gifts not a lot of other guys have."
Since signing with the Redskins, Landry has kept a low profile, with his biggest headlines involving an errant shot to his pelvic area in a team paintball outing that caused him to miss mini-camp. He prefers to let his play speak for him and acknowledges that he has a ways to go.
"Right now, each and every practice we've got a lot of things I need to work on, a lot of things I need to learn," Landry said. "There's a lot of veterans in the game, and I'm just a rookie and this is the preseason, not real NFL games, so I really haven't even stepped up to the plate yet. I know I've got a lot to learn, most definitely. It's more than just two or three things. I've got to work on my eye control, my technique, get in the playbook a little more, know what the linebackers are doing, know what the ends are doing. I've got a lot to learn."
As the strong safety, Landry is charged with helping set the secondary, identifying offensive tendencies and ensuring that he is in sync with Taylor. That's a lot to ask of a rookie, but Williams saw enough of Landry's assertiveness and leadership this offseason to entrust him with the role. "He is more than sharp enough, more than vocal enough," Williams said. "He has had to do that in his career, anyway. He was the guy that was looked upon to do that [make the calls], so he can surely handle it."
In the past, Williams's top draft choices with the Redskins have been away for parts of the offseason because of injuries, NCAA rules or other commitments. Landry, however, was a fixture at organized team activities and meetings. "He put himself in a position so that everyone felt comfortable around him," Williams said.
During weightlifting sessions, it became clear that Landry wasn't an average player fresh out of college. His upper body is heavily sculpted and his devil-may-care attitude rivals Taylor's. His immediate effort -- if not execution -- served him well.
"The scrimmage at Baltimore and the preseason game [at Tennessee] have caused his teammates to notice that the team plays better when he is in there," Williams said. "He has built trust in a lot of people."
The Redskins would love to see Landry have a season like that his brother, Dawan, had as a rookie for Baltimore last year: 48 tackles, 3 sacks and 5 interceptions -- one fewer interception than Washington's entire roster in 2006. LaRon says he has not reviewed his brother's stats, but speaks to him all the time and is excited to play against him Saturday night.
"Mainly he talks about focusing on getting into the playbook and learning the system and everything like that," Landry said. "Just recognizing formations. Mostly he said it's the mental aspect that's going to kill me. My physical ability is going to be there."
The immediate expectations for Landry are higher than those for his brother -- Dawan was selected 146th overall in 2006; LaRon was taken sixth -- but all of the hubbub about the NFL lifestyle, his $17.5 million in guaranteed payments and adjusting to the NFL game as a rookie has not rattled him. To Landry, it's still football -- albeit at a higher level -- and he's still being asked to make plays. His ambition was to start immediately and he is well on his way to accomplishing it.
"You spend a number six pick, ain't no time to let him [wait]," said cornerback Fred Smoot, who was not surprised by Landry's ascent. "He's not a quarterback. The quarterback's the one you've got to watch him mentally, probably let him sit down a year or two. A defensive player, you've got to throw him in the water and let him learn by himself."
Redskins Notes: Running back Clinton Portis (knee) said he is aiming to return for the regular season opener but did not seem to mind the prospect of missing the preseason. "September 9, that's the date we're shooting for right now," Portis said. . . .
With starting Jason Campbell (knee) likely to miss Saturday's game, rookie quarterback Jordan Palmer said he is cautiously optimistic about seeing his first action of the preseason.
Should Coach Joe Gibbs stick to his normal rotation, Mark Brunell would get the start in Campbell's place, as Todd Collins was the backup last week. . . .
Williams said that free agent linebacker Randall Godfrey, who signed Tuesday, could see limited work in the game but will be brought along slowly after missing camp. Reserve Khary Campbell has been working on the strong side, and with starter Marcus Washington out. Campbell is likely to work with the starters Saturday. . . .
Rookie linebacker Dallas Sartz missed practice because of an allergic reaction from an ointment on a bandage, but is expected back shortly. . . . Running back Dee Brown was excused from yesterday's practice for personal reasons.
Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.