2011 Washington Redskins: How Can the Redskins Fix Their 3-4 Defense?
There was a time when the only good thing Redskins fans could talk about was their defense. While the offense sputtered, the coaches tried to maintain order and the front office interfered. The one thing the Redskins could always say was they had a solid defense.
Then the 'Skins turned from a 4-3 defense (which they've been running pretty much their hole existence) to the more creative and turnover causing 3-4 defense. Fans didn't think much of it at first; some fans grumbled over it, but no big deal.
And then there was the Texans game. The Redskins had managed to rack up a 24-3 lead, but the Texans stormed back to win in overtime.
That was only the beginning.
The Redskins finished the season 31st in the league in total defense, 31st in passing yards allowed and 26th in run defense. They caused more turnovers, but the offense was usually unable to turn those turnovers into points, and they only got 29 sacks, down from the 40 they had in 2009.
Changing your base defense is always hard. A lack of true 3-4 personnel and the lack of any real free agency period made things even worse. Injuries to some of the better members on the Redskins didn't make things any better.
More than a few people have been screaming for the Redskins to simply switch back to their old 4-3 front, while media analyst try to figure out how Mike Shanahan screwed up a good thing. I don't think the move was bad, as much as it was misguided; Coach Shanahan thought he had the right personnel. He didn't. Now it's time to improve, not dwell on how bad things went during the change.
So, let's take a look at what the Redskins have and how they can improve through free agency and the draft.
The Nose Tackles
Albert Haynesworth is gone. Despite the fact that he is, quite frankly, the best nose tackle the team has (whenever he was lined up at nose, he actually generated pressure and absorbed blocks, which I guess was more work than Albert wanted to do), his attitude is crap, his work ethic is zero and his contract (though most of it was front-loaded) is expensive. Some other team will try to get something out of Haynesworth, and maybe they will, but the Redskins will be better off wishing him good luck in his future endeavors.
Ma'ake Kemoeatu was brought in as Haynesworth's backup, but ended up being the starter because...well, Haynesworth's a jerk. Kemoeatu missed a year of football with an achilles injury in 2009, and couldn't seem to return to any sort of form in 2010. Kemo regularly got pushed back by centers, commanded no blocks, wasn't very good against the run and finished the season on injured reserve to make matters worse. He had no sacks and forced no fumbles.
Anthony Bryant should've been the starter. The journeyman tackle actually looked solid in his time, being disruptive and commanding the kind of attention nose tackles are supposed to command. He wasn't dominant by any means, but he was good enough that the defense performed noticeably better when he was on the field.
The 3-4 defense runs through the nose tackle position; if you don't have one, you don't have a whole lot. Right now, the Redskins have one guy who is a solid backup and spot starter.
The Defensive Ends
Phillip Daniels is a stand-up guy and a great teammate, but the veteran defensive player was miscast as a 3-4 defensive end. He did manage to get two sacks, but his place is in a 4-3 defense and he's not getting any younger. He mostly overwhelmed people with his incredible strength, but even so, he wasn't the right fit for the team's defensive needs.
Kedric Golston was also mostly ineffective as a defensive end. He did manage 35 tackles, meaning he was okay in run support, but had no sacks, caused no turnovers and generated no pressure on his own.
Adam Carriker looked solid and impressive in his starts, which kind of makes you wonder why he wasn't on the field to begin with (this can be said of a lot of players, but more on that later). He came away from the season with 37 tackles, one and a half sacks, a fumble recovery and he even had a pass defensed. When he had his playing time, he looked impressive and could've taken either Daniels or Golston's place in the lineup and improved the over play of the defensive line.
Vonnie Holliday was another "why isn't this guy on the field more" kind of player. He was active for all 16 games, but only started in two. He still managed to finish the season with 2.5 sacks and three passes defensed. Why wasn't this guy on the field? He consistently caused pressure, is a solid tackler and seemed to earn a spot, despite his veteran status.
