RICHMOND — Unleashed. That’s how many of the Washington Redskins’ defensive players have described themselves and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett since Jay Gruden took over as head coach in January.
The players started using that word after hearing what Haslett had planned for the defense as the Gruden Era kicked off. They continued using it during the offseason practices, where they got a taste of things to come. And they say “unleashed” remains an accurate description based on what they have taken away from training camp.
“We have a defense this year that’s more tailored to our strengths, and that’s going to make us more effective,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said.
Added outside linebacker Brian Orakpo: “Coach Haslett is putting us in there, giving us advantages out there on the field so we can really get after it. We’ve got more freedom now. We’re going to be more aggressive. We’re going to dictate. We like where we’re headed.”
In four years under Mike Shanahan, Haslett drew the ire of Redskins fans because of his unit’s ineffective pass rush and inability to create turnovers and game-changing plays.
But when Gruden poured over hours of game film, studying the defense and Haslett’s coaching, he saw two things: Washington’s defense had glaring talent deficiencies in key areas, and Haslett’s strategy wasn’t bad. But the approach in some areas needed to change.
“There was a lot,” Gruden said this week when recounting the problems he identified. “You know, there was poor tackling. We need to be a better tackling team. I think that’s the No. 1 thing we had to address. We’re trying to get more speed out there. Obviously, we addressed that with the linebacker position. And then from there, I think rushing the quarterback, getting after the quarterback, was a necessity for us to let Orakpo and [Ryan] Kerrigan have more freedom as far as the rushes are concerned.”
Haslett had no problem with Gruden’s conclusions. Players and others within the organization often maintained that Shanahan frequently overruled Haslett. Some of the strategy involved using Orakpo and Kerrigan in pass coverage on many plays, or having them stay home on the edges so the unit wouldn’t “lose contain,” which means surrender a big play to the outside. Orakpo and Kerrigan rushed the quarterback about half as much as their contemporaries.
So Gruden and Haslett reached an agreement on a defensive philosophy, starting with getting their pass-rushers into the backfield. And they brought on pass-rushing specialist Brian Baker to help hone the duo’s skills.
“Your two best players on your defense are supposed to be your outside linebackers,” Haslett explained Friday. “And that’s why we drafted another one. And they’re supposed to get to the quarterback, so, let them do what they do best. That’s rush. We’ll drop them once and a while, but it won’t be like we’ve done in the past. We’ll give them more freeway to rush and come underneath — just trying to take advantage of what they do best.”
Gruden directed his coaches to nearly double the amount of time players spend on the fundamentals and techniques of tackling, and he increased the number of training camp practices in pads so defenders enter the season with more live tackling under their belts.
Washington addressed the talent deficiencies this offseason as well, signing free agent defensive end Jason Hatcher and drafting outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who led the NCAA in sacks at Stanford. Hatcher remains at least a week away from joining his teammates on the field as he rehabs from arthroscopic knee surgery. But Murphy has shown promise and versatility that has Haslett and his coaches salivating over the possibilities offered by a three-headed pass-rushing attack of Orakpo, Kerrigan and the rookie.
“You can definitely see a point of emphasis to start camp,” Kerrigan said. “It’s definitely going to give us the chance to play in the backfield more. It’s been a very, very welcome change for us, because now we can be more aggressive off of the line. We want to be more attacking, and we can see the coaches are committed to it by the way they’re adjusting the defense.”
The addition of 13-year veteran free safety Ryan Clark, continued development of fifth-year inside linebacker Perry Riley and potential of third-year inside linebacker Keenan Robinson give Haslett more flexibility.
Washington lacked a quality true free safety last year and had to play strong safety Brandon Meriweather on the back end. But Clark, who has better range, instincts and leadership skills, will serve as a more reliable last line of defense and field general. Meriweather can now play closer to the box and make more of an impact in the run-stopping department, which is his forte.
Riley led the team in tackles last season but lacked consistency in pass coverage. He has the athleticism but needed more seasoning. This offseason, Gruden gave Haslett the green light to hire technician Kirk Olivadotti to work with the inside linebackers. Olivadotti’s work with Riley and Robinson, who has played only sparingly thanks to two injury-plagued seasons, has Haslett already calling his “jack” and “mike” linebackers two of the most improved players on his roster.
Those two will share some of the pass coverage responsibilities once held by Orakpo and Kerrigan. The safeties will help as well, depending on the offensive alignments.
It will take more practices and live reps during the preseason for coaches to see the results of their experimentations. But already, those on the other side of the ball recognize a difference.
“I think the biggest difference we notice is at safety, with Ryan Clark and Meriweather, and with Rak and Kerrigan. They’ve been phenomenal,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “There’s a saying for a receiver, ‘A D-lineman should never cover you.’ And there’s a saying for a D-lineman that a tight end should never block you, and they’ve never been blocked by a tight end this year, and it wasn’t always that way last year. I think they’re pinning their ears back, and I think Brian Baker and Haz are allowing them to be more aggressive up front. And they’re also being more aggressive on the back end. They’re giving us a ton of looks on the back end. They’re doing a ton of crap out there on the field, and having that is going only make them stronger.”