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Deciphering the Skins D: The Secondary

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I'm having a hell of a time making sense of the Washington Redskins defense. Let me explain my confusion to you, and then we'll do some specific player profiles. Defense is a considerably harder thing to get a grasp on in just a few games. And when you just don't really know something terribly well, it's better to not shoot your mouth off about it. Instead, I'll try and take you through my process and see if that's at all informative. Then I'll do my best to tell you what I know, however limited.

The Redskins finished the season with the 6th ranked defense overall, composed of the 7th ranked pass defense and the 11th ranked run defense. That's very good, and though I'm by no means beholden to Football Outsiders metrics, they're an excellent starting point. In 2006, with nearly the exact same personnel, the Washington Redskins had the 32nd ranked defense. That season they were ranked 32nd against the pass, too. The Skins three major additions this off season were Fred Smoot, Laron Landry and London Fletcher-Baker. I will talk about the first two in greater detail in a second. Their pass rush ranked dead last in 2006, and only managed to climb to 26th in 2007. That a team can have the 7th best pass defense in the NFL with the 26th ranked pass rush is strange in of itself, but it gets weirder...

The Skins lost two of their very best DBs, Carlos Rogers and Sean Taylor. Rogers was replaced by Fred Smoot and Taylor by Reed Doughty. Both appear to be inferior compared to their antecedents. That left them with this starting 4 in the secondary: Shawn Springs, Fred Smoot, Laron Landry and Reed Doughty. Springs is an excellent player, Landry looks talented and skilled, but Smoot and Doughty...

Smoot started 9 games as the #2 corner and yet, the Skins are excellent at defending #2 corners (-45.7 DVOA 2nd). Smoot is not a good corner. Smoot has never been a good corner, and against the Vikings in week 16, he was regularly beat by Troy Williamson. Smoot leaves tons of cushion, misjudges routes and has recorded 4 picks in the last 3 seasons. Smoot was twice replaced in Minnesota, and was signed by the Skins to play nickel.

Doughty doesn't look like he should be playing in the NFL. His lone solo tackle against the Vikings came when he made a nice read, shot the gap, tackled Adrian Peterson and hurt himself in the process. I could be wrong about the plucky 6th rounder out of division I-AA Northern Colorado, he certainly has the head and the heart, but the kid just looks too small and too fragile to stick on an NFL roster.

Springs is the class of the secondary. At 32, Springs doesn't have the closing speed he once had, but it's still above average. He's a sure tackler, but, above all else, he's just a smart, skilled corner. He rarely breaks coverage, knows when to fade off his man in anticipation of a deep route, has excellent field awareness - where the first down marker is, how to pin his receiver against the sideline, and how to break up a pass without drawing a flag. Springs doesn't have the ball skills he once had, despite his 4 picks. His interception against the Vikings, like his teammate Smoot's, was a gimmie INT gift-wrapped by a badly struggling Tarvaris Jackson. Seriously, if you can't learn not to throw the ball while your being hit, your stay in the NFL is likely going to be very short.

Landry is an excellent young safety. He has both good quickness and excellent long strider's speed. Plus, he's tremendously athletic. The Skins deployed him ultra deep for most of the game against the Vikings, where, to television crews, he was essentially invisible. What I saw, from his ability to read the play to his overall athletic potential, makes me think he's a future star, and, perhaps, superstar. He needs some polish, but an occasional bad break on a ball is to be expected from a rookie.

It's not a collection of talent that screams dominant pass defense. It only further confuses the matters that the Skins have, seemingly, one top level pass rusher: Andre Carter. The run defense I can understand, but the Skins pass defense is an honest-to-god mystery. My mind and my eyes say it's just not that good, but DVOA begs to differ. I looked back at the Skins defense the week before they lost Carlos Rogers for the season and found that it was ranked 1st in all of football. By week 15, before the Skins played a hapless Tarvaris Jackson and a halfassed Cowboys squad, it had fallen all the way to 11th. That defense, minus two of its best players, that took a 1st placed ranking and dragged it down to 11th, that's the defense I see. And, I think, that's the defense that will take the field this Saturday.

. . .

This is all I have time for today. We'll finish strong tomorrow, looking over the rest of the Skins' D and profiling some important matchups.