Carriker and Holliday should've been the two starting defensive ends, but for some unknown reason, they didn't see the field until later in the season when Daniels and Golston went down with injuries.
The combination of Carriker, Bryant and Holliday generated more pressure and helped the overall performance of the defense more so than the Golston/Kemo/Daniels combo.
I'm not on the "FIRE JIM HASLETT" bandwagon, but this starts a somewhat worrisome trend of not putting the best players on the field all the time...
Here's what you need to know about Brian Orakpo; tackles dealing with the former defensive end drew the third most holding calls in the NFL. Orakpo took the league by storm in his rookie season, and standing him up and having him play outside linebacker was no different, as tackles quite literally tried everything they could to stop the man from getting to the quarterback. Orakpo totaled 8.5 sacks, 56 total tackles and two passes defensed in 15 games, and was nothing but a beast all season, earning his second straight Pro Bowl berth.
And I know there's going to be some smart alec who says "He's okay, but he needs to learn a new move to get out of those holds." For those few people, I suggest an experiment; go to the house of your strongest friend. Have him put you in a chokehold with one arm, while hooking one of your arms with his other arm.
Now...get out of that hold.
Not easy, right? Yeah. That's what happened to Orakpo on a weekly basis. Enough with this "learn another move" business, he's a football player, not John Cena. There are no moves to get out a full nelson.
The Other Outside Linebackers
Lorenzo Alexander is the Redskins' jack of all trades. He originally was an offensive linemen, but has played on the defensive line, on special teams and was converted to an outside linebacker last season. While he faired somewhat better than (now released) Andre Carter, he was still somewhat miscast in the role. He did have 57 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble, but would probably be best as a (very servicable) backup, not as a starter.
Rob Jackson was a draft pick in 2009 who never received a lot of playing time. This past season, he finally saw the field as an outside linebacker, and actually looked pretty impressive. Though he only played in one game, he had a sack and a forced fumble in the game. Another player on a team that needed playmakers that seemingly didn't find time on the field, despite others underperforming. Again, Jackson may not be a starter, but he did show a certain amount of potential that made you wonder why he never landed on the field.
London Fletcher has made the Pro Bowl for the past two years, but he's still one of the most underrated linebackers in the league. A true leader, even at 35, Fletcher has a lot of youth and a lot of playing time still in him, though you have to wonder when he'll hit that wall. Regardless, Fletcher was as good as always this season, with 136 total tackles, three forced fumbles, two and a half sacks and one interception. Fletcher is the quarterback of the defense, and should be for at least a couple more seasons.
Perry Riley got some more looks beside Fletcher late in the season. Mainly a special teams contributor (perhaps most famous, unfortunately, for throwing a block in the back that negated a Brandon Banks kick return), he only had seven tackles during the course of the season. But yet again, he seems to have a better knowledge and better fundamentals than the former starter Rocky McIntosh.
The more I think about it, the more I'm realizing there was a disconnect between Mike Shanahan (who benched offensive players when they didn't play well and played guys to see what they could do) and Jim Haslett (who kept guys on the field who were mostly ineffective, despite other men playing better when they were given the opportunity).
Robert Henson was a preseason star in the making. While Albert Haynesworth was slumming it, Henson flew all over the field. He even racked up two sacks. Unfortunately, an injury derailed him and he was placed on injured reserve.
Expect Riley and Henson to compete (fiercely) for the starting job next to Fletcher. The team definitely has two potential playmakers in these guys.
DeAngelo Hall is probably the most polarizing figure on the Redskins roster right now. You either love him or hate him. I've never seen anyone have a lukewarm reception to him. People fall in love with his playmaking ability, but hate that he gives up what they feel is a lot of big plays.
