Washington Redskins offseason: Transition to 3-4 defense should emulate Green Bay Packers, some NFL coaches say

The Washington Post's Jonathan Forsythe, LaVar Arrington, Rick Maese and Dan Steinberg discuss the Redskins' offseason priorities for the 31st ranked defense.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 8:15 PM

If their plan works, the Washington Redskins soon will have a defense that resembles the Pittsburgh Steelers' successful 3-4 scheme, the model for what Coach Mike Shanahan hopes to achieve.

For now, though, the Redskins probably should focus on emulating the Green Bay Packers, who have fared better than Washington in the transition from the 4-3. Green Bay acquired two outstanding players at the scheme's most important positions - nose tackle B.J. Raji and outside linebacker Clay Matthews - before committing to the change in 2009. The Redskins struggled this season, in large part because they lacked the right personnel, according to two NFC assistant coaches and one AFC assistant who studied video of Washington.

After their worst defensive performance since 1954, the Redskins must make major personnel changes - especially along the line - if they hope to improve next season. The 2011 free-agent class could be the best in league history (if the NFL's labor conflict doesn't affect it), and Washington has financial flexibility. The Redskins also hold the 10th overall pick in the upcoming draft.

It seems unlikely that the Redskins could address all of their needs on defense this offseason, but they should get started, because there's a lot of work to do.

"What we did this year as a defense . . . it wasn't acceptable at all," said cornerback and defensive co-captain DeAngelo Hall, who was recently selected to his third Pro Bowl.

"A lot of it comes down to having the right guys, the right people, in the right places, and I think that's what this year was about for Coach Shanahan and Haz (defensive coordinator Jim Haslett). They saw what they needed to see, and there's probably gonna be a lot of changes, cause this definitely wasn't good enough."

For most of the season, the Redskins ranked last in the league in defense and finished 31st out of 32 teams.

They gave up an average of 389.3 yards per game, were 31st against the pass (261.7) and 26th against the run (127.6). Opponents averaged 23.6 points against Washington - tied for 21st. Washington did produce 10 more turnovers (27) than last season, which was among its goals, but still had a minus-four turnover differential

In its first season in the 3-4, Green Bay ranked second in the league in total defense, and was No. 1 against the run and first with 40 turnovers and a differential of plus-24. Despite losing many key players to injuries this season, the Packers were fifth in yards given up, second to the Steelers in points per game at 15.0 and tied for second with 47 sacks.

With their two first-round picks in the 2009 draft, the Packers selected Raji ninth overall from Boston College and Matthews 26th overall from Southern California. They have provided the foundation for Green Bay's success in the scheme, which works best with a dominant nose tackle occupying multiple blockers in the middle and outstanding edge rushers at linebacker.

In "this defense, you need a big guy sitting in the middle, which B.J. gives you, and you need a guy that can rush and drop off the edge and impact games," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said recently. "Both of those guys, you've seen their play constantly get better since they've been here."

Obviously, Raji and Matthews are not solely responsible for the Packers' success, said the three NFL assistant coaches, who requested anonymity to speak freely. They have many talented teammates, including five-time all-pro cornerback Charles Woodson, a probable Hall of Famer. But Raji and Matthews set the tone up front.

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