By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 1:24 AM
When Coach Mike Shanahan moved his things into an empty office at Redskins Park in January, he inherited an organization that needed an emotional boost, an offense that required an overhaul and a locker room that was starved for a leader. He also took over a top-10 defense, a unit that finds itself ranked last in the NFL through the first three games of this season.
Though the group had found success in recent years, Shanahan made the risky decision to drastically alter the defensive scheme, bringing in coordinator Jim Haslett to oversee the move to a 3-4 front with many of the same players who had thrived in a 4-3 base.
The move has proven ineffective so far. The Redskins have allowed their last two opponents to score 30 points and are giving up a league-high 423.7 yards per game.
Still, coming off a 30-16 loss at St. Louis, Shanahan said on Monday he's "comfortable" that he has the right pieces to field an aggressive and effective 3-4 defense.
"I think when you do poorly, you work on it. So we got some work to do in a few areas, especially our pass defense," Shanahan said. "But I think we're making some strides and hopefully we get there soon."
They have little time to waste. The Redskins will take their 1-2 record into a difficult stretch of the schedule, one that should challenge the team's struggling pass defense much more than the first three weeks. The Redskins now will face three straight playoff teams in Philadelphia, Green Bay and Indianapolis, with three polished quarterbacks in Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
That trio of quarterbacks will go against a Washington defense that's allowing an average of 325.7 passing yards per game. Only the Houston Texans are worse, and half the NFL teams don't allow that many yards per game - passing and rushing combined.
"It's definitely shocking," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall. "You read about teams that give up 500 yards passing, and you like, 'What the heck were they doing? What were they playing?' To now be associated with one of those teams, one of the defenses . . . it's definitely a tough pill to swallow. It's in our throats and we swallowing it and trying to do what we need to do to get right."
Shanahan began exploring the 3-4 defense during his year away from football and though he wouldn't publicly commit to the defense throughout the offseason, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation say he was eager to make the change.
But he was forced to do so with players who, for the most part, were brought to Washington to run a 4-3. That means some personnel are playing out of position, such as linebacker Andre Carter, a converted defensive end; some are still trying to find a position, such as defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth; and some are struggling to prove they can be effective in Haslett's system, such as nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu, who missed all of last year with an Achilles' injury.
"We got the same players pretty much, and some better athletes out there with the draft picks," said defensive end Phillip Daniels. "But to give up the yards we're giving up, it ain't good."
Asked if some players are questioning the decision to switch to a 3-4 alignment, Daniels said: "I don't know. We got to play the defense that we're in, that's the bottom line . . . If you look at it in hindsight, yeah, we were a better 4-3 team. But now we're a 3-4 team, and we got to learn the system, make it work. Coach Shanahan put the stats on the board. It does work. You just have to believe in it. You believe in it, you can make it work for you."
While the Redskins have given up 14 pass plays of 20 or more yards, linebacker London Fletcher, the team's defensive captain, pointed out that many of the opposing team's big plays actually haven't come against the Redskins' base defense.
"The misconception is we're playing a 3-4 defense and we're giving up big plays when we're playing our 3-4. Actually, that hasn't been the case," he said. "When we go to our sub packages and nickel defenses, things like that, that's when we've given up big plays or allowed them to convert on third down."
But the guiding philosophy in those packages doesn't necessarily change. The Redskins wanted a defense that would blitz, disguise its looks and force turnovers. They have two interceptions and two fumbles through three games. Only five teams have forced fewer turnovers (and another seven also have forced four).
Giving up big plays has kept the defensive unit on the field. The Washington defense has been on the field an average of eight more minutes than their offensive counterparts. Their 227 defensive snaps is the second-most in the NFL.
"The big thing, the big concern was on third downs," Shanahan said. "What we got to do is get people off the field. We just have to get better in that area."
That won't be any easier this Sunday at Philadelphia, which is currently fourth in the NFL with 27.7 points per game. But while other teams across the league are replacing quarterbacks and firing coordinators, Shanahan hasn't made any knee-jerk changes after the disappointing loss to the Rams. He wanted a 3-4 defense months ago, and he's determined to stick with it.
"We got to go out and believe in the defense and trust the calls and make plays," Daniels said. "If we do that, we can get things back on track."
Staff writer Tarik El-Bashir contributed to this report.