By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Reed Doughty, Leigh Torrence and John Eubanks were just hoping to the make the team. Had any of the young defensive backs been cut before the Washington Redskins finalized their roster, it would not have been a major surprise, and for much of the season the trio made their mark on special teams and watched veterans patrol the secondary.
But with Washington's season in the balance, Doughty, Torrence and Eubanks, along with starting rookie safety LaRon Landry, often have comprised the defensive backfield in recent weeks, with tragedy and injury transforming what had been the deepest position on the defense.
The Redskins (6-7) made revamping the secondary a priority in the offseason, believing it was most vital toward reviving the NFL's 31st-ranked defense in 2006. They gambled that exceptional pass coverage would enhance the pass rush, and chose not to upgrade the defensive line. They entered the season with what several scouts believed to be one of the best and deepest defensive backfields in the NFL.
Safety Sean Taylor was the fulcrum, the player coaches built the defense around, and his teammates still are grieving almost three weeks after his death. Top cornerback Carlos Rogers was lost for the season with multiple knee injuries in October and starting cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot are dealing with ailments.
After surrendering few deep passes in the first half of the season, the Redskins have become vulnerable to downfield strikes in the past five weeks. Eubanks, 24, spent most of the season on the practice squad (he will not play against the New York Giants tomorrow because of an infected toe), and Torrence, 25, never has made an NFL start. Doughty, 25, has made only three starts in his career, while Landry, 23, is coping with the inconsistency that all young defensive backs suffer.
None of those players has even two full seasons playing regularly in the NFL, and they expect to be targeted by opponents for the duration of the season. The Giants, under offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, have a strong passing attack.
"Kevin is going to want to test those guys," said Jerry Gray, Washington's defensive backs coach. "I think it would be foolish on their part not to test them, but the thing is these guys have been in there for four or five weeks now, and it's not a surprise anymore. You're not coming off the bench; you've been getting all the reps and now it's your time to make plays."
In Washington's last game, a victory over Chicago last week, the Bears, an inept passing team, went after the young Redskins backfield in the second half. With Smoot, who has been dealing with hamstring problems all season, knocked from the game with illness and Springs battling a bad back, they lined up speedster Devin Hester on Eubanks (who will likely be replaced by little-used veteran David Macklin tomorrow) and Torrence whenever possible and picked up big gains. The Bears completed 12 passes of 10 yards or more in the second half.
Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach-defense, simplified and streamlined the defensive system in the offseason, which should aid the youthful secondary.
"We have enough in our system to be able to adapt, whoever has to play," Williams said. "I have a good staff. We have to develop people, too. We have to develop young players."
Still, it is impossible to underestimate the loss of Taylor, who led the team with five interceptions at the time of his death and was thriving in his new role as a deep free safety, stationed in the middle of the field. In eight games with him playing this year, the Redskins allowed just two passes of 40 yards or more.
Since Taylor got hurt against Philadelphia last month, opponents have completed five passes of 40 yards or more, including two huge touchdown passes by the Eagles that led to their comeback. The following week, at Dallas, wide receiver Terrell Owens caught four touchdown passes, including three of 31 yards or more, with Doughty, a sixth-round pick in 2006, and Landry, picked sixth overall in April, overreacting to cues from quarterback Tony Romo. The two have tried to forge a better chemistry -- particularly when paired in a cover-2 zone defense -- and have overcome that tendency since.
"You've got to get familiar with what a guy's strengths and weaknesses is, and how you can be compatible with that," Landry said. "So we spent extra time when he first stepped in talking about it."
In the past five games, the Redskins have yielded 15 passes of 20 yards or more (they gave up 18 through the first eight games) and rank 25th overall in the league with just 11 interceptions. Springs is the only active defensive back with an interception, and both of his came against the Bears.
Landry still is adjusting after being shifted to Taylor's role as free safety, while Doughty has been used to blitz more in recent weeks but is sometimes not even on the field because Williams often has used a lineup of three cornerbacks and just one safety. Teams have been trying to spread the Redskins by putting three wide receivers and a tight end wide, then running out of those formations, and with his secondary depth compromised Williams is responding by keeping just four defensive backs on the field but going with his three best pass-coverage cornerbacks instead of two safeties.
"Gregg will leave our big guys out there and let the cover guys cover, and try to get our best against your best," Gray said. "To me, I think it's a good matchup we've done the last couple of weeks."
Torrence and Eubanks are having to adapt on the fly.
"You know they're going to come after you when they see a new number back there," Torrence said. "And we have to fall back on technique and fundamentals and then you can make some plays. You don't want to get out there and just start freelancing too much. We want to stick to technique first and then be able to make some plays. We talk about that all the time continually throughout the game, John and I give each other pointers and remind each other the keys to formation and stance."
Redskins Notes: Wide receiver James Thrash (ankle) is listed as probable for tomorrow's game after missing four straight games; defensive end Phillip Daniels (knee) and backup center Mike Pucillo (back) are probable as well. . . . Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin (flu) returned to practice yesterday and will play. . . . The Redskins signed former Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach to the practice squad and released quarterback Jason Fife from the practice squad. Hollenbach was with the team in the offseason but was released prior to training camp. . . .
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a college quarterback, will be the emergency passer this weekend with starter Jason Campbell injured. Randle El worked with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor after practice yesterday, doing drills on fundamentals such as dropbacks and handoffs. . . . Former Redskins great Gary Clark addressed the team after practice, an event that has not been uncommon since Coach Joe Gibbs returned. "I really appreciate the way he supports the team," Gibbs said of Clark, a standout wide receiver in the late 1980s and early 1990s.