The Redskins’ starting linemen and linebackers will never achieve the rock-star status of the photogenic new face of the franchise, but they’re definitely front-page news. They’ve steadily improved since Coach Mike Shanahan changed the team’s long-standing defensive philosophy two years ago in an effort to create a championship-caliber unit.
After the first day of training camp Thursday at Redskins Park, they weren’t playing it safe with any of that “we-just-want-to-do-the-best-we-can” talk. The biggest guys on the Redskins’ defense (it would approach being great if the secondary were better) expect to dominate opponents, which would help Griffin in his transition to the pro game. A good defense is an inexperienced quarterback’s best friend — and the Redskins have both.
In their first season under Shanahan and their first primarily using three defensive linemen and four linebackers, the Redskins had the NFL’s second-worst defense (it was the team’s worst defensive performance since 1954). Last season, the Redskins improved to 13th of the 32 teams in yards per game allowed. There were across-the-board gains in many key categories, such as opponents’ scoring average and sacks.
Shanahan spent wisely in free agency before last season, adding productive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen. Defensive lineman Adam Carriker regained his health (he sat out the 2009 season because of a shoulder injury) and experienced a career renaissance after being labeled as a first-round bust with the St. Louis Rams. First-round draft pick Ryan Kerrigan also fit in well after making the transition from a hand-down end in college to a stand-up outside linebacker. He joined Brian Orakpo in giving the Redskins productive bookends.
With the group back intact and no major outside additions, some might wonder if significantly more progress should be expected. The answer is yes.
Talent is the key element in the success of any strategy. Coaches aspire to put players in position to maximize their ability — but players play the games. When talented players are comfortable in a system, coaches say, they’re often more productive. The core group of the Redskins’ front seven has been together for a good stretch, especially in a league in which playing at least three seasons is considered a long career. Bowen, Carriker and Cofield understand their roles well and know what to expect from each other.
“First day back out here, and I look to my left and see Kerrigan back and I look to my right and see Cofield back and Bowen back, and we all know the scheme together,” Carriker said. “We all know each other that much better. That makes a real difference. You build on that and it makes you better.”
The Redskins also envision getting a boost from returning lineman Jarvis Jenkins. He was the defense’s most impressive rookie in training camp last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game.
Even with Jenkins still regaining his pre-surgery form, “now you add another guy to our defensive front rotation to where there shouldn’t be a drop-off when he comes into the game,” said LondonFletcher, the ageless inside linebacker and team captain who’s beginning his 15th season. “If we can get him back up to speed, somewhere close to where he was prior to the injury, that’s going to be huge for us.”
Shanahan deserves much of the credit for assembling the group and sticking with the 3-4 despite the Redskins’ disastrous initial results with the defense.
The alignment serves to disguise coverage (with one more linebacker than in a 4-3) and gives the Redskins, Shanahan believes, the best chance to eventually have a Super Bowl-caliber defense. Judging from the progress, Shanahan eventually may be right.
And here’s where Griffin comes in (you didn’t really think this was going to be a Griffin-free column, did you?)
Now that Shanahan is on track to getting the defense straightened out, Griffin should help him regain his once-platinum touch on offense. Already a media superstar off the field, Griffin has the tools to become one on it almost as fast as he changes uniforms in his national sneaker commercial.
Following practice, defensive players continued to praise Griffin for his arm strength and elusiveness, “and the more you watch him, man, you realize that we’ve got a great player there who will be doing it for a long time,” Bowen said. “But you also know we need to help him because he’s gonna have those growing pains.
“The best way for us, the defense, to do that is to be a real dominant defense. We have to go out there and make it easier for him. We have to help him get comfortable. There are a lot of things we can do for him. And after what we’ve seen from him, we know we win if we help him.”
Producing turnovers and providing the offense with great field position would prompt Griffin to flash his toothy smile more often.
In the NFL, takeaways are almost as important in victory as sound blocking and tackling. Almost always, the league’s top teams in the black in that category.
Last season, the Redskins had a minus-14 turnover margin, tied for 30th in the league. They finished 5-11. With Rex Grossman primarily at quarterback, that’s about what you would expect. But part of the blame lay on the other side of the ball. The defense only had 21 takeaways (13 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries). That has to improve for the Redskins to put Griffin in a comfort zone, “but it’s not just the turnovers,” Carriker said. “If we get the offense the ball in good spots, that helps.
“If we don’t have to score 30 points every game, that takes a lot of pressure off of him. Really, with the defense we have, we should be holding people under 20 points. Then, he wouldn’t have to put up enormous numbers.”
Sounds like the Redskins’ defense is still planning to lead the way. At least until Griffin is completely ready to.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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