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Redskins Defensive Outlook

By: Trevor Walters

May 5, 2005

The top-ranked defense in the conference. Give that a minute and let it rattle around in your mind. When searching for positives from a season in which the Redskins finished a disappointing 6-10, the defensive performance sticks out worse than Len Pasquarelli in a workout video. Finishing tops in the conference and third in the league sets a lofty precedent for the 2005 version to live up to, but it also forms a solid foundation on which a winning team can be built.

In Redskin terms, continuity is certainly defined more liberally than in most instances. So it’s no small feat that barring injury, nine starters figure to reclaim their post once the season kicks off four painful months from now. Further, the two positions that remain in question, middle linebacker and cornerback, figure to be filled from a pool of players that were Redskins last season. Lemar Marshall, himself a starter for 14 of 16 games last season, seemingly has the inside track to man the post vacated when Antonio Pierce defected north to the Giants.

Marshall will face stiff competition for the vacated middle linebacker role, even if Washington Times reports that veteran Michael Barrow’s days in D.C. are numbered prove to be accurate. Newcomer Brian Allen, late of the Panthers, and Redskin holdovers Clifton Smith and Brandon Barnes will be given the chance to stake their claim on the middle linebacker spot, as will rookies Robert McCune and Jared Newberry.

While Marshall appears most likely to win out in the end, Clifton Smith provides the most intriguing possibility in my mind. Smith spent the 2004 season as an “injured practice squad player”, yet had still displayed enough promise to entice management to sign him to a two-year deal through 2006. Smith was originally signed as an undrafted free agent after the 2003 draft, which shocked most experts, some of whom (Gil Brandt of nfl.com for one) had him listed among the top five linebackers coming out. While these rankings, no matter how reputable the source, are not an iron-clad predictor of success, the mere fact that so many held Smith in such a solid regard should illustrate that his potential is certainly not folklore.

The other vacant spot, starting cornerback opposite should-have-been Pro Bowler Shawn Springs, is likely to be filled by veteran Walt Harris. Harris was the nickel corner for most of the 2004 season and stepped up well when his opportunity came knocking as a result of injury. Harris was a bit of a gamble as a free agent acquisition last season given his recent history of knee problems, but quickly proved himself to be an indispensable commodity as a third corner and special teams ace. For some reason, it seems Harris’ capabilities at corner have been lost in the scramble to find a replacement for Minnesota-bound Fred Smoot. Though Harris will be 31 by the start of the season, he is still a solid NFL corner, and will provide consistent play until rookie Carlos Rogers is ready to take over.

Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of the 2004 Redskins defense was its ability to shut down opposing run games. The front four allowed a league-low 3.1 yards per carry last season, and it returns in full for 2005. A healthy Phillip Daniels can only improve these numbers, while the experience gained by Demetric Evans and Ron Warner in his absence will only enhance what was a surprisingly solid unit.

While the front four proved themselves up to the task of shutting down the opposing team’s running game, it did not further distinguish itself by generating a consistent pass rush. Redskin defensive linemen combined to tally 20 sacks in 2004, a modest total that is somewhat forgiven due to their exploits in run defense. This shortcoming was also disguised masterfully by the clever use of blitzes, as well as timely package adjustments. While the 2005 version of the line still lacks a true pass rushing presence, the dominance in the run game figures to remain intact, so a similarly stellar year with perhaps just the slightest drop in production should be well within reason.

As a frequent critic of LaVar Arrington, my appreciation for what he can athletically bring to a defense often gets lost in the shuffle. After watching the majority of last season from the sidelines with a knee injury, Arrington can’t help but be humbled by the strong performances he saw his teammates deliver week by week. Should this lead to his buying totally into the system, his potential in this scheme is nearly limitless. Given recent reports that his ailing knee has healed quicker than anticipated, it would seem that all that stands between him and a breakout season is his own mindset.

With Marcus Washington sure to maintain his Pro-Bowl form, whichever man earns the starting nod in the middle will be primed for success if for no other reason than the players that will line up on either side of him. Linebacker is also arguably the position where the Redskins enjoy the most depth. Pass rush specialist Chris Clemons and special teams ace Khary Campbell head a list of talented players who are eager to prove their worth.

Shawn Springs impressed even his toughest critic with the season he turned in during his first year in the Burgundy and Gold. Considered injury prone by some, Springs played in 15 of the Redskins 16 contests in 2004, missing his one lone game as a result of finding himself on the business end of a devastating (and legal) block by the Eagles’ Josh Parry. The fact that he proved himself to be durable should really not come as a grand surprise. Springs has missed 20 games in his nine NFL seasons, with nearly half of those taking place in the 2001 season alone. While his record isn’t perfect, it is important to remember that he plays football for a living! Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game that everyone must deal with, and Springs is no different. Ideally, he would play in all 16 games this season, but if it doesn’t work out that way, someone will step up in his place just like so many did last season when a starter fell.

