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.
Still, the Redskins must cut down on the time a quarterback has after the snap. A year ago, only Peyton Manning had a third-down passer rating (119.1) higher than the figure the Redskins' defense allowed. Generally, a passer's rating declines on third down -- and often precipitously -- but the Redskins actually made quarterbacks better when they should have been most vulnerable, allowing an NFL-worst 97.8 rating overall last season, still 12 points lower than what they accomplished at Washington's expense on third down.
"Right now up front we're getting okay pressure, but nothing great, nothing to brag about," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "We've got to keep working on our technique and getting better and better and keep pressuring the quarterback to get the ball out, to get him on the ground and cause turnovers, to do whatever we can to help this team win. We've got to be relentless on each play because you don't know which play could be the game-winning plays. Nobody knows, and especially in the nickel we've got to do a good job of getting to the quarterback."
Griffin is finally healthy after battling serious shoulder and knee problems a year ago and anchors the nickel defense. He is being allowed to shoot the gap more to pressure the quarterback, swapping from the right to the left and lining up off the shoulder of various offensive linemen. The coaches have moved Daniels, an end, to tackle in the nickel package. Although he has slowed with age and is not as effective coming off the edge, he has immense strength and leverage and was seen as a fundamental component to the nickel.
In reviewing last season the coaches believed the left tackles did not win enough one-on-one battles in the nickel defense, players said. The tackle opposite Griffin -- the best lineman on the team -- generally faces the opponent's weakest guard and after the snap the center will usually turn immediately to help the guard who is engaged with Griffin. That other tackle needs to exploit the resulting gap and help collapse the pocket inside -- Daniels fits that mold -- because in 2006 there were too many times when end Andre Carter forced the passer to step back toward the line, but no one made him pay with a big hit and the pass was completed to a secondary receiver.
Also last year the Redskins almost always rushed three down linemen in the nickel, but now they are using four, with Washington, their best linebacker, taking the spot of left defensive end, where his speed and big-play ability can be showcased. Washington also has to drop back in coverage less now.
"We did a lot of three-man front on third down last year," Daniels said. "We dropped eight guys back in coverage and still couldn't stop people. That kind of hurt a little bit. But overall it was three men rushing against six and seven [blockers] and that hurt us a lot and I guess best way to stop the pass on third down is to bring more people and go get him, and give the quarterback less time."
The Redskins, one of only two teams not to score a defensive touchdown last season, believe the linebackers they have helping in coverage in the nickel -- Fletcher and McIntosh, who spent almost all of his rookie year on the sideline learning the defense -- are much more adroit at dropping back and far more athletic than their predecessors, Lemar Marshall and Warrick Holdman.
"For us linebackers, the nickel really doesn't change our role in terms of we're going to be in coverage more," Fletcher said. "Whether it be man-to-man or some type of zone, Gregg will bring some pressure out from that nickel package."
The biggest changes should be on the back end. The Redskins floundered in allowing an NFL worst in touchdown passes (30) and had by far the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio in the league (30-6), while allowing a league-worst 55 passes of 20 yards or more. With faulty corners Mike Rumph and Kenny Wright gone, Springs healthy, Smoot back as a free agent and Carlos Rogers coming off a strong camp, there is reason for optimism. One leading NFL personnel director believes the Redskins are among the three deepest teams in their secondary this season.
All three of them are on the field together in the nickel -- by far the best coverage options on the roster -- and they will be allowed to press receivers more in man-to-man coverage. The coaches believe that Sean Taylor and Landry can cover as much ground and hit as hard as any duo in the league.
"We have a lot of options out of that nickel defense," Fletcher said. "We get the top three corners on the field at once, we get our four best pass rushers, and we still keep all three linebackers in there. So you've got the best of all worlds out there."