Redskins defense: Nine first-round draft picks, but ranked last in NFL

Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett prefers the 3-4 defense over the 4-3 because there are fewer "bubbles" - or soft, unguarded spots.
Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett prefers the 3-4 defense over the 4-3 because there are fewer "bubbles" - or soft, unguarded spots. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:33 AM

Late Wednesday morning, not 36 hours after they had endured a historic whipping by the Philadelphia Eagles, Jim Haslett and London Fletcher walked off the practice field at Redskins Park, carrying on an intense discussion. As they approached the strip-mall of a building that houses both the Washington Redskins' locker room and the coaches' offices, Haslett - a 54-year-old former inside linebacker who now serves as the Redskins' defensive coordinator - bent at the knees, hands up, and slid to his right. For a moment, he was a linebacker again.

Fletcher, the Redskins' veteran inside linebacker, then assumed the same position, but took a step back, and then slid to his right. The two walked on, and the discussion continued into the building. Alignment, assignment, technique - football basics.

"We've got to figure this out," Fletcher said later.

This is the puzzle that needs solving at Redskins Park and no detail is too minute to consider as a potential part of the solution. The Redskins' defense believes it is gifted. "We got the talent," said outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Yet nine weeks into the season, a unit with nine first-round draft choices - more than any defense in the NFL - is still struggling with the conversion to a base 3-4 alignment and is giving up yards at a record pace.

After the Eagles carved them up for 592 yards last Monday night, the largest total allowed in the NFL this season, the Redskins are allowing 415.3 yards per game. That is not only more than any team in the league, but nearly 16 more yards than any Redskins team in history. This season, four teams - Chicago, Miami, Minnesota and San Diego - haven't given up 415 yards in a single game. Only four teams in NFL history - and none since 1981 - have allowed yards at a higher rate, and the Redskins' average of 25.4 points allowed ranks 26th in the NFL and would be their worst in a dozen years.

It takes time

Headed into Sunday's game at Tennessee, much of the talk about the Redskins' adjustments under first-year Coach Mike Shanahan have centered on quarterback Donovan McNabb and the sputtering offense. Such a singular focus, though, dismisses the fundamental overhaul the defense is enduring, and the uneven performances that go with it.

"This defense, we're going to need a whole year," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "You're not gong to really be able to see this defense function for two, three years. That's just how it is. To learn it and really understand it and get the kind of players you need to play it? . . . It's going to take a little grooming. It's going to take a little know-how. Guys got to get their [swagger] as far as what they're supposed to do and feel comfortable on the field, and get that bravado and feel like they can do it."

There is, players and coaches said, a two-fold problem: Getting players to learn the system Haslett and Shanahan have installed, but also having players who fit that scheme. Haslett, who has coached both 4-3 and 3-4 alignments, has a clear idea of why he prefers the latter.

"I think it's hard for offenses to figure out where everybody's coming from," he said. The primary pass rush can come from either of two outside linebackers, but those players could also drop back in coverage. There are, Haslett said, fewer "bubbles" - or soft, unguarded spots - than with an alignment that features four down linemen and three linebackers.

But in order to confuse offenses, the Redskins' defenders must not only know the nuances of the scheme, but have them come naturally, instantly, during a game. Start, then, with the learning process, one that began in the spring with offseason workouts and study sessions. In the previous two seasons under former defensive coordinator Greg Blache, Washington's defense - often criticized for not creating turnovers and making big plays - held teams to 304.3 yards a game and ranked fourth in yards allowed in 2008, 10th in 2009.

Those defenses, though, yielded the Redskins only 12 wins over those two years, and both head coach Jim Zorn and Blache were gone after last season. During his year away from coaching, Shanahan spent time with Haslett, a former head coach in New Orleans and St. Louis who also was out of the NFL. The two reviewed tapes of the 3-4, discussed its tenets, and went over how they might use it with different personnel if, in fact, Shanahan got a head coaching job and brought Haslett along to be his coordinator. When they arrived in Washington, they came with the idea of teaching the 3-4 to a group that had, almost exclusively, played the 4-3.

"It's almost like you've been kind of doing everything with your right hand," veteran defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday said, "and all of a sudden you break your right hand and you got to start doing everything with your left hand."

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