This is my opinion on D-Hall: He has all the potential to be a dominant corner in the NFL, but when things go bad, he has a tendency to try and make the big play at the wrong time. Every big interception I've ever seen Hall grab, came when he was playing coverage and allowed the play to develop and come to him. Rarely have I ever seen him make a play when he's jumping a route. If he just played man and played corner like a corner, more interceptions and Pro Bowl bids would fall into his lap. He's got great ball skills, but if he let more plays just fall in his lap and come to him, we'd all be better off.
Despite it all, Hall did earn his Pro Bowl bid, racking up six interceptions, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns. He showed a new found commitment to his tackling (something it seems like most corners are scared to for whatever reason), ending the season with 95 combined tackles, 65 of which were solo.
D-Hall, I love you D-Hall, I really do. But come on, how many times did you see Prime jumping routes? Just play your game sir, and I promise you, just like in the Pro Bowl, the game will always come to you.
The Other Corners
The Redskins will lose Carlos Rogers and Phillip Buchanon to free agency, leaving the Redskins with a lot of unproven guys opposite Hall. Unproven, but guys who might have some talent.
Kevin Barnes was thought to have a chance to be a free safety, but the signing of O.J Atogwe puts him, pretty much, as the starting corner opposite Hall. Haslett has been highly intrigued by Barnes, who finally began to get some looks in Week 12, after being active for 10 games. Barnes is a hard hitter and can lay the wood, finishing with 17 tackles. He finished the year with five passes defensed at the safety position, and ended up playing well in Week 13 versus the Giants, after Phillip Buchanon was benched for bad play. He also managed a game sealing interception versus Jacksonville. Barnes is probably best as a nickel corner, but he has shown some playmaking ability.
Reggie Jones was waived by the New Orleans Saints, who have a pretty deep defensive backfield, and he signed with the Redskins with intention of helping turn the franchise around. Mostly signed as depth when injuries wiped out a big part of the defensive backfield, Jones seems likely to compete with Barnes for the nickel corner position.
The Starting Safeties
I'm sorry...I still can't get over how freakishly huge LaRon Landry's arms are.
LaRon Landry was in the midst of a Pro Bowl caliber season when he sustained an achilles injury versus the Eagles and was placed on injured reserve. Even so, Landry was still leading the NFC fan vote for the strong safety position, and it was well earned. Moved back to his natural position of strong safety, he was a dominant player. His absence was notable when he got injured. He totaled up 85 tackles, one interception, one forced fumbled and eight passes defensed. Not to mention the sight of wide receiver slowing down and bracing for impact when he flew in their direction.
O.J. Atogwe was probably shocked by the outpouring of support he got when it was announced he had signed with the Redskins prior to the lockout. Atogwe has been a ballhawk at times in his career, and is coming off a solid season for the Rams. He had his best season when Jim Haslett was his defensive coordinator and head coach. Last year, he came up with three interceptions, two forced fumbles, two sacks and 73 tackles.
The safety position for the Redskins has (finally) been solidified for the first time since 2007. Here's hoping both men stay healthy and productive.
The Other Safeties
Kareem Moore may seem shocked that the Redskins brought in O.J. Atogwe, but he shouldn't be; besides showing some potential in preseason, Moore was very ineffective throughout the season, to the point where you wondered why he was on the field. Yes, he was injured in various ways, but even so: The bad tackling, the horrible angles, the bouncing off defenders when going for big hits, whiffing on easy tackles were some of the things Moore did to lose the starting job.
Macho Harris is a tweener corner/safety who is best used mostly as depth at both positions. He didn't play a whole lot during the season, meaning it's hard to get a solid gauge on where he is skill wise, but he did play relatively well for Philly in 2009.
Chris Horton came on strong in his rookie season in the NFL, but since then, Horton has been unable to get to the field, either do to play or due to injury. It also doesn't help that Horton's natural position is at strong safety, and nothing but an injury would have him get on the field to take the starting job from Dirty 30. Then again, it's also another case of having a perfectly good player (when he's healthy) not play in the game over someone else. (When Landry get injured, free agent Reed Doughty played instead of Horton).
