When the Washington Redskins went through masses changes within their coaching ranks after the 2009 season, one move was to replace Greg Blatche with Jim Haslett as the defensive coordinator and go with the 3-4 base defense for the first time in the franchises history.
Haslett is a former NFL inside linebacker who spent his entire eight year career in a 3-4 defense. Seven were spent with the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the second round of the 1979 draft. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year that season, the first Bill, and one of two, to earn that award.
After coaching a few years in college, he joined former Bills head coach Kay Stephenson, best known for changing the Bills helmets from white to red, on the Sacramento Surge of the now defunct World League as a defensive coach in 1992. After the Surge became to only American team to win a World Bowl that year, Haslett moved on to the NFL and eventually ascended to become defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996 to 1999.
The Saints made him their head coach in 2000, where they won the NFC West with a 10-6 record before losing their second playoff game. He was named NFL Coach of the Year, becoming the only Rookie of the Year ever to later become Coach of the Year.
After five more years, he was fired and replaced by current coach Sean Payton. Haslett moved to the Saint Louis Rams as a defensive coordinator immediately, then was named interim head coach in 2008 after Scott Linehan was fired before the fifth game of the year.
He then became head coach of the Florida Tuskers in the fledgling UFL in 2009. Haslett was named Coach of the Year after leading the team to the leagues championship game before losing in overtime. When the Redskins newly hired head coach Mike Shanahan offered him the teams defensive coordinator job, he came on board.
Since his arrival, results have been mixed. It started off with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who Washington had signed to a $100 million contract the year before, refused to participate in any team functions because he was upset that the 3-4 was being installed, which would force him to play nose tackle.
With virtually the same defensive personnel as last year, the unit is playing worse in many areas. While giving up a point more per game so far, the Redskins rank last in the NFL in yards allowed, and second to last in passing yards allowed. They ranked tenth in both areas last year.
Part of this problem may be from growing pains from a group of players playing in the 3-4 for the first times in their careers. There seems to have been a few areas of optimism. The run defense is currently ranked 11th. Last year it was ranked 16th.
LaRon Landry, Washington’s first round in 2007, has been playing safety at a level not seen since Ken Houston used to patrol the grounds of RFK stadium before heading to Canton as maybe the greatest strong safety in NFL history.
Landry has piled up 34 tackles already, a pace that would give him over 180 tackles at seasons end. Though he has one official sack, he has pressured the opposing quarterbacks constantly by being sent in on a blitz by Haslett frequently. He has also been hitting opponents with a technique and ferocity that all his teammates should strive to emulate.
Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo are defensive ends masquerading as outside linebackers. In today’s NFL, this is a common practice. One opposing teams often try to expose. While Carter and Orakpo do well rushing the passer from an upright position, they struggle mightily when asked to defend against the pass. This incompetency puts added pressure on the Redskins defensive backs, which is seen by their having the second worst pass defense in the league.
The defensive line is a mix of veterans, cast offs, and journeymen. Ma’ake Kemoeatu, who has a brother named Chris starting at left guard for the Steelers, enters his eighth year being asked to play nose tackle for the first time since 2005. Washington needs him to be the full-time starter for the first time in his career since Haynesworth has shown no interest and has put in very little effort thus far.
Phillip Daniels and Vonnie Holliday are ancient reserves at defensive end, aged 37 and 35 respectively. The starters are fairly young in Kendric Golston and Adam Carriker. Carriker has experience at nose tackle, and has been a pleasant surprise so far, showing why the Rams drafted him in the first round of the 2007 draft six selections after the Redskins tabbed Landry.
While the rest of the defense has played inconsistently, the lack of turnovers created is hurting Washington. They have just two interceptions and two recovered fumbles so far. With the offense even more anemic as it was last year with the ground game, it puts the defense on the field to create more opportunities that have yet to transpire.
Will the Redskins defense, which has four key players over 30-years old, hold up an entire season seeing extra snaps and time on the field? This is the question Haslett must struggle with as his defense continues to give up huge chunks of yardage weekly.
Unless the Redskins run game gets better, the 3-4 will get tested more and more. It may have the team continue their losing ways that have them currently with one victory in three games. Maybe the extra snaps gets the players better adjusted to the 3-4 faster, but it is not a winning formula.
Jim Haslett has been running a gambling defense with blitz packages that has gotten seven sacks and several hurried passes so far. Though that has been an area better than last season, which produced 40 sacks, the lack of turnovers continues to be the issue. Washington intercepted 11 balls and had 18 fumble recoveries last year, which is abysmal.
The saying goes there are no bad players, just bad schemes that fail to place them in the right areas to be productive. Entering his seventh season as an NFL defensive coordinator, Haslett knows he has to come up with a better scheme to get the ball back for the offense more.
As the defense bends more and more each possession with fatigue, it is imperative the rest of the defense follows Landry lead by enforcing havoc and helping achieve turnovers.