May 29, 2010

Will The Transition To A 3-4 Defense Pay Off?

Within the Washington Redskins organization rarely does anything come without a huge splash accompanying it.

As new head coach Mike Shanahan assembled his staff over the past several months, rumors abounded that the Redskins were looking to change their base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

A 4-3 defense has been the only thing that has been rock solidly consistent over this franchise's existence. Throughout the team's history they have never strayed from operating out of the most classic defensive front in football.

However, the hiring of Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator confirmed that the Redskins' one constant would be abandoned.

All of the defenses Haslett has been involved in ran under some pretense of the 3-4. Washington will be no different as the coaching staff has already discussed with the media the upcoming transition to a 3-4.

Today, in a pass-first NFL, it makes sense to adapt as so many teams have. A well run 3-4 defense poses more problems for opposing quarterbacks than a 4-3 and teams are taking notice of this.

A 3-4 defense consists of four linebackers and three down linemen, meaning that defensive coordinators are much more versatile in what they can do with their schemes.

It allows for more complex blitz packages, more bodies in coverage and more general chaos downfield. All of these things add up to a quarterback's worst nightmare and given the recent abundance of pass-first teams, the entire NFL is slowly but surely transitioning to the 3-4.

However, the 3-4 doesn't guarantee success against passing teams. It requires athletic, versatile linebackers, a strong pass rush that supports the secondary and most importantly, a dominant nose tackle.

It may sound easy, but there is no quick method to developing a great 3-4 defense. Finding at least four linebackers talented enough to play in a 3-4 is incredibly difficult especially now with every team in the market for them.

The Redskins have several pieces in place for their 3-4 defense, but it is far from a finished product.

Last year, Washington drafted Brian Orakpo from Texas and he excelled at rushing the passer from a three-point stance. Now Orakpo will line up as the rush end in the 3-4, a position that should suit his burst and skill set.

Orakpo will only build on his impressive rookie season in which he notched 11 sacks and 50 tackles, playing at both DE and LB. The OLB position in the 3-4 will allow him to rush the passer from different angles, and as he gains experience and strength, Orakpo could end up drawing comparisons to the likes of DeMarcus Ware or a Pre-injury Shawne Merriman.

The rest of the linebacking corps isn't set in stone for the long-term, but the depth and experience is there.

London Fletcher still possesses the ability to be one of the NFL's premiere run pluggers at middle linebacker (or inside linebacker in a 3-4), but he is fast approaching the end of his career.

Fletcher is a 12-year vet who makes 100+ tackles every year. He isn't as capable in coverage, but when it comes to plugging up the middle, no one is better than Fletcher.

However, Fletcher will need a big body in front of him in order to leave him free to make plays on the ballcarrier.

A great nose tackle is essential to a successful 3-4. The Ravens and Cowboys linebackers can attest to the fact that having a force on the line of scrimmage increases what they can do at the point of attack.

Haloti Ngata (Ravens) and Jay Ratliff (Cowboys) both command double or even triple teams at the line of scrimmage, meaning players like Ray Lewis and Keith Brooking are left unblocked.

Washington will need to determine which of the nose tackles on their roster can best wreak havoc up front. If they can't find anyone able to command double teams, then Haslett's 3-4 will suffer.

Albert Haynesworth would seem to be the ideal choice for nose tackle as he possesses the size and strength necessary to take the pounding in the middle. Yet Haynesworth seems adverse to taking said pounding. He has repeatedly said he does not want to play in a 3-4 and it has been suggested that he will play defensive end instead of nose tackle.

Howard Green, formerly of the Jets, lined up as the starter during the team's minicamps, but it's Ma'ake Kemoeatu who could be the answer should he recover fully from an Achilles injury suffered last season.

Kemoeatu has the size (6-5, 345) to play in the middle, and he flashed dominance at times with the Carolina Panthers.

"He is a prototypical nose tackle," Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said of Kemoeatu. "He's working extremely hard. I think next week, he'll get more reps. The key is getting ready for summer camp. And there's not a question he's full speed, ready to go."

Kemoeatu learned to play nose tackle under defensive wizard Rex Ryan in Baltimore, and he is expected to be a huge part of the Redskins' 3-4.

The nose tackle is essential as he occupies blockers and disrupts assignments. This not only benefits the ILBs, but it can leave edge rushers in one-on-one situations.