Sha'reff Rashad and Anderson Russel were both late season additions. Russell was actually slated to start versus the Titans, but the Titans horrible turf got the best of the young man. It remains to be seen how he can contribute.
The Defensive Coordinator
Once again, I'm not on the fire Jim Haslett bandwagon. This is a man who, as a head coach, has helped to turn around two football teams and he has a solid defensive mind. He also can't go out on the field and tackle for people. It's never the scheme; it's the execution. The players on the field didn't execute, even when the play calls were the right ones.
However, as I said before, there were clearly points during the season in which Haslett kept the best players on the sideline, while players who struggled stayed in. The combination of Carriker, Bryant and Holliday might not make any Pro Bowls, but it's clear they were better than the starting lineup. Kareem Moore was largely ineffectual throughout the entire season. If he was so injured that he couldn't even tackle, why not give Chris Horton or Reed Doughty or anyone else a chance to play free safety?
The only player who was ever benched for doing a bad job was free agent corner Phillip Buchanon in a game versus the Giants, in which Kevin Barnes finally got a chance to play. But until late in the season, where injuries FORCED Haslett to put other guys in, there didn't seem to be the same kind of accountability on the defensive side of the ball as their was in the offensive.
And when Haslett was finally forced to put those guys in, the defense actually played better.
As the next season draws closer, the Redskins will undoubtedly get more 3-4 personnel than they had before. But it's Haslett's responsibility to put the best players on the field all the time, not just because of injuries.
Potential Free Agent Signings: Cullen Jenkins
It seems crazy that the Packers would let the man who got them seven sacks from the defensive end position slip into free agency, but as the CBA deadline passed, the Packers seemed not to be in a rush to resign the unrestricted free agent. This means Cullen Jenkins will hit the market place, and there's absolutely no doubt that the Redskins will aggressively pursue the dominant pass rusher.
As dominant as Jenkins is, he is a bit injury prone. Then again, getting seven sacks in 11 games with only eight starts isn't a bad thing at all.
Jenkins is dominant. If he can be had for the right price, he'd be more than worth the addition to the Redskins, an be an automatic improvement to the Redskins defensive front.
Aubrayo Franklin held out of Niners training camp last season, and all signs point to Franklin hitting the open market, as he will be an unrestricted free agent. Franklin didn't get any sacks this season, but he's still one of the best options on the market. He creates pressure and draws blocks, which allows the linebackers behind him to do their their jobs. Franklin won't have to get sacks himself if he has a pass rushing defensive end beside him and has a linebacker who can tackle well.
Franklin is probably one of the best nose tackles on the market, and would provide an automatic upgrade to the defensive line.
Why in the world did the Oakland Raiders let Nnamdi Asomugha go is something I'll never know. Bar none, Asomugha will be the free agent to sign, and if there's one guys that the Redskins will crack open the wallet for, its Asomugha.
He's also, arguably, the only player in free agency who will actually earn the insane dollar amount he'll command. Asomugha completely shuts down wide receivers, and if you throw the ball in his direction, it'll either drop to the ground, or end up in his hands. He isn't a turnover machine, but that's because people don't throw, because they know it's pointless.
Before he gets any Haynesworth comparisons, Asomugha is not Asomugha. He has been nothing but a stand-up guy. He has many charitable foundations, is an awesome teammate, is a hard worker and anybody would be proud to know the man.
The only "problem" is going to be price. With Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis commanding a huge contract that dragged out an entire offseason, it's not hard to think Asomugha will want at least that, if not more. While the Redskins will let go of McNabb and Haynesworth, his contract will be expensive and take up cap room.
Then again, at this rate, Asomugha is putting together a Hall of Fame career. The Redskins have a change of signing a potential Hall of Fame cornerback?
I can get with this.
