The Redskins have had the same four safeties for the last two NFL seasons: Chris Horton, LaRon Landry, Reed Doughty, and Kareem Moore. Over that timeframe, the position has been both a strength and a weakness. In 2008, Horton’s emergence as one of the team’s most explosive players against the run simplified the role of LaRon Landry in the defense, and his physical ability to be a sideline to sideline player prevented teams from consistently attacking the Redskins pass defense where it was weak, opting instead to try to beat the team with short throws to the RBs and TEs. Last year, the complete opposite occured. Horton was benched (coaches decision) three games into the year, and though Reed Doughty eventually reemerged as a quality SS, teams started to use the same attack plan at LaRon Landry week after week. Instead of trying to beat him to the sideline like they did in 2008, teams just went after him, with great success, and disasterous results for the Redskins defense.
Though the entire group is still young, it may be time to shake up the balance of the unit. Coverage has been a major issue, because no one is really good at it. Reed Doughty and Chris Horton are out of place in most defensive schemes. Horton, actually, is so explosive as a run defender that he could put on a few pounds and go have a ten year career at weak-side linebacker in a 4-3. Doughty is pretty much a special teamer with a single skill at safety where he could be as high up on a depth chart as no. 3 and not hurt your team. Kareem Moore is probably a 4th safety who the Redskins are trying to see if they can make into a starter, and it’s not likely to work. Is that really worth playing with?
There’s a better option, and it doesn’t require that the team make any additional moves: DeAngelo Hall should play safety.
The first reason for this is that it would obviously maximize his value against the pass. Last year, Hall had arguably his best season as a professional cornerback. He didn’t play nearly as well for Washington as he did for the final six games of 2008, but he also played 8 games for the Raiders where he was one of the worst players in football. Combining his coverage numbers from both locations that season gives a player who was slightly below average. This year, Hall was about league average as a no. 2 CB, according numbers collected by Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats. No. 2 CBs like Hall are very valuable, and the Redskins pass defense was a lot worse when Hall was hurt and Fred Smoot was “playing” “coverage”. As valuable as his contract? That’s pretty debateable. Fortunately, I think there are ways to maximize his value as a cover player.
Hall usually rates pretty low in derivations of success rate or stop rate; stats that use binary “successful play” or “unsuccessful play”, and aggragates the totals to try to see which corners are most effective over the course of a 60-70 play season. He generally does better when measured against yards: his 7.8 yards per play against last year ranked 40th among NFL corners, or right in the expected level of a no. 2 CB. I believe that players who have the most successful rate stats are going to be better year to year bets, because the sample tends to be more meaningful in my opinion, but preventing the offense from getting yards is the name of football. In 2009, Hall was not exactly one of the easiest players in football to throw on, and when you factor in his ability to make quarterbacks pay for bad throws, you have something there.
Of course, right now, you’re asking a cornerback to play one on one coverage, prevent yards, and still get those big game changing plays. Why not get Hall off of the boundary of the field, put him in the middle, give him half of the deep field to cover, and let a better short area defender such as Justin Tryon or Kevin Barnes play in front of him? It makes a lot of sense. One reason that the Redskins might be slow to make that change is that Hall has a terrible reputation as a run defender. Just horrendous. Well, in 2009, Hall might have been really slow to come up and hit people, or at least hesitant to decide to fly up and hit someone (such as the gritty Jake Delhomme), but FO’s numbers have him as one of the most effective run defenders in the NFL…at least once per game when he made a play. Quantity might not be as important as quality for a corner, but Hall has made more plays against the run in prior years. I don’t think these numbers say much, but he can certainly handle the safety role from the perspective of hitting the running back. After the LaRon Landry disaster season, he might actually be the best run defender of that tandem.
Carlos Rogers was not very good in 2009 (shocker, I know), but he still has the history of the prior two seasons to back him as a no. 1 corner. Basically, his past performance in defenses that weren’t a complete joke justifies the move of Hall from a position of strength (corner) to a position with a lot of young talent, but just as many questions (safety). With Phillip Buchanon in the fold at corner, and Tryon likely to remain in the nickel role for at least one more season, and a good reason to try to get 2009 3rd round pick Barnes into thie lineup as a starter, the Redskins have extra incentive to move Hall now as not to block the cheap young players who might need to replace Carlos Rogers in 2011. Tryon, in particular was really good in his role last year, and is perhaps the one Redskins DB who has actually earned the right to keep his job next year.
Hall and Landry could play equal, opposite safety roles, or they could back Hall up off the line deep and move Landry into the box. This way, they wouldn’t have to fool around with trying to teach Kareem Moore to be an NFL level safety any longer, and they can still get better production than last year. Chris Horton can still get onto the field as a dime back.
The alternative is to press on with a logjam of corners who haven’t really been able to produce a top pass defense since 2007, when the starting corners where Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs. Those two have since moved on, leaving Rogers and Hall as the leaders of such a defense. It hasn’t worked. When the team moved to a highly passive philosophy that felt comfortable to Hall, Rogers looked lost and got benched. When Hall was forced to come up and press receivers early in the 2009 season, he was beaten countless times. The Redskins need to incorporate Barnes and Tryon first and foremost, and then if Buchanon makes the team, he too can be in the playing time rotation. Breaking up the Rogers/Hall tandem makes the most sense, and Hall’s speed and ball skils make him a primary candidate to move inside the numbers this year.