By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Early last week, as the Washington Redskins began preparing to meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, cornerback Carlos Rogers underwent a purging of sorts. He unpacked his notebook -- the one he takes into film sessions and position meetings, the one filled with notes and memories from the team's first three disappointing games of the young season -- and permanently filed it away. The notebook wasn't even half-full, but Rogers said he literally wanted to continue the season on a fresh page.
"Three weeks old," he said of the team's slow start. "Got to start a new slate."
In deciding what the team's new slate will look like, coaches and players don't necessarily cite the same problems or the same solutions. Most around Redskins Park, however, agree on this: The defense must improve for the team to have any hope of success.
While the team's offense has posted modest improvements over the first three games, the most surprising aspect of the team's loss last Sunday to the Detroit Lions, who were winless in their previous 19 games, was the defensive performance. The unit entered the season expected to be among the league's best. Instead, players say the defense lacks identity, deflects accountability and negates its high level of talent with poor execution. In fact, as the week wore on, players and coaches continually tried to explain what ails the defense, and virtually no cause was left unexplored.
"When you have a high level of talent and high standards and you aren't excelling, you're just trying to think of everything and anything to be successful," defensive end Andre Carter said. "It can get a little bit crazy."
The team's greater woes mostly revolve around the defense's performance on third downs, which is the worst in the NFL thus far. Opponents have successfully converted 22 of 43 attempts, and opposing quarterbacks are 24 of 32 passing on third downs for 291 yards and two touchdowns.
For the Redskins, these struggles are merely the first domino. So many of the team's other problems are rooted in the defense's ineffectiveness on third downs. When the defense can't get off the field, opponents control the clock. That leaves the Redskins' offense with less time to operate and fewer plays to call. Offensive players spend long stretches on the sideline, which disrupts rhythm. Meanwhile, defensive players tire, which eventually compromises effort and execution.
"I think sometimes you feel a pressure -- 'We got to get off the field on third down' -- instead of just letting loose like you know you're going to get off the field," safety Reed Doughty said. "When guys are excited, when we know we're going to get off the field, those big plays haven't clicked yet, and we're not getting off the field as well as we'd like. We just have to mend together."
The first half last week against Detroit was a sequence the Redskins can't afford to repeat. After two quarters, the Lions had controlled the clock for 22 of 30 minutes. They had converted 5 of 9 third-down attempts, elongating drives that stretched for 99, 74 and 86 yards and eventually resulted in scores. Detroit had called 45 offensive plays, more than double Washington's 19. The Redskins, in fact, ran the ball just five times in the first half.
After reviewing film, players and coaches failed to put their fingers on a single cause. They did notice bad technique, players out of position and missed assignments. But as they try to improve on third downs Sunday against the Bucs, they failed to find a quick-fix solution. Linebacker London Fletcher said it's not a matter of a unit lacking an identity or failing to jell.
"You look at the film, we're not executing our calls. It's as simple as that," Fletcher said. "So I don't know about identity. If the call is made and you ain't executing, the identity is you ain't executing the call."
But defensive coordinator Greg Blache says the problem was often the calls he was sending in. With plenty of talent at his disposal, Blache has said he has "hung players out to dry" this season, often calling for formations and matchups that opponents have taken advantage of.
"If you go back through the tape, and you go back through the film, and you look at what is happening on third down, you go, 'Where is the problem?' " Blache said. "There is a problem; no ifs, ands, or buts, there is a problem. . . . So how do you help them? You help them by giving them better calls and putting them in better situations -- not worry about a lot of the things I was worried about. I was calling it 'handcuffed,' so to speak, and I can't do that.
"The more I can do, is stop putting them in one-on-one situations. If I'm putting them in a situation that they can't win, that's not good coaching. If they can't win that one-on-one, what I need to do is not put them in the one-on-one. That's why it ultimately comes back to us."
Coach Jim Zorn, his assistants and several defensive players all said Blache doesn't deserve more blame than anyone else at Redskins Park.
"It's totally a team deal," defensive line coach John Palermo said. "It's coaches, it's players, it's everybody. It's not one person. It's never one person."
Said Fletcher: "I think Coach Blache is being harder on himself than he should be. I watch the film, I know the calls, and I know what everybody's responsibility is within the call. I think that we as players have to go out and execute the way the defense is designed to be executed. If they make a play on you, then so be it, but at least let the defense looks like it's supposed to look."
The remnants of a defense originally designed by Gregg Williams is conservative compared with some of the league's top defenses. While Williams is now finding success three games into the season as the coordinator in New Orleans -- he was awarded the game ball following the Saints' 27-7 win over Buffalo last week -- Blache says he must become more of a "maverick" as a coordinator and try to inject some energy and creativity into a despondent group.
Players and coaches say Blache had a familiar sense of urgency in meetings last week. "I want it done yesterday," is how safeties coach Steve Jackson described his boss's demeanor. With more questions than answers following the loss in Detroit, players know that mentality needs to seep down to the locker room immediately.
"You can't sit back and let things happen to you," Jackson said. "Sometimes you have to go out and make them happen. It's just an attitude."
To that end, coaches made their first defensive lineup shuffle of the season last week, replacing second-year strong safety Chris Horton with Doughty. Horton had played in about two-thirds of the team's defensive snaps, while Doughty had played in a little more than one-third as a reserve. Despite the limited action, Doughty has been plenty productive. He enters Sunday's game tied for the team lead in tackles for losses (three) and tied for second in passes defended (three).
This week, while Blache juggled the lineup, Zorn cautioned that changes required on defense would be minimal.
"I think we are being aggressive," Zorn said. "I don't see much of a change. I'm hoping we get great effort like we have been getting."
Every day leading up to the Bucs' arrival at FedEx Field, defensive players have talked about the details of their respective assignments. Linemen have focused on proper leverage, defensive backs have talked about technique, linebackers have discussed hitting their landmarks on the field. It's things they know, things they've scribbled in their notebooks in countless team meetings over the years. But Zorn has asked players to turn a new page -- start a new notebook in some cases -- and recommit to these details.
"We need a fresh start," Rogers said. "The whole team."