The Jets probably had, the best cornerback tandem in the NFL, but Antonio Cromartie will be another highly touted cornerback on the free agent market, and he is another player worth going after. Cromartie has the ability to be a ballhawk, and also has the ability to be a shutdown corner.
After taking some flak, he has at least slightly improved when it comes to tackling. He had 45 tackles, 17 passes defensed, and three interceptions. Cromartie has some lingering character issues (sort of), and has been known to take off plays. However, his play did seem to improve under Rex Ryan, and if Jim Haslett could keep him in the right frame of mind, Cromartie is the second shutdown corner on the market, and he'd still be a steal of a pickup.
Steelers' cornerback Ike Taylor isn't getting a whole lot of love, despite the fact that he's been a solid corner for the Steelers over the years.
He's not a ballhawk, but he doesn't allow a whole lot of wide receivers to catch footballs on him. He tallied 11 passes defensed, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a sack in 2010. If the Redskins want a cheaper, solid corner to replace Carlos Rogers, Taylor would be a good addition.
If Carlos Rogers could catch, he'd be in the Pro Bowl every year. A set of stone hands has unfortunately overshadowed the fact that he doesn't get a lot of picks (not for lack of trying, as Rogers apparently spends large amounts of time in practice catching footballs). He doesn't let a lot of wide receivers catch the football.
If Hall gets a lot of flack for giving up a lot of big plays, Rogers gets a lot of flack for not creating enough. And maybe to a point that's fair, but he has been largely undeserving of the amount of crap he gets. With a fanbase that seems to pounce on him whenever they can, it's not shocking that Rogers not only lashed out at them towards the end of the season, but that he wants to pursue free agency in a town that doesn't bash him all the times.
He did rack up 54 combined tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble with 12 passes defensed. He is probably a better corner than Hall to be honest, and the Redskins would be wise to simply re-sign Rogers and perhaps pursue a corner later, as the other corners on the market will either be expensive (Asomugha and Cromartie) or are getting older (Ike Taylor).
Go ahead, light the comments up about how bad Rogers is. I don't have a problem with the guy. A ball that hits his hands and drops is still a ball that the wide receiver didn't catch.
Potential Draft Choices: J.J. Watt
Forget bookend pass rushers for a minute. Can anyone name who plays opposite Terrell Suggs? What about Clay Matthews? Finding two outside linebacker who can pass rush is a good idea in theory, and if you can find them, great. But a disruptive defensive line is almost better, and J.J. Watt has every bit of the potential be be a disruptive force at 3-4 defensive end.
Watt had seven sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in his junior season. The perfect fit at the defensive end position, Watt could automatically upgrade the defensive line and create pressure, even if the Redskins escape the draft without an elite outside linebacker.
Nick Fairley had a dominant junior season at Auburn University, but over the last few weeks, his draft stock has started to tumble a little bit. At defensive tackle, Fairley dominated and racked up 12 sacks, but he only has one year of that production.
He can be dominant at defensive tackle or nose tackle, but he takes plays off.
And he's drawn some comparisons to everyone's favorite player, Albert Haynesworth.
That may not be entirely fair, but there are significant worries surrounding Nick Fairley. If he slides to the Redskins, it might be a mistake to pass him up, but one must know what they're getting into when they draft him, and hope the motor issues and the productivity keep up.
Phil Taylor (from Baylor) is the only true 3-4 nose tackle worth taking in the first round. At No. 10, maybe not, but he's the best available nose talent this side of Marcel Dareus, and he'll probably be gone in the top five.
The problem for Taylor is the same problem fairly has; he's never truly been a dominant player. He's an excellent two gap nose tackle, but he's not going to get in the backfield and disrupt a lot of plays. In his three years a starter at Baylor, he's only managed four sacks.
There are lingering character issues stemming from his decision to leave Penn State and transfer to Baylor, and there are questions about his motor. He also seems to be take certain plays off, and when you're a nose tackle, you need to be a guy who can go on every down if need be.
