By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007
Sean Taylor has intercepted two passes this season -- more than any Washington Redskin had all of last season -- and barely had to move on either one. Taylor, a defensive back once prone to overly aggressive play, simply nestled into Washington's deep zone defense and waited for the errant passes to fall into his arms.
Last season, opponents targeted the Redskins' backfield with an array of deep passes, and Taylor and his fellow safeties made almost no plays on the ball and were routinely caught out of position. The problems were most evident when the Redskins were in cover-2, their base defensive formation in which they are instructed to sit back, divide the field in half and disrupt long throws. Instead, cover-2 was a caldron of botched coverages, with tight ends exploiting the seam and wide receivers catching long passes down the middle of the field. Failures in cover-2 were a big reason the Redskins' defense ranked next to last in the league.
Through a quarter of the season their reversal could not be more drastic, highlighted by their smothering of Detroit's NFL-leading passing attack Sunday while remaining in cover-2 for all but two plays.
Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, made the paramount goal of the offseason finding a way to stop the big play.
"It's personnel more than anything," said Williams, who has more talent and speed to work with in the secondary and at linebacker.
The Redskins' players, however, cite Williams's decision to strip down his scheme and streamline their responsibilities as the primary reason for the difference. Taylor, whose over-pursuit and suspect positioning characterized last season's failures, personifies the refined cover-2 scheme and has become the ball-hawking presence the Redskins anticipated when they drafted him fifth overall in 2004.
"He tried to cover for so many guys, and we had so many deficiencies last year," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "And he was trying to do everybody's job and do this, do that and it was, 'Sean, we need you to do this. Sean, we need you back here. Sean, we need you over here. Make sure tell this guy this, and make sure tell this guy that.' And you saw the results.
"Now guys are getting better at just knowing, 'Look, this is what we're going to do, and this is how we're going to do it and how we're going to make people try to beat us. You be right here, you be right here and you be right here, and we'll all run to the ball.' And we just simplified everything, and now guys don't have to think as much; they just go out and play football."
After four games, the Redskins rank first in net yards allowed per pass (4.9) and are tied for first in touchdown passes allowed (two) and in passes of more than 40 yards allowed (none). The defense will be tested Sunday in Green Bay, where Brett Favre and the Packers currently boast the top-ranked passing offense in the NFL.
"Thus far, teams haven't really tested us deep, but we're going to play a quarterback this week that is going to throw the ball where he wants to throw it," safety Pierson Prioleau said. "When Brett sees something he wants, he's going to throw it down the field."
The Redskins would happily take anything close to last week's outing against the Lions: 76 net passing yards allowed with two interceptions. Washington's cover-2 was so effective the Lions attempted just three passes of more than 20 yards despite a bevy of fleet wide receivers.
The Redskins, who rank first in the NFC in total defense, red zone defense and third-down efficiency, might not play quite as much cover-2 on Sunday. They have adopted more cover-3 as well, with two deep cornerbacks and Taylor playing "center field" in the middle. But no matter the variation, their deep-zone defense must remain stout. The longest passing gain allowed by the Redskins this season was 33 yards to the Giants' Plaxico Burress in Week 3, but that was a screen pass against an all-out blitz with no safety deep (cornerback Carlos Rogers failed to tackle Burress after his short reception).
"They sit back and play zone, play 30 yards deep with their two safeties and make you run it," Lions wide receiver Roy Williams said after Sunday's game.
In years past, Taylor, who declines to speak to reporters, was deployed at varying depths, often near the line of scrimmage to blitz. His performance fluctuated wildly, and he was often chasing the play. Now, with rookie safety LaRon Landry able to disrupt around the line, Taylor has adapted to his more defined role and stays within the system.
"Everybody knows Sean is going to hit you and make spectacular plays," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "But sometimes last year and the year before that, he had to learn some things, and growing up and being around the game more, he's able to say, 'This is where I can really improve my game -- stay deep, and if they want to try something, I'm going to sit back here and be patient and get these picks,' like he's been doing last few games."
Taylor's reputation as one of the NFL's heaviest hitters prevents some receivers from wanting to go over the middle, and Landry is physical as well. This season, opponents have attempted just 23 "deep" passes -- of 15 yards or more -- completing just six (and picking up a pass interference call on another). Two of the longer heaves -- 32 and 31 yards -- ended up in Taylor's hands.
"If they throw an errant ball, he goes and gets it," Jackson said. "That's what we ask him to do, and that's what he's accepted."
The success of any system begins at the line of scrimmage, and the pass rush has been potent at times. The Redskins had six sacks Sunday and have 13 this season after having a franchise-low 19 in 2006.
Upgrades at linebacker and the secondary are apparent in cover-2 -- linebackers London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh are swifter and superior in coverage than departed Lemar Marshall and Warrick Holdman were -- and the cornerbacks are being much more physical jamming receivers at the line.
With three proven cornerbacks, Williams is now comfortable matching up Shawn Springs on an individual receiver in the slot, and varying his coverage scheme on underneath routes, while still playing a cover-2 shell on the outside, giving opponents confusing looks to sort out.
But for all of their improvement, it's far too early to boast, with games against Favre and New England's Tom Brady on the horizon.
"We'll know how good we are after the next four or five weeks," Springs said. "We ain't done nothing yet."