As he set up his new digs at Redskins Park early this offseason, defensive coordinator Joe Barry had three signs made for his unit’s meeting room. On each sign he had printed a word that he wanted to serve as the three building blocks of the defense.
Compete. Physical. Finish.
Over the course of the past eight months, Barry has done his best to ingrain those three ideals into the minds of his charges.
The Redskins invested heavily in the defense this offseason. They signed two new starting defensive linemen, nose tackle Terrance Knighton and end Stephen Paea, and a veteran rotational lineman, Ricky Jean Francois. Officials signed a new No. 1 cornerback, Chris Culliver, and traded for a starting free safety, Dashon Goldson. They also drafted outside linebacker Preston Smith to replace Brian Orakpo, and just before the start of training camp re-signed pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan to a new five-year deal.
The talent level and overall depth have improved. But without those three tenets, Barry doesn’t think the group has much of a chance to dramatically morph from the inconsistent unit that he inherited to the NFL juggernaut he envisions.
The Redskins lost far too many one-on-one battles last season. Far too often, they failed to match the physicality of their opponents. And on some occasions, they put forth solid performances for the majority of games but then got burned by one or two big plays.
And so, Barry preaches the three keys over and over.
“No matter what we’re doing, and I challenge guys: Compete. When we’re in a meeting, don’t just go through a meeting. Compete. If we can get something out of every meeting we have,” Barry said. “The other thing I’ve impressed upon them on a daily basis is Physical. . . . We are going to be physical with our effort. We’re really building a physical mentality with how we worked in the weight room with coach [Mike] Clark, in phase 2 with position drills, and then now that we’re out here. Then the third thing is finish. If you compete in everything you do, you have a physical mentality and you finish everything you start, those are the blocks.”
Plagued by instability in the secondary, an ineffective pass rush and injuries to key players on a yearly basis the five previous seasons under Jim Haslett, Washington’s defense represents a reclamation project — thus the installation of six new starters. But Barry knows a thing or two about restoration — personal restoration.
Given his first shot at a defensive coordinator job by his father-in-law Rod Marinelli with Detroit at the age of 37 in 2007, Barry bombed. His defense ranked last in the league in 2007 and 2008. But the problems weren’t restricted to Barry’s unit. Detroit didn’t win a game that second year, and the coaching staff got fired.
Barry took personal inventory and chose to reinvent himself as a coach. He went back to Tampa Bay (where he served as linebackers coach from 2001-06) for one year, then coached his old position (linebacker) at his alma mater, USC, in 2010. From there, Barry went to the San Diego Chargers, where he coached linebackers and learned the 3-4 defense after coaching in a 4-3 his whole career.
Jay Gruden interviewed Barry and found him refreshing. He liked his passion, his vision and communication skills. Given a chance at redemption, Barry has attacked his job with a fury.
During practices, Barry rarely stops barking instructions or praises. He sprints in after plays, gets in players’ faces and demonstratively explains what to fix. He urges players to scoop up every ball, even after an incomplete pass. On the occasion a player forgets and has already returned to the huddle, Barry sprints up, scoops up the ball himself and celebrates that he has come up with it.
Barry intends to serve as the tone-setter in any way possible.
“He’s a live wire,” Knighton said.
“Great communicator, very detailed, good motivator” inside linebacker Keenan Robinson said.
The Redskins have bought into Barry’s philosophies, and during the preseason they showed greater purpose in flocking to the ball. As a result, they proved stingy against the run. Such a principle isn’t new, Redskins players admit, but Barry’s way of emphasizing that as a priority is.
“Last year they preached it as well,” Riley explained. “This year, I think they’re doing a better job in practice of making sure we finish as a unit, to the ball. . . . They’re making sure we finish — that 11 guys all show up on film. And we’re doing a good job of that.”
The defensive line also displayed an improved ability to create pressure during the preseason. Some of it is because of the improved level of talent, but players believe Barry’s tactics help too.
Although he runs the 3-4 defense just as Haslett did, Barry has his linemen line up across from the gaps between offensive linemen, rather than head-to-head. He wants his linemen shooting the gaps and getting to the running back or quarterback rather than taking on blockers to free up linebackers to make the plays.
However, despite positive signs, the Redskins still haven’t seen a complete picture of what Barry’s defense will look like. Kerrigan was held out of preseason games as a precaution because of arthroscopic knee surgery. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall missed the second preseason game with a groin injury, and fellow corner Bashaud Breeland didn’t play until the final tuneup because of a sprained right medial collateral ligament.
And so the Redskins describe themselves as cautiously optimistic about their chances. They know their potential and they have bought into their coach’s vision. But it could take time before the finished project manifests itself.
“We can be a number of things. What we want to be is a ball-hawking, control-the-run, aggressive-on-the-pass-rush, no-explosive-plays type of defense,” Hall said. “We have yet to be all those things. But I feel like heading into the season, we’ll have a good foundation, a good base.”