By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008
It usually occurs as Washington Redskins practices wind down and LaRon Landry reflects on his performance. He often recalls long conversations with Sean Taylor following a day's work last season, two standout young safeties sharing their thoughts on football and developing a bond.
"You know, it was crazy" how much they just talked football, Landry said the other day at Redskins Park, smiling as he shared anecdotes about their identical approach to the game. "Me and Sean, we just knew. He knew he could count on me and I knew I could count on him. So do I think about him? Do I think about what we could have done now as a tandem? Yeah, definitely, I think about it. I think about it all the time."
Taylor died last November after he was shot during a robbery attempt at his Miami area home. The trial of four men accused of killing the Pro Bowler has been delayed until next year. A fifth man pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in May.
The Redskins could not have replaced him even if they had tried. Few players at any position possessed Taylor's combination of size, speed, talent and the ferocity with which he played. Landry is among that small group. Their unique abilities provided the foundation for Washington's secondary early last season, and the team envisioned having the league's best 1-2 punch at safety for years.
Now, Landry -- in only his second season and still learning to play the position Taylor once did so well -- is the leader of a group weakened by injuries, trying to set an example for rookies who have been leaned on heavily out of necessity.
The Redskins (4-2) have shuffled at safety as they prepare to face the Cleveland Browns (2-3) on Sunday at FedEx Field. Landry has assumed more responsibility in pass defense since late last season after he moved to free safety following the death of Taylor, and Washington continues to rely on him more each week.
"Those guys together, Sean and LaRon, they were special, and what made them special was that they fed off each other," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "Sean helped speed LaRon's progress, just because of the way they played. It was like looking in a mirror for them. It was like big brother, little brother.
"Sean wasn't going to let LaRon outdo him, and LaRon wasn't going to let Sean outdo him. Now, LaRon doesn't get pushed like that. Now, everybody just looks to him. LaRon has the most experience of all the safeties, in just one year, and with our situation, that's just the way it is."
On Tuesday, third-year player Reed Doughty, who began the season as the starting strong safety and also plays free safety, was placed on injured reserve, ending his season because of a nerve problem in his back. Rookie safety Chris Horton, who replaced Doughty with the first team, sat out practice the previous two days because of a sprained ankle and might not play against the Browns. Rookie safety Kareem Moore, slowed by knee problems until recently, has seen limited action.
With the team thin at safety, Washington this week signed Mike Green, who played six seasons with Chicago, including four in which defensive coordinator Greg Blache directed the Bears' defense. Blache had planned for Green to ease into a role with the team, but said: "I might have ended up lying to him. Not intentionally, but he may have to be ready to play."
Amid the upheaval in the secondary, Landry has provided a steadying hand. Landry, who played both safety positions as an all-American at Louisiana State, began last season at strong safety after the Redskins selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft. Taylor, a former fifth overall pick in his fourth season, was widely considered the league's top free safety. The Redskins knew they had something special in the "interchangeable" players, Jackson said.
"They had the freedom to decide who was going to be high [in the defensive alignment] and who was going to be low. They decided who was going to cover, and who was going to go back to the middle. They decided which half of the field Sean was going to take, and which half LaRon was going to take. If somebody got the hot hand, either one of 'em could be the enforcer to slow 'em down."
Said secondary coach Jerry Gray, "I think we're doing a good job now, but can you imagine us with [Taylor] back there?"
After Taylor sprained his right knee during a 33-25 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Nov. 11, the secondary was unsettled until Landry was moved to free safety in the last few weeks of the season. Down the stretch, opponents were reluctant to challenge Washington with deep balls, in part because of Landry's range and hitting ability. By the end of the season, Landry, who had two interceptions in a 35-14 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, was being compared favorably to Taylor.
Landry would rather not discuss comparisons. He still wonders about what could have been had Taylor not been killed. "That question, that one right there, it always sticks with me," he said. "I think about how great we could have been as a tandem. You hear all the hype around the league [from TV commentators] about, 'This is the best safety tandem, or that's the best.' We hadn't even started yet.
"We were on the path to greatness, I believe that, so I always think about it. I always try to bring that to Chris and Kareem, to just let them know what it was like with Sean. They couldn't throw a deep ball on Sean. They'd throw a deep ball, Sean [would] be back there for an interception. Or if he's not getting an interception, he's back there laying the guy out. It was crazy. Just crazy."
Horton, a seventh-round pick, was credited with a team-leading nine solo tackles, including three for losses, in Sunday's stunning 19-17 loss to the formerly winless St. Louis Rams. Horton has been out of position at times, making typical rookie mistakes, but he has emerged as a key member of the group. Moore, a sixth-round pick, made a major mistake late in the fourth quarter against the Rams, failing to blitz during a third-down play in which quarterback Marc Bulger and wide receiver Donnie Avery teamed on a 43-yard pass. Later on the drive, place kicker Josh Brown made a game-winning 49-yard field goal as time expired.
"It's different this year," Landry said. "Chris and Kareem are just starting out. The way you have to look at it is, Reed was the starter. Reed was the guy who was out there, and Chris and Kareem were going to get a chance to learn, but that changed.
"It's nobody's fault, it happens like that, and we're working on some things. These guys are making some rookie mistakes, put it that way, and they've got a lot to learn, but they're working hard and going in the right direction. I'm still learning things."
With Doughty out for the season, the Redskins plan to increase Moore's duties in relief of Landry, Blache said. "I have no options. I mean, it's one of those things where you have no choice," he said. "It's a situation where we're going to be forced, that he's going to have to do it. In a lot of ways, really in my mind, I believe he can, and I think he will. But we won't know 100 percent until we do it."
It is the responsibility of Gray and Jackson to help the safeties perform at their best, and the coaching staff is committed to the development of Horton and Moore, but even they wonder about how Taylor and Landry would have grown together.
"I'm sure every coach in the National Football League, who's ever coached the secondary position, has dreams or fantasies at night about having a Sean Taylor and a LaRon Landry back there," Jackson said. "All the possibilities that the mind can conceive, you could do with them. I don't think there's another team that will have that mix in the foreseeable future. You can't manufacture that with a sixth-round pick and a seventh-round pick, I don't care how good they play.
"You get drafted in the top six, like Sean and LaRon, because you can do the things: You can run, you can hit, you can cover, you can cover wide receivers, you can blitz, you can do everything. Chris is good, and Chris is going to be even better, but he can't do everything that those two guys could do coming straight out the box. And Kareem is going to be out there, too. They can be serviceable. But with Sean and LaRon, we just caught lightning in a bottle."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.