With the Walt Harris/Carlos Rogers tandem set to anchor the opposite side of the field, second-year man Garnell Wilds looks to build on the positive momentum he created for himself with his admirable showing in the final game of 2004 against Randy Moss and the Vikings. Wilds, then a virtually unknown rookie about whom Gregg Williams publicly stated he would be comfortable having as a starter, is yet another undrafted free agent to find a home in D.C. He figures to fill the fourth corner role provided he can beat out the Washington Generals of cornerbacks, Ade Jimoh. Jimoh may earn his keep on special teams, but the further he stays from the defensive backfield, the better the outlook for the Redskins.

Second year free safety Sean Taylor, who was tapped by Williams as ‘the best athlete I’ve ever coached’, is poised for a breakout season in his sophomore campaign. Defensive backs do not often find themselves hearing their name called with the starters under Coach Williams, so Taylor’s starting nod in 13 contests last season speaks volumes to his talent. He showed flashes of that talent – the Bears game for example – last season mixed with some of the lumps that even the most skilled of rookies must endure.

However Taylor has yet again embroiled himself in another controversial off-season, proving he’s as enigmatic off the field as he is skilled on it. He has opted to work out with fellow former Miami Hurricanes as opposed to with his teammates during “voluntary” workouts, which predictably hasn’t sat well with Coach Gibbs, who is essentially the father of the optional summer workout. In this regard at least, Taylor doesn’t differ all that different from the norm, which in this case are alumni of the “U”. The loyalty that leads former ‘Canes back to South Beach to prepare for the season has a sort of Branch Davidian element to it; as if they are the enlightened ones while the rest of the NFL must toil in the relative misery in their meager multi-million dollar facilities. The cynic might wonder how a school who graduates so few of its stars can inspire such loyalty from players who only wore its uniform for a couple of seasons. Of course, I’m sure they’re free to leave any time they wish…

Taylor has also decided to switch to uniform number 21, vacated with the departure of Fred Smoot to the Vikings. Couple this with his demand for a new contract and his affinity for playing musical chairs with his agents, and what you have is a young man whose talents are rivaled only by his idiosyncrasies. As a sidebar, two months ago I was a strong advocate of a lavish extension for the player wearing number 21, but we decided that drafting his replacement was a more prudent course of action. Oh well, true devotion doesn’t always imply complete agreement.

To join Taylor as the last line of defense, Matt Bowen will face stiff competition from Ryan Clark, who filled in very well in his absence. No matter who wins the job, the odd man out will join newcomer Pierson Prioleau and holdover Andre Lott to comprise another area of great depth for the 2005 Redskins. Prioleau is an import from Buffalo, so even though his surroundings are new to him, the defense he’ll display his talents in is not.

Overall, two losses from eleven positions is a stunning turn of events from what has become custom in Redskins Nation. The losses of Fred Smoot and Antonio Pierce will only be as harmful to this team as their replacements allow them to be. Nothing is more illustrative of the importance of each man on the roster than the situation the Redskins find themselves in this upcoming season. With all the high-priced talent and big name notoriety on the defensive side of the ball, whether or not the defense takes a step backward or continues to establish its dominance will depend largely on an undrafted former safety and a veteran corner left for dead in the NFL’s free agent scrap heap.

The defense was, and will remain, the unquestioned strength of the team. Returning the vast majority of its components is not only beneficial from a standpoint of continuity, but from a talent perspective as well. While this side of the ball can be a source of confidence for the Redskins, the offensive side proved itself much more problematic in 2004. Check back in next week for the offensive outlook, and for your weekly Redskins football fix. Hail to the Redskins!

Questions and comments can be sent to Trevor Walters at skins.fan@comcast.net

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I really enjoyed that article.

I still seem to have a problem with this though "With all the high-priced talent and big name notoriety on the defensive side of the ball..."

I don't see this defense as having a large number of high priced guys. Lavar and Taylor come to mind, but they both think they should have more.

Springs and Washington? Smoot and Pierce left because they wanted more than those two, and the Redskins wouldn't do it.

If they had so much big name notoriety, there would have been more of them in the Popularity Bowl.

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Originally posted by bubba9497

When searching for positives from a season in which the Redskins finished a disappointing 6-10, the defensive performance sticks out worse than Len Pasquarelli in a workout video.

Don't put pictures like that in my head. It is disturbing.

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