The Redskins have Orakpo, but they lack an explosive rusher off of the other side.

Andre Carter has straightline speed and is a relentless in pursuit, but it remains to be seen if he possesses the quickness to play off the edge. Note, however, that he struggled adapting to a 3-4 in San Francisco (albeit a different scheme).

Carter will likely get the nod starting opposite Orakpo. Chris Wilson and Lorenzo Alexander are both terrific role players, yet they aren't everydown players. They will fill in as situational pass rushers along with Jeremy Jarmon and Robert Henson.

Rocky McIntosh would be an option at OLB, but he would be better suited playing alongside Fletcher as the other ILB. McIntosh is a solid linebacker who is good in coverage. He isn't much of a pass rusher so it makes sense to move him into the middle.

Free agent acquisition Chris Draft, HB Blades and rookie Perry Riley will provide quality depth in the middle, rounding out what looks to be an adequate LB corps.

I'll wrap up my look at the 3-4 with preview of the secondary and then give my expectations for the defense in the coming days.

May 26, 2010

Albert Haynesworth Continues To Disappoint

As if all the negative publicity surrounding beleaguered NFL star Albert Haynesworth wasn't enough, the Washington Redskins' prize defensive tackle has managed to find another way to drag his name through the mud.

After skipping all of the team's voluntary offseason workouts thereby alienating teammates, coaches, and the fan base, Haynesworth is now being sued for $10 million by a Brooklyn stripper for impregnating her and then, according to court documents, failing "to provide and emotional or financial support of her or his unborn child."

25-year old Silvia Mena, claims she was romanced by Haynesworth in February during this year's Super Bowl events held in Miami. Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant and went to Haynesworth seeking help.

However, after Haynesworth initially agreed to support her through the pregnancy, he has refused to talk to Mena and has not sent her any money.

Haynesworth has yet to comment on the situation, but it is all too clear that he will approach with the same unfeeling attitude that we have seen throughout his time in Washington.

Time after time we have seen a poor commitment from Haynesworth whether it be within the locker room, on the field, or in the community. Haynesworth has shown nothing but indifference to the entire world since signing a blockbuster $100 million deal last year, and this story only affirms the consensus that he is a self-absorbed individual with no respect for those around him.

I'm sure just about everyone in the Redskins organization would be overjoyed if Dan Snyder just showed Haynesworth the door, but football is a business and Haynesworth is a $30 million business investment. Snyder can't simply sever ties without giving the matter quite a bit of thought.

Quite honestly, I don't think the Redskins have any idea of what to do with Haynesworth. No one will trade anything of value for him at this point and cutting him would mean swallowing truckloads of money. Plus, you do have to factor in that when on the field, Haynesworth is still the Redskins best defensive lineman when he wants to be.

With the Redskins switching to a 3-4 defense, the coaching staff made it clear that the offseason workouts were only voluntary in name. Yet Haynesworth has been invisible at Redskins Park.

Haynesworth has said he will show up for all mandatory activities, which shows he still intends to fulfill his contract despite his displeasure with the 3-4 defense, but you have to wonder about his level of commitment.

Haynesworth has already collected the majority of his guaranteed money and there's no telling what kind of shape he will show up in to training camp. He won't be familiar with the schemes that are presently being put into place and this latest story will be quite the distraction.

Mike Shanahan has made it clear that with Haynesworth failing to show up this offseason, he doesn't want him around. Should the 'Skins decide keep him, Shanahan will be diplomatic about it, but I don't anticipate a love-fest.

Coming off the Santana Moss HGH rumors and now Haynesworth's tasteless actions (or lack thereof), it has been a rough week for the Redskins. Shanahan is busy trying to turn the Redskins around following a 4-12 season, and thus far he's been met with some off-field issues that have certainly been distractions.

This is DC, Mike. Get ready for a wild ride.

May 23, 2010

D'Qwell Jackson: Potential Holdout

This is unrelated to the Redskins for now, but it appears that Cleveland Browns D'Qwell, a restricted free agent, is threatening to hold out from training camp.

Jackson wants to negotiate a long-term deal to stay in Cleveland, but the Browns have yet to make good on their promise that they would offer him a deal.

