By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007
What might be a difficult decision for some teams -- having to choose only two of three well-compensated cornerbacks to start each week -- offers the Washington Redskins the opportunity to confuse opponents before the game even begins.
Last week, against a meek Miami offense, Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense, started two corners who were less heralded, Fred Smoot and Carlos Rogers, and used his most accomplished corner, Shawn Springs, sparingly. None of the corners -- or the Dolphins -- knew until game day who would be in the starting lineup and they suspect that will be the case all season, with the lineup a closely guarded secret each week.
Considering Washington's next task -- facing the pass-happy Eagles in Philadelphia on Monday night -- the defense will need any deceit it can muster. For as much as the Eagles throw the ball and spread the field, the Redskins will need strong outings from all three cornerbacks.
"Gregg says it's going to be a rotation all year, regardless of whether we like it or not, and maybe next game I'm going to be the third cornerback," Smoot said. "I don't have a problem with that. I'll do anything Gregg wants us to do, and I think all three of us feel the same way."
Numerous veterans said they did not realize that Springs was not in the basic defensive alignment Sunday until the game had started. They had figured he would start even though the three corners alternate every few plays in practice. Several Dolphins players expressed surprise about the situation to Redskins players after the game, sources said, and Springs's status continues to be a topic of conversation locally. To that end, Williams, who was not available to comment for this story, and Springs had a productive hour-long meeting Tuesday, team sources said, and Springs also had what he called an "excellent talk" with Coach Joe Gibbs. He said he "thinks" he will start Monday.
"I'm preparing like I'm going to start," he said.
There was concern that Springs, who has fought injuries throughout his career and overcame a sports hernia last season, had a hamstring problem leading into the opening game, Gibbs said. Springs was held out of a few preseason games with an Achilles' ailment as a precaution and those health worries, coupled with the Dolphins' lack of offensive firepower and questions about the ability of Miami quarterback Trent Green to throw downfield, ultimately led to the decision to play him more sparingly, sources said.
Springs, who has the highest base salary on the team, maintains that he is fit, and that his use of wraps and massages on his legs was not out of the ordinary. He said he told Gibbs in the meeting, "That's what veterans do." Tensions were heightened by the offseason backdrop: Springs rebuffed a request to take a salary cut to remain here; management then shopped him around the league. Springs skipped voluntary offseason workouts and ended up missing minicamp as well because of the birth of his son, leading to speculation that his reduced role was retribution, perhaps.
Regardless of the drama, "I'm sure Shawn's going to play more," Eagles Coach Andy Reid said, a sentiment shared by many Redskins.
Smoot, who was thrown at four straight times on one Dolphins drive and prolonged another with an illegal contact penalty, and Rogers, who surrendered a 28-yard reception and 20-yard pass interference call on what could have been a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, had trouble with wide receiver Chris Chambers. They face a much more versatile offense Monday. Unlike with Green, no one is guessing whether Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb can get the ball deep or use his improvisational skills.
"He'll definitely be coming after me," Rogers said. "He's going to make those throws to the outside knowing we can stop the run up front, and it's going to be on the corners to make plays. With Donovan, you don't have to wonder about the deep ball -- just be on your man because he can throw it anytime on the run. He's not just standing back there in the pocket, and he's got a pretty good line to protect him and give him some time. This is a whole lot different than Miami."
The Redskins are playing largely a cover-3 scheme in their base defense this season, dividing the field into thirds, with safety Sean Taylor in the middle and a corner on either side about 10 yards off the line. It is a zone defense, and thus corners do not start at the line of scrimmage as they would in a man-to-man scheme, requiring depth to read the play in a system designed to negate passes of 25 yards or more above all else.
"I think a lot of people get football confused, and they don't really know what we're playing," Smoot said. "They're like, 'Why don't he come up [to the line] on that?' I can't come up and line up on the line on that play. I got to be able to see what if [another route] comes down the seam. So the thing about it is we have to be ready to tackle, and Gregg feels like we'll be able to make most of the tackles before they break them."
Williams has packages for various formations and often switches from play to play -- the Redskins are dropping strong safety LaRon Landry off the line on many third-and-long situations and playing cover-2 with two safeties deep -- but is known for putting corners in challenging situations with his aggressive tendencies. In their defensive backs meetings, players say the coaches have stressed eliminating big plays this season after a horrible deep defense last season, and are comfortable with the trade-off coming in 10- to 15-yard receptions at times.
"We'll make more plays than we give up," Smoot said. "I promise you. I promise you."
The Dolphins also hit a couple of midrange routes over the middle about 20 yards downfield, finding the gap between the linebackers, who were dropping back into coverage, and the deep defensive back. Philadelphia's precision-timing offense is much better suited to exploiting those areas.
"That's some of the things they got right," Rogers said of the Dolphins, "when they go play-action and hit tight ends over the seams and the receivers ran a dig right behind the linebackers and Trent put it in there. We've got some things we've still got to iron out, and get those kinks out."
With the running game stalled -- Washington's rush defense should be tougher this year with an eight-man front -- and no space deep, the Dolphins relied on dump-offs to the running backs. A key to the cover-3 is having the linebackers read the quarterback and not drop too deep -- in theory they should stop dropping back at the moment the quarterback stops his drop -- which opens up too much room in the flat. Dolphins tailbacks Jesse Chatman and Ronnie Brown combined for 12 catches and 88 yards, but they aren't Brian Westbrook, the Pro Bowl tailback the Redskins expect to be a key in the passing game Monday.
"In this defense it's hard for the corners to every single time make a tackle for a two- or three-yard gain," middle linebacker London Fletcher said. "That's asking for a lot, and that's what Miami did to try to loosen some things up. Some teams want to stretch you out from the zone standpoint and get the linebackers, safeties and corners back in coverage, and drop it down. It looks like a check-down, but the check-down is actually the primary route, and they know the running back can get six, seven, eight yards and put them in more manageable situations."
McNabb will provide a challenge whether it's Smoot, Springs or Rogers on the field.
"I wouldn't be stunned if they came out and threw the ball about 50 times," said Springs, who works out with McNabb in the offseason in Arizona. "That's what they do. Donovan texted me last week, and Monday night I know he's going to try to show off."