Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and several of his players said today the team is in the process of installing a new defensive philosophy and system, with the emphasis on being more aggressive.
Following a 1998 season in which they had a 6-10 record and surrendered just over 26 points per game, the Redskins felt they had to make more than just personnel changes to show significant improvement.
"We're stressing three words: attack, relentless, physical," Nolan said between the team's initial morning walk-through and afternoon practice at Frostburg State University. "That's how you want to play. That's how you want to be known. If it works, it'll be a great thing."
Nolan declined to discuss the specifics of the changes in the Redskins' defensive system, and was elusive when asked whether he considers the changes dramatic.
"There are some differences," Nolan said. "If we play better than we did last year, then you can call them dramatic. Really, it's too early to tell how it's going to work out. We've got a lot of work to do.
"There are some things we'll implement [but] really, the players just have to play. . . . If they'd played last year the way they were coached to play, it would have worked out better than it did. . . . It's on them [the players], and it's on me. Hopefully it'll work for the better."
Many observers at Redskin Park and around the league spent last season wondering why the Redskins were reluctant to blitz opposing quarterbacks, and why defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson were ineffective when playing alongside one another. Nolan's spotless reputation in the NFL took some hits, and the Redskins' defensive shortcomings played a major role in their 0-7 start.
Nolan said today that his players were "lethargic" in the first half of last season, and that their second-half improvement was the result of better play, not a new scheme. Now the Redskins hope the added passion from their defensive players in the latter stages of last season carries over to go with some new players and the new wrinkles in the system.
"It's a more attacking defense," veteran linebacker Ken Harvey said. "We're going to be aggressive the whole time, by game plan. We need to be aggressive."
Said Nolan: "The players have to play, and we as coaches have to give them some tools. We'll see. Everything right now is theory. I want our identity to be attack, relentless, physical. If someone says you guys are those three things, that's good."
Stubblefield said that he and Wilkinson have been told by the team's coaches that they'll have more freedom this season to go after opposing ball carriers. Stubblefield acknowledged that he had trouble adjusting last season to the read-and-react style he was asked to play. He was the 1997 NFL defensive player of the year while with the San Francisco 49ers, but had a subpar '98 season for the Redskins in which he played in seven games--all losses--then did not return from a knee injury. The Redskins, even after acquiring Stubblefield and Wilkinson before the season, ranked 28th in the league against the run last season (and 24th overall).
"The coaches have already said to us, 'You guys are going to have a chance to do your thing,' " Stubblefield said today. "If it's working, they're going to go with it. If it's not working, they'll scale it back, which is pretty typical of coaches anywhere."
Wilkinson made some big plays down the stretch last season after Stubblefield was hurt, sometimes straying from the defensive scheme to do so. Still, Nolan objected to the notion that Stubblefield and Wilkinson will be permitted to freelance this season.
"I don't think freelance is a good word in a team sport," Nolan said. "If you're playing doubles in tennis and your partner is freelancing all the time, that might be a good thing for him but I don't think you'd think it's such a good thing for you."
The Redskins hope to be quicker and tougher on defense after acquiring safety Sam Shade and defensive end Marco Coleman, both free agents, and deciding to go with three younger players--Derek Smith, Shawn Barber and Greg Jones--as their starting linebackers. The addition of first-round draft pick Champ Bailey at cornerback across from Darrell Green could enable the Redskins to get away with man-to-man coverage on opposing wide receivers and take more chances with blitzes.