By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Every time an opposing quarterback threw a deep pass last season, Washington Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington got a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Long attempts often resulted in long completions against the Redskins' secondary, making things tougher for a defense that struggled in many areas.
Now, with the addition of rookie safety LaRon Landry, the improved health of cornerback Shawn Springs and safety Pierson Prioleau, and the return of Fred Smoot as a nickel cornerback, the secondary is part of an ongoing defensive turnaround, contributing to the Redskins' 3-1 start. No longer worried about opponents taking deep shots, the Redskins are getting good vibes from their defensive backs.
"Nothing deflates you more than giving up a big play," Washington said yesterday at Redskins Park. "It happened a lot. Those guys had a tough time back there, but they came back this year with something to prove. They've been doing a great job, and that's just helped our whole defense. You can see what a difference it makes."
Last year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Redskins were last in the NFL in average yards allowed per pass attempt, giving up an average of 6.91 yards. This year, they lead the league with a 4.52-yard average after their performance in Sunday's 34-3 victory over Detroit at FedEx Field. With the secondary providing tight coverage against three- and four-receiver formations, the Redskins limited the past-first Lions to 76 net yards passing out of 144 total net yards, the fewest total yards an opponent has gained against them since the Denver Broncos had 128 in Washington's 34-3 victory on Oct. 12, 1992.
The defensive line's ability to provide consistent pressure against Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna was the centerpiece of the plan designed by Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, to slow down the Lions, enabling the linebackers to drop in coverage and help the defensive backs. But the secondary was in top form, too, the Redskins said.
"I was thanking them," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said. "They did a heck of a job back there in coverage. Pass rush and coverage go hand in hand, you can't have one without the other, but I feel like Detroit probably has the best skill guys in the league as a group. Our secondary did a heck of a job."
Kitna completed only 16 of 29 passes for a 34.6 passer rating. The Lions' longest pass completion was 16 yards, and cornerback Carlos Rogers returned an interception 61 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, punctuating the team's best overall performance to this point.
Late in the fourth quarter of a 24-17 loss to the New York Giants on Sept. 23, Rogers failed to tackle Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress after a short reception, which resulted in a 33-yard, go-ahead touchdown for New York. For the most part, however, Washington's defensive backs have kept opposing receivers in front of them.
"I'm real proud of those guys," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We felt really good about their ability to improve their play, and they're making plays like we thought they would. I like what they're doing, and I like the depth we have back there."
The Redskins couldn't overcome a lack of quality depth in the secondary last season.
Springs, considered the Redskins' best defender in man-to-man coverage, missed seven games last season because of injuries. In 2006, Prioleau hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the first game against Minnesota and was sidelined the remainder of the season.
The Redskins gave up a league-worst 55 passes of 20 yards or more. Only the New Orleans Saints gave up more pass plays of 40 yards or more than the 15 given up by Washington. Overall, the Redskins finished 31st in the league in total defense, and bolstering the secondary topped Washington's offseason to-do list.
Gibbs and Williams, however, were confident an overhaul was not necessary, believing improvement could occur defensively by making a few good personnel moves and minor changes in their scheme.
Among other moves to shore up the defense, the Redskins used the sixth overall pick in the draft to select Landry, who replaced safety Adam Archuleta. They also signed Smoot, who returned to the team after two seasons in Minnesota, and Williams increased the emphasis on limiting big pass plays.
"We've been playing well so far," Springs said. "The difference is that I'm healthy this year. Then you add LaRon and you bring Smoot back, so we've got a lot more quality depth. Last year, we had guys who came in off the street and played corner for us."
Landry, Rogers, Springs and safety Sean Taylor were all selected among the top nine overall picks in their draft classes. Since 1970, the Redskins are the only team to have a starting defensive backfield with that distinction, also having it last season when Troy Vincent was on the roster, according to Elias.
The key, according to secondary coach Jerry Gray, is that there was a foundation on which to rebuild.
"We could see that most of the long plays were correctable . . . it wasn't anything that had to do with talent, which is really good," Gray said. "If it had a lot to do with talent, I think you would have seen lot of turnover, and that didn't happen.
"You look at LaRon. He's a rookie, but he's really smart, and the good thing is LaRon doesn't have to be the best player in the secondary; he's going to have some growing room. Fred is a guy that's always upbeat, always getting guys going in practice and in games. He's made a difference."
Success has brought the defensive backs closer, and they expect even better results to come.
"Everybody out there is on that one same page. Everybody out there is working for that one goal," Rogers said. "There's no individual attitudes out there. Last year, you know, fingers start getting pointed when you start losing. This year, we're on the up and up."