I’ve been watching a ton of Redskins games from the last three years recently, utilizing the NFL Game Rewind package to the fullest. My focal point has been on Jim Haslett’s highly-interesting, moderately effective defense, because there is only so many ways you can note that note that offensive lineman and tight ends don’t sustain blocks, that Rex Grossman is missing open receivers, or that Santana Moss gets open and then doesn’t catch the ball. The defense is a far more fascinating study.
And sure, you have London Fletcher who is the same guy in almost every game you watch, regardless of whether its Haslett, Greg Blache, or Gregg Williams calling the plays. But the parts around Fletcher are always tough to figure. When you look at the most dominant player that Fletcher’s ever had as a teammate on defense, the game film would suggest that 2010 Albert Haynesworth is probably the most consistent help that Fletcher ever had. But then again, Haynesworth’s relative knack for blowing a critical assignment always reflected poorly on the players behind him as well (usually Fletcher).
Going back through two years, I always found Jim Haslett’s game plans to be fascinating. The Redskins rarely repeat a look and a playcall on defense twice in a season. Haslett is such a tough coach to prepare for if you are an offensive coordinator. In fact, most offenses opt to strip down and simplify to an extreme in order to try to catch the Redskins in defensive mistakes.
I wouldn’t describe Jim Haslett as a “defensive genius.” While he has a knack for calling plays and mixing his looks, the Redskins do sometimes get into defensive disguises that will not actually discourage the quarterback from attacking where the call is weak. One example from this years’ Patriots game is a first quarter play when the Redskins showed zone (two deep safeties) with a pressure look, then brought pressure from another direction, and bailed to man coverage. Tom Brady was able to complete a TE option route to Aaron Hernandez against London Fletcher, with Fletcher threatening A-gape pressure before the snap. The problem from the defensive perspective is that Haslett’s defensive disguise never discouraged Brady from going to Hernandez (against a zone look) right off the snap. The Pats completed the pass against tight man coverage, but the play was an example of how fooling the offense didn’t actually make their job any more difficult. To earn the genius label, a defensive coordinator must be able to confuse the quarterback into game altering mistakes, not simply to make him question his pre-snap reads.
Over the last two years, it’s become clear that the quarterbacks who give the Redskins the biggest problems are the ones who excel after the snap. The Redskins have little issue pressuring and confusing the Jay Cutlers and Aaron Rodgers of the world, but trying to catch Michael Vick or Cam Newton with a pre-snap disguise results more often than not with the Redskins getting caught out of position or in unfavorable matchups. The solution is that the Redskins just have to get better in the defensive secondary.
The Redskins know this. That’s why they hired Raheem Morris to coach the secondary. That’s why they opted to start fresh at the safety position, retaining only Reed Doughty and Dejon Gomes, who is really more of a nickel linebacker. They have Kevin Barnes, who in his limited NFL time, has been much better at safety than at slot corner. He’ll play outside this year, when he’s not playing safety. And then there were the offseason additions: Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams, Tanard Jackson, and Jordan Bernstine.
Frankly, there’s not a whole lot of help in there. The Redskins are hoping that Brandon Meriweather can be LaRon Landry without the baggage, but to arrive at this hope, the Redskins had to ignore the considerable amount of baggage that Meriweatehr brings. He’s no where near the football player Landry is when healthy, but the hope is that–unlike Landry–he will actually be healthy and in the lineup. Still, this reeks of a desperation move. The Redskins seemed to convince themselves that Meriweather was really just a bad fit in Chicago’s defense after being given his wake up call when New England released him. And while it’s difficult to put any stock whatsoever in 2011 season player performance coming out of the lockout, it’s not a good sign that the Redskins tried to cite Chicago’s cover two tendency as Brandon Meriweather being a non-fit (not to mention when it comes to getting the most out of defensive talent, Chicago’s coaching staff ranks significantly above Washington’s in that regard). Chicago has strong roots in cover two defense, but the truth is that of late, they don’t play cover two any more often than the Redskins have under Haslett (pretty much every non-blitzing situation in Washington in 2011), and Brandon Meriweather is going to be asked to cover first and foremost as a member of the Redskins — because he is not the explosive QB hunter Landry was. Meriweather’s coverage skills the last two years could be charitably described as awful, making him a really poor fit for the defense. The multi-year contract the Redskins offered him was not very prudent, and the unenviable task of tapping Meriweather’s raw talent for football production now falls on Haslett and Morris.
