With opponents piling up yards at a dizzying rate, Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said Thursday he takes “full responsibility” for what he called “some ugly football” by his defense in the season’s first two games. Haslett and his players then headed to the practice field at Redskins Park and, with the players in full pads, tried to fix what has been perhaps the unit’s most glaring problem: its shoddy tackling.
“Obviously I’ve got to do a better job in getting these guys to tackle because we had way too many tackling issues the first two games,” Haslett said.
Fundamentally sound tackling has become, increasingly, a lost art in the NFL. It’s not an issue that’s easily addressed, given that there are strict limitations in the sport’s collective bargaining agreement on the amount of contact allowed in practices. But the Redskins acknowledge that their defense must tackle better if they’re going to find a way to turn around their season after an 0-2 start.
“The missed tackles are huge,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “Huge. The yards after contact have to be a glaring number for us at this point. They lead to big plays, and that’s what’s been killing this defense.”
The defense has yielded 1,023 yards in the Redskins’ first two games. That is tied for the second most in league history through two games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two yards fewer than the 1967 Atlanta Falcons. The Redskins rank last in the league in run defense, based on yards allowed, and last in total defense.
“Tackling has been poor,” linebacker London Fletcher said this week. “Gap discipline hasn’t been what it should be. It’s what happens sometimes with a copycat league: Teams put you out in space, and you’re forced to make one-on-one tackles. We’ve got to get more guys running to the football as well so a guy can’t be relied on having to make one-on-one tackles all the time. . . . It’s just a matter of we’ve just got to play better and definitely tackle better.”
The Redskins’ tackling was an issue during the preseason, especially when rookie safety Bacarri Rambo was outmaneuvered badly by Tennessee’s Chris Johnson on a touchdown in the exhibition opener. Haslett said he thought the Redskins tackled better for the remainder of the preseason, but the issue resurfaced in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers to open the regular season.
“We actually tackled well the next couple [preseason] games,” Haslett said. “And then the first two games of the season, that’s been an issue with us. From a coach’s standpoint, I’ll wear that because I’ve got to put them through more situations where they’re out there tacking in individual [drills during practices] and make sure that they’re better at it.”
Haslett said things can be done during practices to improve a team’s tackling, even with no full-scale tackling on the practice field.
“You can tackle,” Haslett said. “You can tackle without pads on. You can work on wrap tackling. There’s [tackling] dummies out there. You can do different things. Obviously other teams aren’t having this issue. So whatever they’re doing, it’s got to creep into what we’re trying to do. But we’ll fix that problem. We’ll work at it and continue to try to get better in it.”
Fletcher said the Redskins can’t use the lack of practice-field contact as an excuse. Thursday was the team’s lone practice this week in full pads.
“We’re not gonna make excuses and try to blame it on, ‘You can’t tackle. You don’t have pads on as much in practice,’ ” Fletcher said. “We can’t get into making excuses for what’s going on. There’s teams that are great tackling teams in the National Football League, and they’re playing by the same rules that we play by. It’s just something that you’ve got to work on. You’ve got to train your body to be in good position even when you don’t have pads on.”
The Redskins say they believe they have players who are willing tacklers on defense. The problem, they say, has been in how players have gone about the task.
“You don’t have to take people to the ground [in practice] to be a good tackling team,” defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. “You can say that the NFL nowadays, [offenses] create more space, and as a defensive player, we never want to put people in situations where they have to make a one-on-one tackle. We understand the skill level in this league is tremendous. So it’s our job, especially as defensive linemen, to rally to the ball so we can kind of corral that ballcarrier so that players in space don’t have to make those difficult tackles.”
Cofield expressed similar sentiments, saying: “Group tackling is the thing that’s going to be biggest thing. Three and four guys missing a tackle is a lot less likely than [missing] one-on-one tackles. We’ve all got to get to the ball. We’ve all got to play fast. And we’ve all got to be physical and try to force turnovers when we get there.”
The defense also had its cringe-worthy moments last season, usually related to an inability to slow down opposing passers and receivers. But it regrouped and managed to contribute to the seven-game winning streak down the stretch that gave the Redskins the NFC East title. Haslett said he’s hopeful of a similar rebound now.
“I feel good about these guys for what they did last year, the way we came back last year and what we did in preseason,” Haslett said. “I know what this team can do. We’ve got to put everything together and get your swagger back and get your confidence back in what you’re doing.”