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

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."

Even nine games into the season, that awkward feeling remains, and it has affected the Redskins' ability to play freely, to react without thinking, players said.

"It's a basic type of run play, basic type of pass play," Fletcher said, "and sometimes, because you have a little hesitance, that affects your ability to just play natural, play fast. That happens from time to time."

That can, and has, led to big plays for Washington's opponents. Two years ago, the Redskins allowed 42 plays of 20 or more yards all season. This year, they've already given up 39, a total exceeded by just four teams. The hesitance Fletcher and others spoke about could happen, players say, to any of 11 defensive players on any play, because the entire unit is still adjusting.

There is no player who embodies the difficulty in the transition more than defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, the former Titan who arrived in Washington to play tackle in Blache's 4-3 alignment, then chafed when Shanahan and Haslett decided to go with the 3-4. Haynesworth, the most expensive defensive free agent in history, is now used almost exclusively in passing situations - with the Redskins' "nickel" package - and doesn't play in the base, or "Okie", alignment. He remains the poster boy for the struggles associated with the change.

"You take a guy like Al, who's been frustrated throughout the course of this whole change," said Holliday, who has played both in the 4-3 and 3-4 in his 13-year career. "He's prided himself on being in a defense that's very aggressive, where he's getting upfield, shooting gaps and making plays in the backfield. This defense isn't like that. This defense is: you step, you're reading, a lot of reading what the offensive line is doing first, and then reacting, which some guys have a lot of difficulty doing. It's easier to just go."

That, then, leads to the question that can be answered, but not addressed, this season: Do the Redskins have the right players to play the system which Shanahan and Haslett have chosen?

"It's a tough defense to play in," Orakpo said. "It's not easy."

Personnel issues

Orakpo is one player who has had to adjust. As a rookie in 2009, he had 11 sacks playing as a defensive end who lined up in a three-point stance. Now, he's an upright outside linebacker, "and it's probably been a long time since he's seen the game from that level," Holliday said. But he has adapted, leading the Redskins with 71/2 sacks and, according to Stats, Inc., 171/2 quarterback hurries and knockdowns.

But players and coaches said one key to the 3-4 is having both outside linebackers not only rush the passer aggressively, but adeptly drop back in pass coverage as well. That combination presented some problems for the Redskins' other candidates to play the outside linebacker spot opposite Orakpo - 10-year veteran Andre Carter, who had 11 sacks in the 4-3 scheme last season, and Lorenzo Alexander, a special teams ace who served as a defensive tackle a year ago.

"You're asking Lorenzo Alexander to play linebacker?" Hall said. "He was a D-tackle."

The results have been mixed. Alexander has started five games, Carter four. Each has 11/2 sacks and has forced a fumble.

"It's more a level of comfort now, but granted, it's still a learning process," Carter said. "There's times when teams will be in certain formations when you're like, 'Oh, no. What should I do?' "

That's how the Redskins' core personnel problems can be exposed. Regardless of whether Alexander or Carter is playing opposite Orakpo, players and coaches said that's an area an opposing team might attack. The Redskins also have had to blitz frequently to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.

But the personnel issues specific to the 3-4 don't end with Carter and Alexander. Ma'ake Kemoeatu, the nine-year veteran the Redskins signed as a free agent to play nose tackle, is still not the player he was prior to missing all of 2009 with an Achilles' tendon injury, and that prevents the Redskins from getting the necessary push in the middle of the line - another key to the 3-4. One defensive end, Kedric Golston, entered the season as a backup in almost half of his career games - including 26 of his past 44 - and the other, Adam Carriker, hasn't consistently excelled either. Throw in a free safety, Kareem Moore, who has had trouble tackling against the run, and there are spots throughout the defensive lineup that have contributed to the Redskins' struggles.

Haslett and Shanahan have stood up for their personnel. "I'm not making excuses," Haslett said. And players admit there is also the matter of basic execution. On the first play of the second quarter of Monday night's 59-28 loss to the Eagles, Hall shadowed Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin down the right sideline and, by his own evaluation, simply made a bad play on Michael Vick's pass. The result: A 48-yard touchdown.

"We're looking bad, and it's not all the scheme," Hall said. "The coaches ain't out there playing. I gave up a touchdown that I felt like I was in great coverage. Just one more step and jump - God. Those are the ones you sit back and you're just like, 'Damn.' That had nothing to do with the scheme."

On Friday, Shanahan expressed his confidence in Haslett. "He's a worker," Shanahan said, and the head coach believes the Redskins have played some good defensive games.

"This is a little bump," Shanahan said.

It is the kind of bump, though, that can feel enormous for the players who have to travel over it. And, nine games in, it appears to be the kind of bump that could last throughout the season.

"We got a lot of guys doing things they've never done before," Hall said.

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