Third Down, First Priority For Redskins

Cornerback Shawn Springs and defensive guru Gregg Williams are looking for more positive results from the much-maligned unit this season. Plenty of new personnel should help the effort.
Cornerback Shawn Springs and defensive guru Gregg Williams are looking for more positive results from the much-maligned unit this season. Plenty of new personnel should help the effort. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Washington Redskins' defense slumped last season, setting a franchise low in sacks (19) and a modern mark for NFL turnover futility (12), numbers that are the byproduct of a broader problem -- a systemwide failure on third down.

As the team reconfigured the defense and procured new talent this offseason, it did so always with an eye toward third down, believing that fixing its issues in that regard would restore a once-proud defense.

Last season, the Redskins somehow allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile a 109.3 passer rating on third down, by far the worst in the NFL and a figure 30 points higher than the league average on that down, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"That's crazy," cornerback Shawn Springs said of the statistic. "I can't believe that's real."

Washington had only four sacks on third down and produced only four takeaways. Opponents converted 43.7 percent of their third-down chances -- ranking the Redskins 26th -- shredding the league's 31st-ranked defense with long drive after long drive.

Third down, particularly third and long, generally brings out the coaching cliches. It's when defenders can fly to the football and make an offense pay for its transgressions on the preceding two downs. It's when the inherent difficulty in playing defense is largely mitigated by the reality that on third and four -- or longer -- the quarterback almost always must pass. Yet even then the Redskins allowed opponents to convert 37 percent of the time, equaling the league average conversion percentage on third down as a whole , including third and inches.

"The years that we've been very, very good on defense, we've been dominant on third down," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "You'd like to be able to make difference-making plays on third down, not only get off the field -- and that percentage is very important and there have been years where we've been good at that -- but you'd like to take the ball away on third down, too. So we were deficient in both of those areas last year, and we really need to make a significant jump in those areas."

Coaches have overhauled their nickel and dime defenses -- packages consisting of additional defensive backs used primarily when the offense is pinned on third down -- aspiring for more youth, speed and raw physicality and streamlining a formerly complex and technique-heavy defense. Now in the nickel package (five defensive backs), the Redskins believe they can get the 11 defenders most likely to produce big plays on the field at once, while deploying them in a means best designed to get them to the passer or to the football.

"We have to force [the offense] to do what we want them to do, and then make a difference making the play," Williams said.

"If we're going to be a really good football team, we can't be where we were last year in that giveaway-takeaway ratio," Coach Joe Gibbs said of Washington's minus-five rating.

Through three preseason games the starting defense has recaptured the look of years past. NFL scouts and personnel executives who have watched the exhibition games contend that the unit is back to its 2004-05 strength, boasting replenished depth in a secondary that was under-manned and overwhelmed in 2006. Still, the Redskins have had just one sack and no interceptions or fumble recoveries from the first-string defense in preseason games.

When Williams and his assistants study film, they say they see signs of improvement. They have watched the nickel package closely throughout the offseason and observed new additions -- linebackers London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh, cornerback Fred Smoot and safety LaRon Landry -- embracing their new surroundings, and key holdovers such as linebacker Marcus Washington and lineman Phillip Daniels settling into their new roles.

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