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Washington Redskins' early takeaway? Turnover-focused defense is right on the ball

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 1:11 AM

Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall doesn't bite his tongue often, and he knew that when frustrations boiled over last month and he proclaimed that "this my team, this my defense," expectations instantly rose.

"It definitely puts pressure on you," Hall acknowledged Monday, one day after his four interceptions lifted the Redskins to a 17-14 win over the Chicago Bears. "Pressure is either going to bust pipes or it's going to turn something into a diamond. I don't mind having the pressure on me."

The entire Washington defense has similarly felt heightened expectations this season, and Sunday's six-turnover performance is just another small step toward reaching them. When Coach Mike Shanahan and Jim Haslett, the team's defensive coordinator, switched to a 3-4 defensive scheme in the offseason, they had one goal in mind: producing more turnovers.

Not yet at the halfway point of the season's schedule, the Redskins have 17 takeways, which matches their total for all of 2009. It's a big reason why the team already has four wins, which also matches last season's total.

"That's what you're looking for," Shanahan said of Sunday's turnovers. "It's the difference in us winning and losing."

The Redskins are on pace to notch 39 takeways. Since 2005, only seven NFL teams have managed more than 38 takeaways in a season.

In addition to Hall's four interceptions, which tied an NFL record, the Redskins also recovered two fumbles against the Bears. "We needed every one of them," said linebacker London Fletcher.

As the team's offense continues to search for its footing, the Redskins' desperate need for takeaways won't soon wane. Washington has now won two games whose difference was a defensive score. Hall returned a fumble for a touchdown in a six-point win over Dallas, and Sunday at Chicago, his 92-yard interception return was essential in a three-point victory.

The Redskins' 17 takeaways are tied for second in the league this season. Their nine fumble recoveries are tied for first and their plus-eight turnover differential is tied for second. (Through seven weeks last season, the Redskins had a minus-four differential, which was tied for 25th in the league.)

Causing havoc and forcing turnovers was the stated goal entering the season, and even though the Redskins are ranked No. 31 in total defense, with an average of 406 yards surrendered per game, they're pleased with the results so far.

"We've been working on turnovers from the first day," Shanahan said. "We talked about turnovers, we talked about the 3-4 defense, trying to keep people off balance. Offenses [have] some difficulty in their game plan, not knowing which guy's coming, so we continue to do that.

"That's part of the reason we went to the 3-4," he said. "We thought we could put some pressure on the offenses that they haven't seen or that we haven't done here before."

There's more moving parts in this year's defense. Shanahan wants pressure up front, his defensive linemen creating lanes for blitzing linebackers and defensive backs. That creates problems for the quarterback by limiting his time to make a smart decision or a good throw. Chicago's Jay Cutler fared better in quick three-step drops Sunday than in plays that took longer to develop, on which the Redskins had most of their four sacks and eight quarterback hits.

Fletcher went back and watched game film Monday and was even more impressed with what he saw from his defensive teammates.

"I didn't realize how much guys were flying around," he said.

When all the parts are clicking, all the players reap the rewards. Nine different defensive players have had a hand in at least one turnover already this season.

The emergence of Albert Haynesworth, whose past two outings have been particularly strong, should benefit everyone. Shanahan said he liked both Haynesworth's effort and his ability to play within the team's game plan against the Bears. Haynesworth got his first sack of the season Sunday.

"I was pleased with his effort, I was pleased with his adjustments in the running game and the passing game," Shanahan said. "Even on that one turnover for a touchdown [by Hall], you saw [Haynesworth] 25-30 yards downfield take out an offensive lineman. That's what you're looking for."

And that's what the Redskins will continue to look for. Just as Hall's brash pronouncement last month raised the bar for him, the defense's strong outing in Chicago is something they'll now try to match.

"Once you start to have those games where you get multiple turnovers, it is something that you expect," Fletcher said. "You play the scheme, the defense, the way it's designed to be played and they come. That's what happened [Sunday]. It wasn't anybody going out and trying to do anything outside of the design of the defense. It was everybody playing their responsibilities, getting good pressure on the quarterback, being tight in our coverages. That's how the turnovers came for us. That's what we have to do more moving forward."

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