Jackson's agent said that Jackson may not sign his second-round tender offer, meaning Jackson could end up on the free agent market.

I have been closely following Jackson as he brings a lot to the table.

For starters, Jackson has experience playing MLB in the 3-4. Secondly, he is a tackling machine. Aside from last season's injury shortened campaign, Jackson has 90+ tackles every season.

Before suffering a torn pectoral muscle six games into the 2009 season, he was coming off back-to-back seasons of 100+ tackles and in 2008, he racked up 154 tackles.

Now Jackson has stated he wishes to remain in Cleveland, but should the contract issue continue to escalate, Jackson could be looking for a new city to set up shop.

This is where Washington comes in. With London Fletcher on his last legs, it would make sense to add some young talent to a group of linebackers that is still a work in progress.

Jackson is just 26 years old, and would be a steady presence next to Fletcher. Once Fletcher retires, Jackson would become the plugger in the middle.

HB Blades is an adequate reserve, but has never stood out when he gets that rare spot start. Rocky McIntosh is expected to move into the middle, but adding Jackson would give the 'Skins a long-term MLB to play with McIntosh after Fletcher retires.

Just some thoughts. No rumors linking Jackson to the Redskins, but like Rams' safety OJ Atogwe, Jackson is another RFA who the 'Skins should consider pursuing should he hit the free agent market.

Update: Jackson posted the following on his Twitter account:

I appreciate all the concern about my situ with the browns & to the fans I will be a brown this year. Either way the season begins in sept!

The tweet seems a little open-ended. Jackson says he will be a Brown, but then goes on to say "either way" the season starts in September. What the hell is "either way?" Point being, he hasn't signed and if he doesn't get the deal he wants, he could hit the free agent market.

May 21, 2010

Moss Update: Suspension?

For one thing we know that Santana Moss will undoubtedly have to endure a chat with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his name being linked to a Canadian doctor who reportedly smuggled HGH into the US for several athletes.

Goodell has sat down with a handful of NFL players this offseason and several have received suspensions following these discussions.

Now we don't know anything about Moss' involvement in this case other than he was linked to it by the Buffalo News. He has not yet been charged for anything and Mike Shanahan urged the media to sit back and wait rather than "throw [Moss] under the bus."

He has a good point. Whenever the media has jumped on a scandal, Goodell usually reacts harshly. Hell, Ben Roethlisberger was never even indicted in his sexual assault case and yet Goodell banished him for six games just because of the firestorm over the situation.

So Shanahan is wise in wanting to keep this off the front pages. Should Moss avoid prosecution and keep a low profile, then Goodell might not be able to formulate a strong enough case to suspend him.

Another thing working in Moss' favor is that he isn't a repeat offender. Moss has never been a problem off the field unlike Santonio Holmes or Roethlisberger or Pacman Jones.

However, if the story escalates further expect to see Moss miss at least quarter of the season for his indiscretion.

May 20, 2010

Five Players The 'Skins Should Pull Off The Scrap Heap In Free Agency

By the time the NFL offseason hits late May, interesting football news is hard to come by. The free agent market has dried up and ESPN has begun the annual Brett Favre watch.

I will not succumb to discussing whether #4 will return for another season. Nor will I break down every possible scenario in the Albert Haynesworth stand-off (the way things look now, it appears as if Haynesworth will just show up to training camp and play another year in DC anyway).

What I will do is examine several of the players left on the scrap heap in free agency. Washington has done a solid job addressing depth along the defensive line and also acquiring alternatives to Clinton Portis at running back, but they still could use help at receiver, free safety, tackle and outside linebacker.

1. Kevin Curtis -WR

Curtis is a speedster who has been slowed by injuries the past two seasons in Philadelphia. He only has one 1,000 yard season on his resume, but he could provide a spark in the slot and should Santana Moss face a suspension due to his HGH use, Washington will need more bodies at receiver.

Curtis' best days may be behind him. He's 31 and entering his eighth season in the league. However, when healthy he can give you 40 or so receptions.

2. Terrell Owens-WR

TO is taboo here in Washington for a lot of people. He has already played in Philly and Dallas so many would rather not see him come to DC.

But you can argue that he can still produce at a solid level. In Buffalo, with nothing save Lee Evans and Fred Jackson on offense, Owens posted 829 yards and 55 catches last year to go along with five TDs.

