By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008
The deconstruction of the Washington Redskins' defense lasted 21 days.
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."
Three tenets came from those discussions, team sources said. The coaches had to find a way to create more opportunities for the linemen to attack the passer, playing to the strength of Andre Carter (team-high 10 1/2 sacks). They wanted to put Taylor, the best athlete on the team, in a better position to make plays. And they needed superior play at middle linebacker -- the quarterback of Williams's defense (free agent acquisition London Fletcher, who had played previously for Williams, was added and had a Pro Bowl-caliber season).
The objective then became to fit other pieces around those three positions while seeking younger players. Free agent bust Adam Archuleta was jettisoned and replaced at safety by first-round draft pick LaRon Landry, who hugely upgraded the position. Other starters, such as Fred Smoot, McIntosh and Anthony Montgomery, also were significantly more skilled than the players they replaced. Williams coaxed another former player, linebacker Randall Godfrey, out of retirement -- he has become a vital run-stopper on this winning streak -- and made painful decisions to part with veteran leaders Renaldo Wynn, Joe Salave'a and Lemar Marshall. A host of youngsters -- Chris Wilson, Leigh Torrence, Lorenzo Alexander, Reed Doughty -- cracked the lineup as well.
In the past, with less natural ability, the coaches relied on trickery and blitzes, with the complexity of the scheme overcoming some deficiencies. With better talent, Williams tried a different approach.
"He trusted this defense that we can go out there and just line up and play well," end Phillip Daniels said. "We don't have to trick everybody with packages; just line up and play anybody toe-to-toe and win games."
Roughly half the playbook was purged, players said.
"Oh, we ran a lot more stuff when I was with Gregg in Tennessee," Godfrey said. "We took a lot more packages into games and guys had to do a lot of extra studying, and I think that's what happened last year -- they had a lot of packages and had a lot of mistakes and guys gave up some big plays. And now they've limited that and guys are being focused and playing hard and not having to think too much."
The coaches opted to go with a four-man pass rush from the linemen -- rather than their previous norm of three -- and freed the ends and tackles to attack the quarterback. They sometimes used linebacker Marcus Washington as a down lineman and dropped Taylor (and now Landry in his spot) much deeper than the safeties had ever played.
The coaches also worked on players, who "didn't always play like a team last year," one veteran said. With renewed freedom to make plays came responsibility for others to fill gaps and maintain the integrity of the defense. The offseason was spent honing what the team calls "cover-me principles," ensuring that a playmaker wasn't afraid to go after an opportunity for fear others would not pick up the slack.
"He put lot of thought into the guys we had and what we can do and what are our strengths," Daniels said. "And that's what he's doing. He's calling stuff towards our strengths, and that helped us go out and be dominant and do the things we're doing. . . . He has to make the changes -- we can't make the changes -- and he deserves most of the credit. I'm going to say 90 percent of it is to him, and the rest is the players making plays and going out and running the defense."
Williams's trademark -- deceptive zone blitzes -- rarely was seen until the past few weeks, with the Redskins focused more on a four-man rush and coverage principles.
"I think initially it probably was tough for him to do because Gregg was known for multiple blitzes, multiple packages, bringing blitzes out of different packages and things like that," Fletcher said. "And some of things he did this offseason scheme-wise, and some of the changes we made, it was definitely an adjustment for him. But he's found that balance to be able to do both things that he likes to do."
Players have praised the staff for more subtle changes, too. Coaches juggled the playing time of nicked-up players like Shawn Springs and Cornelius Griffin throughout the season. Gradually, they have brought younger players into prominent roles, teaching them at practice.
And then there was the manner in which they dealt with Taylor's death. Williams's stewardship through the weeks following Taylor's death tested him as he grieved and tried to steer the team on an improbable playoff run. It made the problems of last January seem trivial.
"I know that this was probably the most difficult thing Gregg has ever gone through personally or professionally," said Fisher, who chatted with Williams often after Taylor died. "And he's wired such that he knew it was going to be equally as difficult on everybody else, and he needs to be strong in those cases. From our first conversation on he knew how important it was to celebrate Sean's life; let's mourn and eulogize and talk and share, but most importantly, what would Sean want, and how can we best celebrate Sean."