By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007
Whenever possible, the New York Jets stationed tight end Chris Baker opposite Washington Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh last Sunday. It was a matchup that worked decidedly in New York's favor, as Baker had his best game of the season and made several key plays, while McIntosh, in his first full season as a starter, counted the game as a learning experience.
McIntosh has made great strides after a rookie year last season in which he was banished to special teams duty until late December, even after being Washington's first draft pick and the 35th player chosen overall. But Sunday's game highlighted some expected shortcomings. McIntosh suffered on passes because of Baker's physical tactics, prompting additional practice and film work on his coverage responsibilities this week.
Sunday may provide McIntosh's best challenge yet, as Philadelphia's passing game revolves around screens to running back Brian Westbrook as well as quick timing patterns to tight ends and wide receivers in the slot. The Redskins' coaches figure McIntosh will be a target again, but are confident in his work habits and ability to make quick adjustments.
"That's something that a linebacker has to learn to do and those kinds of things in coverage we'll work on," linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. "He's a good tackler and at least he gets them down on the ground and all that, but yeah, coverage is something we'll have to work on. Rocky works hard and comes to work every day and wants to get better. He doesn't make the same mistakes twice. That's all you can ask."
Washington has been vulnerable to short passes much of the season, given the frequent use of a deep zone. Baker (6 feet 3, 258 pounds) was the first tight end to take a physical approach with McIntosh (6-2, 232 pounds).
Baker succeeded at jostling McIntosh for inside position, pushing off and then catching a pass. Other teams have confused McIntosh at times by running multiple pass routes in his area of the field. After film review, coaches emphasized leverage exercises and techniques. "I've seen him come light-years in practice this week because he's taken that experience and learned from it," said Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense.
"It was good on their part," McIntosh said of Baker's hands-on approach. "If there's no flag, then there's no penalty, and when you see a linebacker on a tight end, they probably will go after him and they did it to me a couple of times. It's just training yourself to be patient. That's what I need to do a lot. Those things take time because the offense wants you to be aggressive and jump the route and you just need to sit back there and be patient, and when the ball is there make a play."
London Fletcher, a premier coverage linebacker, said it took him about four years to grasp playing zone pass defense. Linebacker Marcus Washington agreed. "The common mistake I made was when they bring a guy in front of you and sit him down," Washington said. "And the quarterback looks at you and you don't realize there's a guy behind you and he just wants you to come up so he can throw that thing behind you. So you just have to be like a kung fu master just feeling it and kind of drift back."
New York targeted McIntosh on a third and seven from the 23 in the first quarter, with Baker feigning inside, then cutting toward the sideline for an easy first-down catch. It was a precursor of things to come. By going after McIntosh, the Jets were trying to force him off the field, hoping Williams would substitute a defensive back for him, which opens up the running game. Williams resisted and McIntosh made his share of plays as well.
"I'm real hesitant to take Rocky off the field because he is such a good run player and he's such a fast-closing [tackler] when you play him in zone coverage," Williams said.
Williams is primarily concerned with preventing the deep ball, and is content to give up short yardage in the passing game at times. "We're making people earn it," Williams said. Miami attacked the area in front of the linebackers in the season opener -- the Dolphins' backs and tight ends had 15 catches; the wide receivers just nine -- and New England exposed fissures there two weeks ago, with nine passes completed to running backs for 94 yards.
"Look at the New England game where all through the film New England spread the ball around to guys on the outside and got the running backs the ball," Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said during a conference call. "The linebackers have to make sure they pay attention to that."
The Eagles have the NFL's best pass-catching running back in Westbrook and undoubtedly will put him on McIntosh's side. Williams will likely try to "bracket" Westbrook in coverage by having a safety help. Westbrook ripped through the defense, McIntosh included, on several plays in the teams' first meeting, gaining 162 combined yards. The Eagles completed 14 passes to running backs and tight ends for 112 yards.
Long term, there are few concerns over McIntosh's ability. His health remains the primary worry. Several teams downgraded McIntosh in the draft because of knee problems -- the Redskins fear over time the condition could become degenerative, team sources said -- and though he has been able to avoid knee problems this season, his shoulders have been hurt since the opener, forcing him out of several games.
McIntosh is coping with repeatedly pinched nerves, a problem only rest, rehab and strengthening can cure. His offseason conditioning regime will include much work on the shoulders, and in the meantime McIntosh accepts that his pain threshold will be tested in the second half of the season, as will his coverage skills.
"Definitely, it's tough, but we're at a level right now where the team is counting on you to play," McIntosh said. "What was 100 players in college is now just 53, so personnel is important and you want to get out there and get as much treatment as you can and just play."