Then to fill out the free safety role, the Redskins added two players to compete with Reed Doughty for that honor: Jackson and Williams. Three or four years ago, each of them was a pretty intriguing NFL safety. At this point, the Redskins are going to need training camp to gauge exactly what they have here. I’ll say this: since the passing of Sean Taylor, the free safety position has moved through LaRon Landry to a number of players even worse in that role than Landry, including Doughty, Kareem Moore, Kevin Barnes, OJ Atogwe and even Dejon Gomes for a bit. That group could be described as “athletically lacking.” So in Tanard Jackson and Madieu Williams, the Redskins did grab a pair of players who can certainly handle the physical rigors of the position. Tanard Jackson’s ball skills are very lacking for the position, and that’s why the Bucs have gone out of their way to always pair him with a greater coverage player. The Redskins don’t have that luxury, except in the case of Madieu Williams, who really hasn’t been a factor in an NFL defense in a couple of years now. Williams was a strong player with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2004-2007, and as with fellow CB signing Cedric Griffin, the Redskins are hoping to reach deep into the past and capture some of that magic.
The Redskins have produced one success story from a bargain basement FA signing in two years under Shanahan/Haslett: CB Philip Buchanon, who had a sensational 2010 season in Haslett’s defense. But in Buchanon’s case, the player wasn’t exactly in decline yet, and had recently carved out a nice reserve role in the Detroit Lions secondary following an inconsistent stint with Bruce Allen’s Bucs. As good of a signing as Buchanon was, and as unexpected as his 2010 performance was, his short term performance leading up to the Redskins signing him was far stronger than any of the secondary members the Redskins have added this offseason.
The biggest issue in the secondary right now for the Washington Redskins is that Plan A just isn’t very good. The Redskins collected players who have awful track records. They already have DeAngelo Hall. Madieu Williams has now gone three and a half seasons since he was an effective NFL safety. Griffin’s career year, which really wasn’t all that strong, came in 2008, and he’s torn three different knee ligaments since then. Last season he could barely move. Tanard Jackson was fantastic in 2009, before serving a yearlong suspension for drug possession, a suspension that effectively de-railed his Bucs career. The Redskins’ drafted talent in the secondary has not developed. Even DBs coach Raheem Morris, who brings both necessary coaching experience and unbridled enthusiasm to the profession, has a poor recent track record at getting players to respond to his leadership.
It’s not hard to see what the Redskins’ intentions are here: they brought in established starters with low current stock, and expect to receive the very best focus and production that these players have left. If you critically evaluate that plan, it doesn’t seem like a great idea. But the truths are that the Redskins didn’t spend a ton of money here, and there is some short-term upside to these signings. Meriweather seems destined to frustrate fans and his coaches, but Jackson is certainly a worthy buy-low option now a year removed from his suspension. Griffin should be considerably healthier with the Redskins than he was with the Vikings. And Madieu Williams has drawn positive reviews from teammates and reporters at OTAs. It wouldn’t be fair to conclude that the Redskins have nothing in these signings. They may very well get what they put into them, and then some.
But the offseason acquistion that has to work if the Redskins are going to stay the course on defense beyond this year is Raheem Morris. No one is sure how his talents can be combined with Jim Haslett’s abilities on the defensive coaching staff. But this is a critical year for all the defensive coaches. While Mike Shanahan’s fate will ultimately be closely tied to the team’s record and to the development of Robert Griffin the third, it needs to be said that no one on the defensive coaching staff is related to Mike Shanahan, and therefore, no one on that side of the ball is sacred. Jim Haslett has been, in my estimation, the Redskins most productive coach over the last two years, but that means nothing if his talent-starved unit takes a step back and he doesn’t get along with Raheem Morris.
Mike Shanahan is ultimately responsible for the defensive production, but there’s no way Jim Haslett can survive a poor year — even as successful as his first two have been. This year will be his toughest task as defensive coordinator of the Redskins, not only because of the lacking talent, but because of the expectations surrounding this defense with Kerrigan-Orakpo heading into their primes. The acquisition of Raheem Morris raises expectations even further. And if/when Robert Griffin is working through a bout of the rookie struggles, the defense is going to be asked to shoulder the load. Coaching the Washington Redskins defense is far from a thankless task, and there are plenty of players in this group that other DCs would be dying to get their hands on. But the stakes have been raised, the talent has been slashed some, and the defensive coaches are going to be asked to bridge the difference.
This year has the makings of a fantastically fun year for the defense, but it also wouldn’t be terribly shocking if things went the other way. And that would be bad.