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Defense Flourishes With New Approach

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By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008

The deconstruction of the Washington Redskins' defense lasted 21 days.

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For three weeks last January, Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, oversaw an examination of every possible reason his unit was the second worst in the NFL in 2006, from scheme to playbook to meeting lengths to practice regimens. It was draining and at times ego-bruising work finding a way to maximize the skills of the players who would remain with the club, and it culminated in a new approach.

The result was a defense that was ranked eighth overall this season and was the backbone of a team that won four straight games to reach a first-round playoff game tomorrow in Seattle. It required a philosophical change for Williams and his staff -- stripping and simplifying their system and relinquishing more control and freedom to players.

The death of safety Sean Taylor, 24, in November would have been enough to derail many defenses -- especially one trying to climb from the bottom of the league -- and two of the team's other young stalwarts, cornerback Carlos Rogers and linebacker Rocky McIntosh, were lost for the year to injury. Previously unknown youngsters have emerged to provide depth, as changes in personnel dovetailed with the new direction of the defense.

"We had a really honest discussion and said, 'This is where we made mistakes, this is what we need to do to get back,' " Coach Joe Gibbs said. "And then we made up our minds sitting down with the owner and everybody saying, 'This is what need to do to get back.' The defensive coaches deserve tremendous credit on doing that."

A year ago Williams and his assistants were criticized in an ESPN article that contended that Williams had lost the confidence of his players, that players were quitting on him and the league had caught up to his system.

Some players conceded there were flaws in the defense, but even privately most maintained a belief in and respect for Williams.

Williams said little publicly about the story other than to stand up for his staff, but spoke at length about it with Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher, one of his closest friends. Fisher's defense sank to 32nd last year -- the Titans rose to fifth this season -- and he could empathize with Williams.

"I knew deep down inside regardless of how long you've been in the league, those things sometime are hurtful personally," said Fisher, who worked for years with Williams in the Oilers/Titans organization. "But Gregg was the first to rise completely above it and understand that sometimes things are taken out of context and sometimes a player is frustrated and somebody comes out to the extent in which somebody did there. He knew it was personally motivated and had nothing to do with the team and was [a] very selfish thing, but he rose above it. We discussed it, but Gregg didn't bat an eye at it."

Of that criticism, Williams says now: "I don't ever worry about that. I know who I am and the players in the room know and can count on me being a certain way. For people to say those kind of things, it shows again they don't know, and the same kind of people that were talking bad about Sean Taylor said bad things about me, too. That's okay. No big deal."

The defensive coaches attacked their problems by adopting the approach they took in 2004, when Gibbs first assembled the staff, and reviewing every game and practice film possible. The breakdown of every play from 2006 was tough.

"There's times when you've got to be able to say it's time for a change, and what's the best for this group of guys," Williams said. "And I am real pleased with how the staff was able to check our egos at the door last year and be able to look . . . on what we had available from a personnel standpoint, who we were going to try to go after in the free agent market and the draft and, with all that being done at the same time, settle in on what we think were some significant changes in what we were going to do, Xs and Os-wise, this year compared to what we had done the previous few years."

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