On Football: the Redskins' Secondary Carries on Without Sean Taylor

Fred Smoot (27) and LaRon Landry (30) are helping the Redskins' secondary carry on without Sean Taylor.
Fred Smoot (27) and LaRon Landry (30) are helping the Redskins' secondary carry on without Sean Taylor. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The possibilities, from a coaching perspective, seemed limitless. Sean Taylor had evolved into such a complete safety, such a unique defender, that sometimes the staff would sit around after practice and dream up ways to use him.

They could envision a time when Taylor and fellow safety LaRon Landry would split out wide just before the snap to cover receivers one-on-one, while the cornerbacks blitzed. They could foresee Taylor and Landry overloading one side on a safety blitz, with corner Shawn Springs switching to safety. They might line Taylor up as an outside linebacker. He had the size and ability to shadow any tight end in the NFL. From a matchup perspective, anything was possible.

Taylor was one of the premier athletes in the NFL, and the best pure football player on the Washington Redskins, and, while performing at an all-pro level last season, died before he could live up to his full potential. Just 24, Taylor was shot a year ago today and died the next day. The loss was a devastating tragedy that pierced the franchise on emotional, mental, spiritual and physical planes. Yet the defense has persevered.

The Redskins surged to the playoffs without him, and are ranked third in total defense this season despite losing their most ferocious, productive and versatile player. The twin principles defensive coordinator Greg Blache most espouses -- stop the run and eliminate the big play -- have been achieved even in his absence. The unit has longed for the game-changing moments that seemed to come so naturally to Taylor but the ability of coaches and players to shine without him is a testament to their collective efforts.

"That's just the way we do things here," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "He was a big part of it, and one thing about the guys here, they strive to keep it going the way it was when he was here."

Landry, a starter as a rookie last year, had just begun to earn the coaches' trust in coverage when Taylor died. The chemistry between them was only budding; they were about to become the interchangeable weapons that Gregg Williams, then the assistant head coach-defense, believed would anchor the defense for a decade.

"The big thing with Sean is we knew he could cover so much ground," said Williams, now the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. "In that last year he had matured so much, to the point where his teammates felt comfortable taking chances, knowing that he could cover up their errors. And we as coaches knew that he could save so many plays in a ballgame. As LaRon evolved, and with what Sean had become, it would have been the toughest safety tandem in the National Football League for a lot of years to come."

But even with Landry just a work in progress, the Redskins still enjoyed luxuries they no longer have. They had two safeties who were comfortable in the run front, who could blitz, who could creep to the line of scrimmage and draw immediate attention, then both drop back at the last moment to form a cover-2 look.

"Losing Sean was like losing two or three players in terms of scheme," cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray said. "We had two guys back there at safety who could do everything, and the offense had no idea who was going to do what."

After Taylor's death, Landry had to shift into Taylor's role in coverage as a free safety. This season, standout rookie Chris Horton is playing strong safety, and though his physicality might conjure images of Taylor, comparisons with the Pro Bowler are unfair to both.

"It's an honor for anyone to say I do anything like he did, in any way," said Horton, a seventh-round pick. "But I'll never be half the safety he was. That's just a reality."

Blache has stripped away much of the complexity and exotic blitz looks of his predecessor, wanting his players to master five or six packages. No doubt he knows that the sacks and turnovers that have eluded this defense most likely would have proliferated by virtue of Taylor's skills alone, but from the earliest days of training camp has urged his defensive players to focus solely on what they have, and what they can control.

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