While certain parts of the Washington Redskins have jelled quickly, the team's young linebacking corps remains a work in progress three games into the season.
The overhaul of the Redskins linebackers represented the biggest gamble in Coach Norv Turner's reworking of last year's 6-10 squad. While proven veterans were added to bolster the defensive line (Marco Coleman) and defensive backs (safety Sam Shade), Turner chose to promote his linebackers from within.
The thinking was youth and athleticism would compensate for the experience lost with the departure of free agent middle linebacker Marvcus Patton and the retirement of Ken Harvey.
Third-year player Derek Smith, 24, was promoted to Patton's job, while Shawn Barber, 24, and Greg Jones, 25, who played mainly on third downs last season, were named starters on the outside. Those moves were complemented by the adoption of a more aggressive style of play, designed to capitalize on the linebackers' speed and play-making ability, as well as spark the overall performance of a defense that Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder had criticized as "vanilla."
Much like the honing of a golf swing or tennis stroke, the development of the Redskins' new linebackers has taken two steps forward for each occasional step back. But Turner said yesterday he remains confident in his players and the unit as a whole.
"They're young guys that haven't seen as much in game action every week," Turner said. "They're going to see some things new, and they're going to have to be able to adjust and adjust on the move. I like all three of them. They're all three going to be good players; they're going to keep getting better as the year goes along."
Added defensive coordinator Mike Nolan: "It's a lot like a quarterback on offense for a linebacker--especially a young one. They have to get used to the NFL. There's a lot of things put to you by offenses, and defensively you do more things, as well."
The linebackers had their toughest outing yet in last week's 27-20 victory over the New York Jets, a team none had faced. The Redskins gave up 142 yards rushing--a good portion of that on the outside, rather than up the middle.
"We made adjustments later in the game," Barber said, "but initially I think it was a good game plan from their offense to attack our outside. Up until that game, we had been real solid up the middle. They attacked the outside, and it worked for them for about a half."
When the linebackers struggled, it was largely a matter of recognizing unfamiliar formations and blocking schemes.
In some cases, Barber said, a lineman came off the ball at an unexpected angle. Jones said he was thrown at times by blocks from wide receivers. As a result, the unit played tentatively at times.
"I don't think we did play as aggressive and downhill as we could have," Smith said. "A lot of times we were kind of timid and kind of hesitant because we didn't really know our exact fit on the play. From the get-go, we were kind of out of alignment."
Meanwhile, the Redskins' defensive line played its best game yet. Defensive end Kenard Lang was named NFC defensive player of the week for a performance that included seven tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble that set up a touchdown. Linemen sacked quarterback Rick Mirer four times.
"We messed up a couple of times, and they masked our mistakes," Jones said of the defensive line. "Right now, the whole defensive line is playing great. Big Daddy [Dan Wilkinson] and Dana [Stubblefield] are in there taking up double-teams for us. People say, 'Aw, they're not doing as good a job at making tackles,' but they're doing a great job of holding them because they get double-teamed the most."
Shoring up the run defense will be essential when the Redskins host the Carolina Panthers (1-2) Sunday. Panthers running back Tim Biakabutuka rushed for a career-high 132 yards--including touchdown runs of 62 and 67 yards--against Cincinnati last week.
Nolan believes experience is the key.
"The more they have repetitions, the better they get," Nolan said. "They get familiar with things. It takes time; it doesn't happen overnight."
NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff, now a radio analyst for the Redskins, also believes the unit will continue improving.
"These are three talented football players," Huff said. "When you take Derek Smith, who played on the outside and move him to the inside, and you promote Barber, and take the leader of the linebackers out, you've got three new positions that have to be re-learned."
Huff also said the value of toughness--if not outright meanness--can't be underestimated among linebackers. Toughness is more than a tone, he believes; it's a tactic that can dictate opponents' game plans.
"If a guy came and cracked back on me, I'd look him dead in the eye and say, 'I'm going to break your neck. I'm going to break your skull if you do that again.' That sounds vicious, but that guy will pick you all day long if you let him, like picking apples off a tree. . . . It's a point of intimidation. A linebacker has got to be intimidating. They are your leaders, your hitters on the football field."
Both Barber and Smith believe improvement will come with more game-day action.
"It's a lot of things we haven't seen yet," Barber said. "Seeing them in practice and seeing them in games are two different things. We can do anything we want--X's and O's, watching film study--but until you're actually out there and you play against that type of offense, you really don't have a true feeling for what it's like."
CAPTION: Shawn Barber finds end zone after 70-yard interception return in 50-21 victory over the New York Giants Sept. 19.