Special to NFL GG by Rajan Nanavati
When Mike Shanahan hired Jim Haslett as his defensive coordinator, and the latter declared he’d be bringing and installing the 3-4 defense in Washington (despite lacking the appropriate personnel to do so effectively), the theory for the change was based on the idea the Redskins would sacrifice statistical positioning and average yards per game (ranked in the top 10 in 5 of the past 6 seasons) for forced turnovers and increased QB pressure.
After the Redskins loss to the Rams, there’s going to be an increasing clamor for Haslett to go back to the UFL (where he briefly coached), or at least get the heck out of Washington. Haslett’s defense entered the matchup versus the Rams as the worst unit in the entire NFL, and did absolutely nothing to improve that ranking against St. Louis. Pat Shurmur, the much-maligned offensive coordinator for the Rams, produced a game plan for the Rams that abused Jim Haslett’s (supposedly) havoc-inducing defense, and flat-out stole it’s lunch money.
Astutely, the Rams opened up the game by punching the Redskins tissue-soft rushing defense right in the mouth, courtesy of their physical freak at running back, Steven Jackson. Jackson’s 42 yard touchdown run on the Rams opening drive – his first rushing touchdown in over six games – set the tone for what would be a very long evening for the Redskins defense. Whenever the Redskins needed a critical stop, Haslett’s defense never answered the call. Even after being handed a lead early in the 2nd half, instead of blitzing everyone and everything including the kitchen sink, the Redskins defense rolled over and let the Rams defense walk right over them.
Throughout the second half, the Rams attacked the Redskins defense with the short passing game – which the Redskins had absolutely no answer for – and eventually gave way to the Rams running the ball right down the Redskins collective throats. With no blitz to deal with, Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford – a quarterback whose strengths were based on accuracy and timing – could set his feet and deliver passes downfield with increasing confidence as the game wore on. And with the lead in hand, the Rams put the game away – something the Redskins have yet to learn how to do – with a running attack featuring backups named Kenneth Darby and Keith Poston, who won’t be invoking any “thunder and lightning” nicknames anytime soon.
The Redskins offense certainly did absolutely nothing to bail out the defense, with less than 100 yards of total offense in the 2nd half. But Redskins fans expect a lot more from a defense run by Haslett, a guy who cut his teeth running the Steelers defenses of the late 90’s.
An offensive “explosion” of 30 points from the worst team in the 2009 NFL season, that hadn’t scored 30 points in over 700 days and 29 games, and was starting a quarterback playing in only his 3rd NFL game is the last thing any Redskins fan would ever expect.
In Haslett’s defense, he’s not the one blowing plays on the field. Not a single player on the Redskins defensive line has played anywhere above “adequate” all year. Andre Carter has been nothing more than $4 million dollar liability in coverage, and he’s been absolutely useless on the pass rush. DeAngelo Hall, after notoriously demanding how he wanted to cover the opposing team’s best wide receiver, allowed over 80 yards receiving to a receiver who was essentially acquired in exchange for a sack of nickels. Carlos Rogers couldn’t hang on to an interception if it were a beach ball thrown to him while he was wearing gloves coated in superglue.
But Haslett should have realized he’s running a scheme without the proper personnel in the first place. With guys like Carter, Phillip Daniels, the much discussed Albert Haynesworth, and even Ma’ake Kemoeatu on the front line, the Redskins could have a very effective 4-3 defense that could hold up at the point of attack (against the run) and still get after the quarterback. A couple of simple tweaks – letting Brian Orakpo put his hand in the dirt more often and moving LaRon Landry to Strong safety full-time – is all this defense needed.
Instead, the coaching staff decided against this, and stuck with the 3-4, displacing guys like Carter and Haynesworth from positions they would be best suited for. So ultimately, when the players aren’t executing the scheme you install, that’s the coach’s fault. And when your defense allowed an offense that was stopped by the hapless Cardinals and hopeless Raiders to walk all over it, you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.