Youth Shows in Secondary

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A day after glaring breakdowns in deep coverage contributed to a 28-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins moved to shore up an injury-weakened secondary that could be without safety Sean Taylor for another few weeks.

With Taylor inactive for the first time this season because of a sprained knee, safeties Reed Doughty, LaRon Landry and Pierson Prioleau made costly errors that helped Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Terrell Owens team up on four touchdown passes -- including three in the second half and two in the fourth quarter -- as the NFC East-leading Cowboys rallied for a victory Sunday at Texas Stadium.

Coach Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, attribute much of what went wrong to the inexperience of Doughty and Landry, and Gibbs and Williams expect the unit to rebound and do its part until Taylor returns.

With the Redskins (5-5) having lost their last two games and three of four, and Taylor expected to miss Sunday's game against Tampa Bay (6-4), the Redskins said they must tighten their coverage.

"For us, if you kind of look at it where we are with everybody else in the NFC, this is to be determined from here on out," Gibbs said during his weekly news conference at Redskins Park. "We had some guys playing different positions, had some young guys getting a chance to start for the first time, and they played extremely hard on defense in particular. We got Reed starting in there and you've got LaRon playing a bunch, doing different things for us. Now, sometimes we weren't smart and made mistakes back there. . . . At times, we could have played smarter than what we did."

The absence of Taylor, who injured his right knee Nov. 11, prompted Williams to shuffle the defensive backfield against Dallas. (The Redskins also are without cornerback Carlos Rogers, who had season-ending reconstructive knee surgery after being injured Oct. 28.) Doughty, a second-year player, started in place of Taylor and Williams continued to increase the coverage responsibilities of Landry, a promising rookie.

But their inexperience showed after halftime Sunday. Owens had eight catches for 173 yards (a 21.6-yard average) and the four touchdown receptions covered 4, 31, 46 and 52 yards. The latter two came in the fourth quarter and helped Dallas hold off Washington, which made a late charge behind quarterback Jason Campbell. The third-year pro had his best performance in his 17th NFL start (348 yards passing) but threw an interception with less than two minutes remaining. The secondary, however, shouldered much of the blame for what went wrong against the Cowboys.

"Point blank, Coach [Williams] made the right calls. He called the right things, we just didn't make the plays, and T.O. made 'em," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "We messed up mentally."

Owens had a four-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, beating cornerback Shawn Springs, considered the Redskins' best defender in man-to-man coverage. The rest of Owens's touchdowns came against zone defenses as Doughty and Landry struggled.

In the third quarter, Doughty was called for a 51-yard pass interference penalty on third down. Later in the drive, on third and 19 from the 31, Landry came in rather than remaining deep. Owens caught the ball uncontested in the end zone.

"We just weren't as sound as we could have been," said Doughty, who was benched in favor of Prioleau, a nine-year veteran, in the fourth quarter. "On the [interference penalty], I was just trying to catch up and make a play on the ball. Those things happen. It's unfortunate."

By the time Landry realized what he had done wrong, Owens was well into celebrating his second touchdown. "A lot of it was just mistakes in technique," Landry said. "It was just about making the right decisions and playing the right technique."

The Redskins asked a lot of Doughty and Landry against the high-scoring Cowboys, Williams said.

"Reed gained some experience and showed some lack of experience on some plays. With both of those guys, it came in an untimely fashion," Williams said. "Against the Cowboys a lot of people thought we stood no chance at all with those two young guys in the secondary, so I appreciate their fight, I really do. They brought their toughness-game and their flying-around game. They made good contact.

"But we made a couple of lack-of-experience plays with our eyes a couple of times. Romo did a good job of baiting us a couple of times and a couple of young players took the bait. Those are the differences in the ballgame."

The Redskins' experienced players stumbled at times as well.

On Romo's 46-yard touchdown pass to Owens in the fourth quarter, middle linebacker London Fletcher was responsible for defending the pass over the seam. But the 10-year veteran turned the wrong way and Owens was uncovered in the end zone again. Of course, Owens would have been challenged if the safeties, who Williams said were responsible for "deep threats" with the Redskins in Tampa-2 coverage, had been in the correct position.

Prioleau was late getting to Owens on the touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 28-16 lead. Prioleau dived and missed Owens's legs at about the 30 and no one was between Owens and the end zone.

"T.O. is a good receiver, everybody in the NFL knows that, but we didn't hold up our end of the bargain," Prioleau said. "When you make mental mistakes, when you don't do your job the way you prepare to do your job, then that's going to happen no matter who you're going against."

Staff writer Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.

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