Evaluating the Redskins 3-4 Defense, a First Look

For reasons concerning the high-level security actions taken by Redskins management to conceal the identity of the defensive scheme that they will use in 2010, I have avoided the topic since Hog Heaven’s re-awakening.  I choose now to break my silence: lets talk defense!

The man who will shape the Redskins defense is defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.  This is, without question, the biggest change from last year.  For the most part, Haslett has spent the better part of the decade coaching 4-3 defenses with the Saints, Rams, and Florida Tuskers of the UFL.  His most recent experience coaching a 3-4 defense dates back to his days as the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh in the late 90′s.  In fact, it seems as if Mike Shanahan decided sometime in the middle of watching film last year that he was going to make Jim Haslett part of his coaching future, and Haslett, in turn, decided he would once again coach a 3-4 defense.  But it couldn’t have been as simple as two guys deciding how they were going to identify as coaches wherever they went together.

Or could it?  One of the advantages of the 3-4 defense is that it creates indecisiveness on offense and allows the defense to dicate it’s matchups.  The problem is that, in a 3-4, discipline is not something that is as simple as “being in your gap…all the time”.  In a 3-4 front, some players (usually the lineman) are responsible for multiple gaps, and all players are responsible, collectively, for the overall well being of the scheme.  In the 4-3, if someone isn’t doing their job, there’s probably someone on the bench who can go out there and do the job for them.  In the 3-4, if you’re not dictacting the mismatches to the offense, then the offense is telling you where you can stick those six points.

What I’m getting at is that calling a three-four defense is probably not any more difficult than the point at which a decision maker, in this case Haslett, wakes up in the middle of the night and decides he wants to run a 3-4 attacking defense.  Conceptually, it’s not any more difficult to call than a 4-3, and it’s not like it’s that difficult to do a crappy job calling a 4-3 defense (see: Blache, Greg).  It doesn’t change what is fundamentally a good defensive play and what is a poor defensive play.  Cutback discipline and straight-line aggressiveness, good; taking poor angles, running around blockers, taking plays off, and overpursuing, bad.  It’s coaching football, not open-heart surgery.

Thanks to the contributions of Cerrato and Blache, the Redskins were at a point on defense where all of the team’s assets for the last five years or so–save a single round of the 2008 NFL Draft–had been invested on that side of the ball, and because they were not molded with any identity, the existing players were no more suited to play in a 4-3 than a 3-4.  It’s almost as if the 2009 Redskins were built with the versatility to play multiple fronts, but could only line up in one front and show maybe two or three presnap looks.  This isn’t entirely fair to the unit of the past two years, but it’s not a misrepresentation of what things were like either.  Even the worst quarterbacks in the NFL knew what the Redskins would throw at them on any given play.  Sometimes, that made a difference, other times, the Redskins won the battle anyway.  It’s not like the defense was at any point, porous since 2006, but they weren’t going to win a football smarts contest and they continually made the same mistakes.  Haslett is being handed a unit with all the fixings (and basically all the money on the team that won’t be pocketed by Clinton Portis), and is being asked to give it a sturdy foundation based on something else besides “discipline” in the most abstract sense.  Now, more than ever, the Redskins defense needs a concrete structure that it can build from.  If Haslett can deliver this need, he will find that his unit is loaded with some of the most explosive athletes and refinely skilled football players that professional football has to offer.  It will seem as if the opponent’s are fielding offenses comparable to those of the California Redwoods and New York Sentinals, but are really featuring Kevin Kolb and Tony Romo.

What the 3-4 defensive concept does is it allows the Redskins to move forward with a clear vision of who they can add to make their defense great.  If you’ve noticed what I have about free agency, you’ve probably realized that, despite featuring a secondary that was toasted last season: Laron Landry, Chris Horton, Carlos Rogers, and DeAngelo Hall in particular, the Redskins have made all of one transaction with the secondary: they released CB Fred Smoot, who last played at an accpetable level in 2007.  Washington has 5 CBs under contract, and 5 safeties (including Lendy Holmes).  All of the players played a role in last year’s demise.  By first simplifing the roles of these members of the secondary, and then expanding on them, this coaching staff seems to think it can (gasp!) teach the same players who failed at it last year how to play a damn zone defense.  This has not been identified as a need area, even though it was a clear weakness.

