The Washington Redskins have nearly two weeks to savor their three-game winning streak and offensive exploits--and to search for some answers for their struggling defense and special teams.
Coach Norv Turner said yesterday he remains confident in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. But Nolan indicated that the team's decision-makers will use the bye week to examine all aspects of the defense, and left open the possibility of making philosophical or personnel changes.
"We've got two weeks to look at things," Nolan said. "We'll look at all things, from the scheme to the players. I want to evaluate. I'm going to keep an open mind. . . . There might be some adjustments from a personnel standpoint."
The Redskins matched the biggest comeback in team history by overcoming a 21-point deficit to beat the Carolina Panthers, 38-36, on Sunday at Redskins Stadium. They improved their record to 3-1. They have won three consecutive games since their deflating season-opening loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Turner gave his players yesterday and today off. The Redskins will resume practicing Wednesday to prepare for their next game, in 12 days at Arizona.
The Redskins continue to have the NFL's top-ranked offense and last-ranked defense. They acknowledge that they probably cannot keep outscoring opponents in wild shootouts, and that they will need to improve defensively to be the sort of team they expect to be.
"We're not holding up our end," defensive end Kenard Lang said yesterday at Redskin Park. "We're not playing up to par. We have to get better."
Turner said during his weekly news conference: "We are living dangerously. We know the areas we need to improve and the areas we need to address. . . . Those are the areas we're going to address and look hard at this week. We have extra time here to focus in on some things we're doing and on some people, and get them playing better."
Of the bye week, Turner said: "I really believe defensively it's going to allow us to address some things. Offensively it's going to allow us to catch our breath."
Last season, the Redskins were 0-7 when their bye week arrived. Turner received some criticism for backing off his players then, giving them some time and space to gather themselves mentally. He remained confident, proclaiming, "What we do works."
Times are different now. The Redskins are winning. The easiest portion of their schedule arrives after they play at Arizona and Dallas following their break. But the defense is a major concern, and Turner's refrain sounded familiar yesterday.
He pointed out that the Panthers had only 32 rushing yards in the final three quarters Sunday (Tim Biakabutuka ran for 123 yards and three touchdowns on five first-quarter carries). He said he "absolutely" remains confident that the Redskins will develop into a good defensive team this season.
"All you have to do is look at the last three quarters of that game," Turner said. "What we do works. . . . We held up in the late third and fourth quarters when offensively we had trouble getting first downs. We had horrible field position, and we held up. . . . Defensively we made a bunch of plays in that game that gave us a chance to win the game."
Turner played down the possibility of making major changes, saying: "I don't think you can do that now. . . . There are things we can improve. I really believe that. The biggest thing we're doing poorly right now is, we're giving up too many big plays. You can fix that. We'll fix that. You can have nine or 10 guys do a great job and one guy have a breakdown, and it can turn into a big play."
Nolan said yesterday that personnel changes on either the base defense or situational packages are possible, but refused to discuss any specifics.
Nolan said the defensive line has played "well enough," but again expressed disappointment in the starting linebackers. During the offseason, the Redskins switched Derek Smith from outside to middle linebacker, and installed Greg Jones and Shawn Barber as the starters on the outside. Barber, in particular, has struggled at times, mostly against the run.
"Greg has done a decent job," Nolan said. "Shawn has had some problems the last two games. . . . He's young. Going in, we knew we'd have to take the good with the bad."
One possibility would be to start veteran Fred Strickland at middle linebacker and move Smith back to the outside. That would leave Barber playing in passing situations.
Nolan has cited the secondary for failing to stop long runs, such as Biakabutuka's 60- and 45-yard touchdown runs Sunday. The Redskins had run blitzes in effect on both of those plays. Nolan began the season pledging to employ an aggressive, attacking defensive approach. He said yesterday that the team's success rate on its blitzes has been disappointing.
"I'm not displeased with the things we're doing," Nolan said. "We've put ourselves in positions to accomplish our goals. The same defense that gets us three plays and out also gives up a 60-yard touchdown run. Our execution is what we need to pay attention to."
He accepted his share of the blame.
"It falls on our shoulders as coaches, to make sure we get it done--and in this case, on my shoulders," Nolan said. "So far, we've had a hard time getting it done. . . . That's our fight right now, and it's a big fight."
Said Turner: "Because we're 3-1, we feel good. But I also understand we need to keep working and improving, because this team can get a lot better."