There has been one constant in the Washington Redskins' secondary this season, a free safety who, at 22, has 20 games of NFL experience. Sean Taylor has been the only cornerback or safety able to start all five games, and even Taylor was forced to miss a critical late drive in Week 4's overtime win against Seattle with a shoulder problem.
When the Redskins' defense was at its dominating best last season, it could attack with abandon, knowing that a talented group of defensive backs could stay with receivers in coverage or hit opponents by blitzing from the edge. This season, with the lineup shuffling from week to week, injuries ravaging the secondary since the start of training camp and inexperienced players being forced into heavy duty against much more potent offensive opponents, Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, has tempered some of that blitzing.
While Washington's defense is still in the top five, and its pass defense has remained solid -- ranked seventh in the NFL after stuffing Denver and Kansas City in successive weeks -- the Redskins have been unable to create turnovers or sacks almost all season while giving up big plays in the past three games, including three long touchdowns the last two weeks and one in Sunday's 28-21 loss at Kansas City. After last season's success, opponents are using three-step drops, shorter routes and maximum pass protection against the Redskins, negating some of their aggressive tactics.
Players and coaches have said that turnovers often stem from teammates being in lock step with one another, reading plays similarly and exploding to the football en masse. The Redskins (3-2) have not had the same four defensive backs start and finish games in consecutive weeks to this point, although they could get top cornerback Shawn Springs (shin) back from injury for Sunday's game against San Francisco, while starting safety Ryan Clark (spleen) could miss another week, Coach Joe Gibbs said.
"That chemistry can come into it," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "If you know one guy is there to make the tackle, then you can say, 'I know my buddy's got the tackle, now I can try to strip the ball out.' That does go hand in hand, and the turnovers will come. I don't know when they're going to come, but if we continue to fly to the ball and hit people, we're going to get them."
Washington's poor turnover differential (minus-8 for the season, second worst in the league) has resulted in consecutive defeats, and the team has gone four entire games -- 239 defensive plays -- without recovering a fumble or intercepting a pass and producing two total turnovers. The team ranks 31st of 32 teams in interceptions per passing attempt (one in 153 throws by opponents), has recovered one fumble (second worst), and sits dead last in sacks per pass play (five total sacks). Last season, Springs tied for the club lead with six sacks, and led the team with five interceptions; nine of Washington's 40 sacks and 15 of its 18 interceptions came from the secondary.
"I think this week might be the healthiest our secondary has been in three or four weeks," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "Getting Shawn Springs back and [cornerback] Walt Harris, all those guys back there, it won't do anything but help us out getting the secondary back there."
Injuries dogged the defense throughout last season as well, but the backfield was set for the final nine games, with Taylor and Clark playing as a safety tandem, and Springs and former stalwart Fred Smoot were together for seven of those games. Veteran Harris played all 16 games -- 14 as the nickel back and two filling in for Springs or Smoot -- and the plan to have ninth-overall pick Carlos Rogers handle that role this season changed when others got hurt, leaving abundant playing time for unproven corner Ade Jimoh, who is on the roster primarily for special-teams purposes.
"We haven't gotten any continuity back there with guys being comfortable playing together," Clark said. "It's tough. That can make you a step slower."
Taylor has popped several balls loose, but officials have ruled some incomplete passes and the Redskins have been unable to recover others (the team has forced nine fumbles overall and recovered just one). Clark loves to initiate contact, and getting him and Taylor back together could help create turnovers against the 49ers. Of the seven fumbles recovered by the defense last season, four came from the secondary.
Gibbs said he and his assistants continue to tinker with new practice drills to produce more turnovers, and it remains a primary point of emphasis for yet another week.
"Every week we've had four or five opportunities to get balls in our hands and we have not been able to, for whatever reason, to either get the fumble or get the interception," Gibbs said. "I don't know how to explain it. But it's put us in a real bind because you're not going to play on that side of the giveaway and takeaway ratio and win many football games."