Where the team has, seemingly, invested the majority of it’s attention is in the front seven.  The front seven was excellent last season, with the periodic lapses in intermedate coverage.  If anything, it might actually be better this year, but the Redskins lack defined roles.  Haslett has taken to helping to define the two outside linebacker positions as having seperate function.  Brian Orakpo will handle one of the positions, and probably will dominate at it.  I imagine Chris Wilson is going to be his backup.  The other OLB position apparently will have a different kind of player altogether.  It’s going to be some combination of Jeremy Jarmon, and Lorenzo Alexander.  At one point in the not too distant past, it was thought by the former Redskins decision makers that both of those players had only a future at defensive tackle to prepare for.  In this defense, they are both linebackers.  Jim Haslett may be turning to a defense that is trendy in the NFL today, but clearly, the man is old school.  Our linebackers are not going to be run all over while we compile some scrawny pass rushers who can run around blocks to get after the quarterback.  Our best, most athletic defensive linemen are going to take their hands out of the dirt, will attack creatively, and are going to hit some people.  Even if the transition from defensive line to strong-side OLB doesn’t go as planned, you do have to like the intention.

The unique dynamic with the rush linebackers does yield some question-marks on the defensive line and at inside linebacker.  At neither position are the Redskins faced with limited options, but what they are going to have to deal with is some square pegs to go with their two-gaps.  The Redskins signed Ma’ake Kemoeatu, and return: Phillip Daniels, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, Kedric Golston, Anthony Montgomery, and Rob Jackson (Jackson could also be a linebacker in this scheme).  Haynesworth can play anywhere, but the Redskins would obviously like to have him playing the five-technique to take advantage of his sick size-athletcism combination.  If he has to play the nose, there’s no doubt he could play it.  Montgomery is sort of the same way, but he’ll likely be behind Kemoeatu at the nose.  Daniels will play an end, but he’s 37.  Years. Of age.  So you’ve got a starting group there, but it’s not particularly talented outside of Haynesworth, who isn’t going to be less of an injury risk in this upcoming season.  Carter is a guy who will do a lot of his damage as a left end in the nickel package, but as a 5-techinque, would be sort of an undersized-leverage player who can’t handle an every down role.  Not a starter.  The Redskins may not add anyone between now and the draft at the position, but this does seem like an odd group to mold into a 3-4 front, and I’m a bit surprised that Cornelius Griffin wasn’t given an opportunity.

Ultimately though, how the Redskins mix and match a plethora of talented defensive lineman into 3-4 roles is largely unimportant: a 3-4 defense is only as good as it’s linebackers make it.  The linebackers were going to be the shortcoming in any version of the 2010 Skins defense, but by making this move, they’ve done two things: they’ve taken one conventional LB slot that they would need to fill and have eliminated it, and they’ve made the remaining two (inside) slots even more important.  In the Blache-scheme, the Redskins could hide a weakness at linebacker, outside of the passing game.  Tight ends were covered by safeties, with backs often not covered by anyone.  London Fletcher was basically told not to take on blocks, it would be McIntosh’s job along with Horton/Doughty and Orakpo to take on the blocks, and if everyone won up front, Fletcher just had to go clean up.  They will not have that luxury this year, unless they are willing to make Haynesworth the personal protector.  For all the great things Fletcher does, his ability to defy the effects of aging to this point we’re pretty reliant on his unconventional use.  In this scheme, he’s very much “just a guy.”  That’s the biggest difference the Redskins will have to get used to.  Fletcher isn’t really suited for the role, and neither is McIntosh.  Blades played in a 3-4 scheme in college at Pitt, but the team (I believe) still views him as the Fletcher successor.  He’s unlikely to play next to him this year.

So while I expect the team to engage in window dressing on the defensive front, I think it would be prudent to either prepare for a big free agent splash at ILB (guys like the recently released Andra Davis or Akin Ayodele), or the team might use a high draft choice to solidify this position.  The two names to watch are Florida’s Brandon Spikes, and Missouri’s Sean Weatherspoon.  The draft issue of course is that the Redskins have four needs (really, five) that they really want to come away with a quality player, but only two picks (right now) in the top three rounds.  They want to get a quarterback, running back, offensive tackle, and linebacker.  Put simply: they need more picks.

With the new defensive scheme comes an inevitable transition period.  But Redskins fans are in luck: the defensive talent has been so obscured by scheme malfunction over the past two years, that even the transition period figures to bring defensive improvement.  I’m finished with predicting that this unit will finish in the top five, or even the top ten, but I think it will be improved, and I think with Jim Haslett at the controls, there will be a more defined purpose, not just in 2010, but with clear intentions to dominate the NFC East in future seasons.  Is Jim Haslett going to make us forget who Gregg Williams was?  That’s doubtful.  But he should be good enough to make us forget that the Blache era happened, which is a memory that I’m certainly ready to let go of.