Granted, those aren't eye-popping numbers, but TO can still contribute and last year he proved he can also keep his mouth shut.

I don't know what there's not to like with TO. His receiving average last year was 15.1 yards per catch. On his career he averages 14.9 YPC. The three season before he played in Buffalo were all 1,000 yard seasons.

Last year, Washington's top receiver was Moss with 902 yards on 70 catches. Owens' numbers were comparable.

The only drawback is Owens will likely command a big salary, but considering what he can still bring to the table it seems worth it.

If Donovan McNabb gives the green light, it would make a lot of sense to add Owens by training camp.

3. Chester Pitts-G

Pitts is a longtime member of the Houston Texans offensive line. He possesses the athleticism to play tackle or guard and still has some mileage left.

Pitts is 30 years old and 2010 will be his ninth season in the NFL. He is 6-4, 308 and played under Kyle Shanahan in Houston.

Shanahan is now the offensive coordinator in Washington and it would be wise for him to try and bring Pitts to Washington too.

Right tackle is a bit of a question mark right now. Newly acquired Artis Hicks appears to be pencilled in as the tentative starter, but he is better suited as a reserve. Pitts is primarily a guard, but he could provide depth at right tackle.

Pitts has knowledge of the Shanahans' zone blocking scheme. He has played in it under Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak in Houston. He would be a great pickup at this stage in the offseason.

4. Chike Okeafor-OLB

With the Redskins switching to a 3-4 defense this season, Okeafor can brings a much needed presence to the strongside OLB position opposite Brian Orakpo.

Okeafor played defensive end until the Arizona Cardinals moved to a 3-4 in 2006. Since then Okeafor has racked up 17.5 sacks in three seasons at OLB.

Okeafor is 34 years old, meaning his best days are behind him, but the Redskins still haven't set their linebacking corps in place yet.

Andre Carter and Rocky McIntosh are option at the OLB spot, but Carter has struggled before in a 3-4 while McIntosh may be moved inside. That leaves just Chris Wilson or Lorenzo Alexander as the starting OLB. Neither are full-time players.

So Okeafor could be the answer at OLB.

5. Oshiomogho Atogwe-FS (RFA)

Atogwe has been mentioned in several circles as a player the Redskins could try acquire even though he is a restricted free agent. He is a five-year, 28-year old veteran free safety who has been one of the few bright spots on a woeful St. Louis Rams team.

Atogwe refused to sign his tender with the Rams, meaning the 'Skins could sign him to an offer sheet at a relatively low cost or wait until June 1st for Atogwe to become an unrestricted free agent (that will happen only if the Rams opt not to sign him to a one-year, $7 million deal before June 1st).

He has 19 career interceptions along with 29 passes defensed. Since 2006, Atogwe has had no fewer than 72 tackles in a season and is a steady presence in the secondary.

Washington moved LaRon Landry back to his natural strong safety position this offseason, leaving the free safety position in the hands of Kareem Moore. Moore is a solid player, but he isn't the caliber of Atogwe.

The other safeties (Reed Doughty, Chris Horton and Lendy Holmes) likely to make the roster aren't equipped to play center field in the secondary either. So vote Atogwe on June 1st.

May 17, 2010

Ranking The RBs

One thing we have learned under the new Bruce Allen/Mike Shanahan regime is that the Washington Redskins have taken a more passive approach to spending in free agency.

However, that doesn't mean that the Redskins are shying away from big-name players.

Three of the running backs currently on the Redskins roster are all households names. Despite the star power of Larry Johnson, Willie Parker and Clinton Portis, Portis is the only one set to make over five million bucks this season.

All three have seen better days, but the 'Skins front office is hoping that a change of scenery and a little competition between these three could spark an improvement in a running game that was ranked a lowly 27th in 2009.

With a crowded backfield, many are anticipating that one of the three could be cut from the final roster. All three require plenty of touches while both Portis and Johnson are egotistical and have recently been part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

All three have been 1,000 yard rushers in the past and Parker has a pair of Super Bowl rings. So there is plenty for Shanahan to work with in the backfield.

Ranking the backfield was no easy task and the possible addition of Brian Westbrook could further complicate things yet here is the rankings along with which of the three is most likely to be cut.

