The transition has been slow, but Redskin practices are echoing more and more with the sound of the Big Hit.
Just ask receiver Alvin Garrett.
Near the end of what had been his finest practice, Garrett stretched for a pass, caught it on his fingertips and started to turn upfield.
But before he could brace himself, cornerback LeCharls McDaniel ended a running start by digging a shoulder into his teammate's chest. The sound of the collision resounded around Biddle Field as the ball squirted loose and Garrett fell to the ground.
Even though it was a limited-contact practice session, Redskin coaches didn't chastise McDaniel. No one is about to discourage a display of toughness in this training camp, where creating more defensive aggressiveness is the No. 1 goal.
"We just didn't hit hard enough last year," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Our secondary wasn't aggressive enough; no one was. We have to get after people and attack them, make them work for their yards. We got tired of watching films in the offseason and seeing our guys tackle somebody and have him drag us another three or four yards and no one was around to help."
So what if the Redskins are copycats, trying to imitate last season's solid-hit philosophy of the San Francisco 49ers? So what if they aren't quite there yet? Gibbs is content to see some progress.
Perhaps the transition will come about if, as defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon believes, "We manage to stay healthy. That's what will determine it. If we can put the same people on the field every game, and let them get to know each other and become coordinated, you'll see a better team."
But the Redskins can't depend on good health, especially after two straight seasons of serious injury problems. Instead, they have based their season plans on three assumptions:
First, any increase in aggressiveness by front-four defenders will be a bonus. For now, other players are being asked to contribute more heavily while the Redskins attempt to stabilize the line, especially at end.
Second, young players such as ends Mat Mendenhall and Dexter Manley and linebackers Monte Coleman and Rich Milot should be better this season, thanks to forced playing time last year. The Redskins believe that improvement alone will increase their aggressiveness.
Third, the team's secondary is talented enough to become pivotal in giving the entire defensive unit more punch.
"We aren't doing anything as drastic as changing major formations," said Petitbon. "I'd say that what we are doing is more subtle."
But even that subtle approach has a shaky bottom line. Petitbon admits that in becoming more supercharged, the Redskins will leave themselves more vulnerable to big plays.
"To become more aggressive," he said, "we are going to take more risks and be more daring. That will mean we will be burned for more longer runs than last year, but I'm also convinced that it means we will cause more turnovers and limit more runs to small or no-gains. We have to force people into second- or third-and-long passing situations instead of having them run on us too much. And we can't worry if occasionally they pop a 15-yard gain on us.
"If we don't change our thinking and attack more, we may not ever get better against the run. We can't have the same problems stopping people we had last year."
From almost the moment camp began, Petitbon's players have been reminded about aggressiveness. And to help the learning process, the Redskins have made some well-defined on-the-field changes:
The secondary is being instructed to come up to the line of scrimmage faster in its pursuit of runners. Free safety Mark Murphy, in particular, is being asked to be less cautious.
Linemen are being taught to use their hands more and to concentrate more on a faster takeoff at the snap.
Segments of practices that concentrate on defending against the run have been altered to include members of the secondary. The aim is to improve pursuit angles of the defensive backs and help overall coordination within the entire unit. And the move is serving to polish fundamentals that Petitbon says may not have been emphasized enough in last year's camp.
The success of these plans, which are aimed mostly at improving the league's 21st-worst defense against the run (but 10th overall), hinge greatly on the altered duties of the backfield.
This has been an outstanding secondary against the pass, ranking annually among the NFL's best. This season, Petitbon expects the backs to maintain that same level against the pass while also becoming as effective against the run as, for example, the 49ers.
To get this new approach going, Washington traded Lemar Parrish, a quality pass defender but a weak tackler, to Buffalo. That left a hole at cornerback, which is being filled by Jeris White, who is much more aggressive than Parrish. The Redskins expect White and second-round choice Vernon Dean, who was drafted because of his tackling ability, to be more adept at charging the line and turning back end sweeps. Dean could wind up playing for Joe Lavender on early running downs, a role White filled in the past.
At the same time, Gibbs expects his safeties, Tony Peters and Murphy, to be more active. If they aren't, he has threatened to turn to Mike Nelms and possibly Curtis Jordan, the ex-Tampa Bay veteran picked up late last year on waivers.
"I've been told to make my reads quicker," said Murphy, who led Washington in tackles, interceptions and fumble recoveries last year from his free safety spot. "Richie has even told me that I have to take the risk of coming up faster on the run, even if it means getting caught on a play-action fake.
"Since I'm usually the last line of defense, it's been a natural tendency to make sure I was there to make the tackle instead of pursuing more. Now I want to play the type of defense where, even if I miss, I force the guy into somebody else coming up. What they want to see is for me to make a tackle four yards up field instead of eight.
"I've always tried to play aggressively. It's just a matter this year of being more intense."
Peters, the strong safety, admits he had "fallen into a state of security" last season and was far less aggressive than in his college days at Oklahoma.
"When I came into the league, I went after people," he said. "I have to get back to that again. I'm playing as if I have to win my position again and that means I'll be tackling a lot harder. Our goal should be to be so aggressive that it changes the thinking of offenses. They may be more reluctant to run a crossing pattern, for example, if they think their receivers are going to be punished."
Petitbon would rather his defensive backs worry less about the run and more about the pass, but their burden will be reduced only if the linebackers and front four improve.
Last season, injuries devastated the linebacking corps and especially curtailed the development of Coleman, who is stronger defending against the pass than stopping the run. Coleman has the capabilities to be an intimidator, as does rookie Larry Kubin, whose role as an all-out blitzing specialist on passing downs eventually could make him the most memorable tackler on the team.
"We were filling in with free-agent rookies at linebacker last year," Petitbon said. "They were tentative because they were just struggling to survive. In people like Coleman and (Rich) Milot, we have strong players who should be capable of knocking runners around."
How much the front four contributes to the new aggressiveness depends in part on its ability to absorb Assistant Coach Torgy Torgeson's increased emphasis on quick starts and fast hands.
"There has been a tremendous amount of work on hand placement," tackle Dave Butz said. "They want us to get our hands on our opponent's chest faster, so we can knock him back and keep him on his side of the line. Otherwise, with the way offensive linemen are grabbing today, they have the advantage. We will be reading the play on the run, with everyone trying to react as soon as the ball is snapped.
"I also think it's a plus that we are coordinating pursuit angles with the secondary. If we play together enough, we'll know each other better; we can react instead of think and the result will be a lot more big plays."
Torgeson: "We're trying to take advantage of the fact defensive linemen can use their hands and offensive linemen supposedly can't. We've always worked on the hands, but maybe we're pushing it more this year. We've got to keep our spots and not get pushed off the line."
Whether the philosophy succeeds could be determined as early as in the preseason games. Somebody, Peters says, has to set an example.
"We need a couple of real crushing tackles or a breakup of a pass," he said. "Then it could be catching. Once the tempo is set, we might start knocking people around for a change." g