LANDOVER – Former Washington Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan came to Redskins Park in 2010 with a vision of improving the defense with newly acquired defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.
In a copycat league, the 3-4 defense is considered to be a versatile and exotic, yet malleable, defensive front that allows a coach to use multiple blitz packages to be effective against the run or the pass.
As desirable as that sounds, drafting and signing players in a 3-4 system also limits a coach’s options when it comes to finding the right player to suit the needs of a specific role. Once a formidable force, the Redskins’ defense has failed to reclaim the success they last had when they ran the 4-3 six years ago.
A primary emphasis on the 3-4 defensive scheme is personnel. Enter Albert Haynesworth, the former Tennessee Titan who was a key signing for the Redskins and was set to become the main cog of a vaunted 3-4 package. With three down linemen, the edge rushers need to be robust and fast, yet the nose tackle's job is to take up real estate by attacking double-teams and plugging the gap to stop the run.
Needless to say, Haynesworth never fit the bill, and like Steve Miller, he took the money and ran home to a tub of ice cream. Washington had the pieces to be successful with the defensive change, but not enough. The Redskins drafted former University of Texas star Brian Orakpo in 2009 (1st round, pick 13) and he had great success during his rookie stint as an edge rusher.
However, because the Redskins didn't have the right personnel, Haslett figured he could convert arguably one of the best young down linemen in the game at the pass rush to become a coverage hybrid linebacker. Many injuries, blown coverages and years later, Washington wasted the potential of a budding star to do what he does best, rush the passer with his hand on the ground in a three-point stance. He has never achieved more sacks in his career than in his rookie season. That is, until he left for the Titans and rejuvenated his career in the 4-3 system.
There is no doubt the loss of the great Sean Taylor still looms over the Washington defense. It has never been the same since he has left. Granted, Washington struck gold on 2011 when they drafted Ryan Kerrigan, who received Pro Bowl honors again this year, but the 3-4 is only as successful as its coverage linebackers with the support of the rush that the down linemen employ.
Clearly, Kerrigan can't do it all himself. During the defensive transition in 2010, the Redskins attempted to make moves to ensure its defense would be dominant again. However, signings such as Oshiomogho Atogwe, Andre Carter, Barry Cofield, Jason Hatcher, Tracy Porter, Brandon Meriweather, Terrance Knighton and the oft-injured Adam Carriker didn't work.
Albeit seemingly good moves, none of them panned out long-term. Not only that, the Redskins failed to hit on any of their draft picks to shore up the secondary. Washington has yet to field a cohesive safety tandem since the Shanahan regime. The Skins tried to actively fill in the gaps by picking defensive end Jarvis Jenkins in the second round of the 2011 draft. The Clemson product was a reach to tap into his physical potential, but has yet to find success in the league.
It wasn't until the 2013 draft when the Redskins staff wanted to set the tone.
Washington drafted heavily on the defensive side of the ball to find some consistency, and in some regards, legitimacy, to the Shanahan blueprint in cahoots with Haslett back in 2010. The Redskins started by picking undersized cornerback David Amerson and then followed up by taking two hard-hitting safeties in Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo. Thomas battled injuries and has not seen the field since 2014, while Rambo consistently got mutilated in coverage. He is currently a marginal player in the Miami Dolphins organization.
However, there was still some light at the end of the tunnel. The following year the Redskins still failed to find reliable coverage linebackers to make an impact, so they drafted Trent Murphy out of Stanford. Murphy was somewhat of a late bloomer until he posted a career high in tackles, sacks and forced fumbles in 2016. Next, they snagged cornerback Bashaud Breeland late in the fourth round.
Breeland has bonehead moments at times, but has shown an ability to cover some of the best receivers in the game. Since being drafted, Breeland has accounted for 178 tackles, seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles – which are not too bad for a middle-round pick. The only promising defensive pick in the 2015 draft class was Preston Smith. Smith had a breakout year in 2015 with 35 tackles and eight sacks, but fell off a year later with only 3.5 sacks.
Not a single defensive group since 2010 has had success with a regular core that can gel together year-to-year. No shutdown corner, no pass rush and, most importantly, no consistency.
“Defensively, Ryan Kerrigan had double-digit sacks, Murphy almost had double-digit sacks, Preston came on late,” said Washington Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden at the end of the season. “We have got to get more pressure on the quarterback, and then obviously we have got to be on the same page in the secondary. There are some issues that we know that are out there that we have to correct, which is good and we can correct, but we have to go out and do it.”
Washington was aware of its secondary woes coming into this season, so why not bring in arguably one of the best shutdown corners in the league? No brainer, right? Well, Josh Norman came in with a lot of praise, but also brought a lot of unneeded attention that didn't necessarily back up his play on the field. He received Pro Bowl honors as an alternate this season by only snagging one interception until he hauled in two fair-catch picks against Matt Barkley and the Bears on Dec. 24.
It begs the question, what is the problem with the Redskins’ defense? It could be one of three things: the coaches, the players, or in my opinion, personnel in a defensive package that isn't built for success from the ground up. The Redskins seem to think it's a coaching problem after they recently fired four coaches, including defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Last season, Washington gave up the 28th most yards in the NFL and ranked 24th in rushing yardage allowed.
Whether crucifying Haslett or Barry, the athletes on the field make the plays. There seems to be an issue with a culture of acquiring and maintaining a consistent group of coaches and players who have the same vision.
“I think you have to assess both, and that’s what we’re going to do here for the next couple of weeks,” Gruden said about evaluating coaching versus the talent on defense. “I think we got a lot out of the players that we had. The players played hard. We had some injuries to key players back there – guys fought and battled, but we still have to evaluate everybody, player and coach alike.”
Yes, there are some weak spots on this team as it sits now, but I don't believe that firing a small group of coaches will fix the issue. There is a form of hardheadedness within the ranks in holding on to a defensive scheme that has never been successful since day one. Since 2010, Washington has not had a top ten defense against the pass and only achieved that honor once against the run in 2012. From 2002-2010, while running the 4-3, the Redskins had five top-10 defenses against the pass and three top-10 squads against the pass.
If the Redskins want to be a contender again, it is going to start with the defense. If the mantra of “defense wins championships” holds true, Washington might be waiting a long time until they either find the right personnel to coexist in the 3-4 or revert to a defense that has always been a staple in the 4-3 to stop the bleeding.