The other problems are with his weight, that seems to fluctuate back and forth. He's gotten it under control lately, but it'll be one of those things that has to be closely monitored.
Taylor is another defensive tackle who seems to have a lot of talent, but is also another guy whose other issues may outweigh his positives.
Talented guys with character or motor issues seems to be the story of the day in the first round, and Robert Quinn is no different. Quinn was dominant in his sophomore season, but was suspended from football for his entire junior year after he violated NCAA rules.
Quinn seems to have the talent to being a solid 3-4 outside linebacker, but he's been out of football for a whole year, and only lit the world on fire for one season. While his Combine and Pro Day showing have been mostly solid, and he draft stock hasn't really slipped any, once again, the nagging character issues and the boom or bust nature of the position is yet another question mark.
The real depth in this draft is at the defensive end position, and Cameron Jordan certainly has the production to back up his first round status. Cameron Jordan has racked up 17 sacks in four years, seems to play hard on every down and could become a force on the defensive line. He's a first round talent, and yet again, picking him up at 10 might not be the best value for him, but he still has all the ability to be a solid pass rusher and be very disruptive, and that's what the Redskins need.
Wilkerson is yet another solid defensive end prospect in a very, very deep class at the position. Thought to be a late first round or early second round prospect, Wilkerson had tacked up 17 sacks in three years as a starter. He's not just disruptive in the passing game, as he is also a solid tackler and stout against the running game.
Once again, is he worth taking at No. 10? Probably not. But if the Redskins can trade down at all, Wilkerson could be another solid addition.
Patrick Peterson doesn't seem likely to fall, but it is possible that Prince Amukamara could fall to the No. 10 position, and the Redskins do have a hole at corner. Amukamara has been solid in his playing time at Nebraska, including a five interception season 2009.
Unfortunately, he hasn't grabbed more interceptions, but it might be a case of "there's no point throwing the ball his way, because no one is going to catch it." He's a solid tackler who isn't afraid to rush the passer, and he can also cause fumbles. Amukamara is a talented guy that could definitely fill a hole.
Redskins fans will probably shy away from him as they have Carlos Rogers flashbacks (for no reason), but Amukamara could still end up being a solid draft pick.
This is almost silly because Von Miller doesn't seem likely to fall to No. 10.
But rather than give some drawn out analysis, I'll simply say, if Von Miller, by some miracle, falls to No. 10, and the Redskins don't draft him, I will scream.
Loudly. It will be blood curdling. The Vulcans will be able to hear my screams of agony and rage.
Analysis: Draft Is the Best Way to Rebuild the Defense
Where as there are lot of options in free agency to help fix the offense, as has been the case for a while with the Redskins, the draft is clearly the best way to build the defense going forward. This years draft class is deep at the defensive line positions, where the Redskins need to upgrade and guys like Cullen Jenkins and Haloti Ngata have proven that having a disruptive defensive line can make up for not having two book end tackles.
At outside linebacker, you have a lot of tweener guys who need some developing, but nonetheless, guys like Akeem Ayers, Justin Houston, Ryan Kerrigan and Dontay Moch provide intriguing options. The nose tackle depth isn't as good, which might be why it's better to try and pursue one in free agency.
Corner is also a bit thin, which is why the Redskins should either move to resign Carlos Rogers (yeah, yeah, I know, don't yell at me), or put as much effort as it takes into getting Nnamdi Asomugha as humanly possible when free agency starts.
Meanwhile, the Redskins have to be aware that they do have more talent on their football team than they think. If they can't fill a hole, there is some solid talent that they already have on their team. They just have to have the good sense to put them on the field. Sometimes, the best way to rebuild is to start from within. The 'Skins have some solid talent that deserves a shot.
It's time to let 'em play, Jim. It's time to let 'em play.
Next time, I'll be taking a look at the offense line.