1. Willie Parker

Parker is an ideal fit for Shanahan's one-cut, zone blocking scheme and though he has a less than stellar injury history, he has fewer carries in his career than either of his other two counterparts (1,253 for Parker while Portis has over 2,100 and Johnson has over 1,400).

Shanahan isn't a coach who will stick with a guy due to name recognition. He usually plays whoever he feels will best help him win each Sunday. We saw it in Denver with Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Mike Bell, Tatum Bell, etc.

If Parker can stay healthy, he can give the 'Skins a great set of wheels. His straightline speed is phenomenal and if the blocking up front improves as expected, Parker could end up being the man in DC.

The main concern here is whether or not Parker can stay healthy. He has missed chunks of time since entering the league and last year he started just three games for the Steelers.

2. Larry Johnson

Johnson is a bigger back at 230 pounds. He isn't a prototypical Shanahan runner, but he was brought in to boost the ground game in the red zone.

Johnson can make plays anywhere on the field, but as of late his attitude off the field has led to suspensions and a ticket out of Kansas City.

Johnson played in Cincinnati after leaving the Chiefs in the middle of the 2009 season. He had one game where he rushed for over 100 yards (the Redskins as a team only had one game where a RB ran for over 100 yards), but spent most of the season backing up Cedric Benson.

He averaged over four yards a carry with the Bengals, but only twice in his eight year career has he rushed for over 1,000 yards.

The question is: can Johnson overcome personal issues and find himself on the field again? If so, the Redskins can expect him to be the first string RB at best and a great situational runner at the worst.

3. Clinton Portis

Portis is an enigma. He has been a key member of the Redskins since 2004, but recently he threw former teammate Jason Campbell under the bus. This came a year after Portis called out former head coach Jim Zorn for his gameplanning schemes.

Portis sat out of the majority of practices in 2009 after showing up to training camp out of shape. He sat out the second half of the season with a concussion and lacked focus and effort when playing during the first half.

Shanahan won't tolerate any of that this season. Portis is on a short leash and he knows it.

The upside to keeping Portis? When motivated and in shape, he can still rush for over 1,000 yards.

His legs aren't what they used to be, but Portis has the vision to be a solid back on first and second down. He is a back who can give you 4.5 yards per carry behind a decent line. In addition, he is one of the best blocking RBs in the NFL.

We saw that Portis could play early in 2008 when he tore through the first half of the season. Since then, he has been a shell of his former self.

An impressive preseason would alleviate concerns that his best days are behind him, but one false step and Portis might find himself unemployed.

4. Ryan Torain

Torain was signed several weeks ago and came over from Denver where he spent his 2008 rookie season under Shanahan.

His career numbers include 69 yards rushing on 15 carries and a TD. He could end up being an intriguing wild card.

He has fresh legs and being a Shanahan draftee, he could fit the mold of what Shanahan is looking for in a back. Preseason will give a good indication of whether or not Shanahan has long-term plans for him.

Overview: Portis is third because quite simply, Shanahan has shown a desire to move on from the Joe Gibbs and Jim Zorn eras. He wants to make his own mark on the team.

Portis has done nothing to distinguish himself the past year and a half and as such, Shanahan will need to see an elite performance from Portis this offseason should Portis want to remain with the team.

Larry Johnson and Willie Parker aren't likely to be cut because they were signed this offseason. Unless either of them completely disappoints in training camp, they should be on the final roster.

This further pushes Portis put of the picture because he is set to make big money this year. Johnson and Parker are cheaper, fresher options.

The goal of the ground game this year appears to be running back by committee. Neither of the three needs to have a big season; all that needs to happen is for the three to make the most of their opportunities and move the ground game into a top 15 rushing attack.

I believe Shanahan isn't planning on using this threesome as a long-term option. They are just in place to bolster the run game for a year until Shanahan sets into place his blocking schemes. Then, he will make the move to add a franchise RB unless one of the current backs has a career rebirth.

The big weakness for the run game in 2010 is once again the lack of a change-of-pace third down back. Parker is fast, but not quick with gamebreaking abilities. There is also the lack of a consistent receiving threat out of the backfield.

Prediction: I see Portis as being the odd man out (especially if Brian Westbrook is signed) with Parker as the starter going into the season. Johnson will be the goal-line back and Torain will see some third down action.