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Defenseless at the Start, Redskins Wonder What Might Have Been

By Jason La Canfora
Friday, September 5, 2008

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Each snapshot told a story of despair for the Washington Redskins' defense.

There was cornerback Carlos Rogers talking and gesturing animatedly toward safety LaRon Landry on just the fifth play of the season, after Plaxico Burress was wide open for a 30-yard gain. ("That was a miscommunication between me and LaRon," Rogers said.)

There was Landry, flat on his back on New York's second drive, barely moving after tailback Brandon Jacobs steamrolled over him.

There was corner Fred Smoot, staring at his hands after somehow dropping what could have been an interception in the end zone.

There was safety Reed Doughty, pounding the artificial grass at Giants Stadium in disgust after quarterback Eli Manning completed yet another pass to Burress as New York was driving to extend its first-half lead to 16-0.

Coach Jim Zorn's tenure as head coach of the Redskins began Thursday night before a national television audience in the first NFL game of the season, but it was not the only inglorious debut. Greg Blache was on the sidelines as Washington's top defensive coach for the first time after four years under Gregg Williams, and Friday's game film review of the first half will leave him every bit as disgusted as Zorn. Blache's team failed to stop New York from scoring on its four first-half possessions in the 16-7 loss, with second-half adjustments coming too late to reverse the outcome.

All of the lingering issues from seasons past -- lack of a consistent pass rush, lack of dynamic young players on the defensive line, issues of depth in the secondary, too many dropped interceptions -- percolated anew, while preseason concerns about stopping the run and third-down ineffectiveness were exposed again by the Super Bowl champs.

"We couldn't get off the field on third down in the first half," Blache said, "and we just didn't take advantage of the opportunities that were presented to us."

While those in the secondary bore the most obvious pain from opportunity lost, the lack of a sustained pass rush was too often evident as well. The Giants amassed 241 yards in the first half and held the ball for nearly 21 minutes; all four of their drives lasted at least 4 minutes 17 seconds. New York had six plays of 16 yards or more in the half.

"We just didn't match their intensity in the first half," defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery said.

The Giants were 5 for 8 on third down. Burress had seven catches for 98 yards in the half, 10 for 133 in the game. He was pretty much unstoppable when Smoot, who left in the second half with a back injury, or Rogers, who continued to struggle with would-be interceptions, tried to cover him. Jacobs ran 11 times for 74 yards, a 6.7-yard average, in the half. New York had 154 rushing yards, with a 4.8 average, in the game.

"If we make one of those third-down plays early, maybe it's a different game," linebacker London Fletcher said.

New York made big plays when Blache dropped three defensive backs deep and when he tried to blitz. Blache tried the nickel defense (five defensive backs), as well as the dime (six defensive backs) and still the yards piled up. He altered his personnel, giving newcomer Erasmus James a chance to rush the passer from inside. It didn't matter.

When the Giants needed yards on the ground early, they ran right at new left end Jason Taylor, a noted pass rusher whom many scouts believe can be suspect against the run given his lack of size, and picked up first downs. Jacobs partially resembled longtime Giant -- and thus longtime Redskins nemesis -- Tiki Barber, using quick, decisive cutbacks to gut this defense for chunks of yards as Barber often did.

"We went out there and basically did what we wanted to do," Giants tackle David Diehl said. "We controlled the ball and time of possession."

Blache has tried to further simplify Williams's defense, shunning some of the exotic blitz packages of his predecessor, relying on his players to outmuscle opponents. "We're a basic football team," he often says. It's a gamble that looked risky on this night, however, with his players getting overpowered far too often, especially early.

On the first third down of the game, third and seven, Blache rushed just four linemen, sat back in a shell and Manning picked up eight yards with a pass to Steve Smith. Burress hauled in catches of 30 and 19 yards on successive plays -- without anyone pressuring Manning -- and on third and six Blache blitzed Doughty; Manning threw to Burress in the area vacated by the safety for an 11-yard gain, keying the touchdown drive.

"The quarterback was doing a real good job of looking at what we had [on the field] and taking advantage of it," Blache said.

With the Giants up 10-0, Blache faced another key decision -- third and eight from the 44 -- and went with Landry as the lone deep safety, trying to hurry Manning with the rush. Instead he again had sufficient time to operate (James was added to the line for this play), beating the blitz and finding Sinorice Moss utterly alone for a 23-yard gain after his outside move left Smoot stumped.

Rogers, who showed well overall in his first game back from season-ending knee surgery, dropped two possible interceptions. Others did the same, and for 30 minutes, the Giants bulled the Redskins.

"I know I can't start that trend again," Rogers said of his drop-itis, words that just as easily could have applied to the entire defense for two quarters.

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