ASHBURN, Va. - As Year Two of the Mike Shanahan era comes to a close, it's difficult to tell just how much the team has improved since his arrival. They are headed for their second straight double-digit loss campaign under Shanahan and will finish this season with no more than six victories.
Not exactly a stretch that's indicative of a coach that has two Super Bowl rings on his mantle.
Shanahan, known as an offensive wizard, hasn't seen his team produce consistently at a high level in the points category. But while he's failed to find to develop a high scoring unit, it appears that the 2011 season has seen Washington's defense take one step closer to being the group he envisioned it could be when he first arrived.
Indeed, when he first came to town, one of Shanahan's first orders of business was to switch the team's defensive fronts. Moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the head coach who doubles as the team's Executive Vice President hired defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who had experience running the scheme in his days with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But no one said the transition would be a smooth one. The growing pains were obvious last season, as Washington's defense saw a major decline, finishing 31st in yards per game.
"The cupboard [was] not bare," Haslett said of the initial change. "But when you make changes like you're doing from a 4-3 to a 3-4 ... you're changing not just one guy, but all 11 guys."
The biggest changes needed to come up front, where the Redskins lacked the prototypical defensive lineman needed to effectively run the scheme.
"When you're looking at a 4-3 defensive end, you want somebody from 6'1'' to 6'3'', 6'4'' [and] 250 [pounds] and up," Haslett said. "[In a 3-4] we want 6'3'' to 6'6'' [and] 315 [pounds] and up. So those 6'6'' guys don't fall out of trees."
They found a player they believed fit that mold when they signed former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Stephen Bowen. Known for being a rotational player, most were surprised when the Redskins decided to give him a five-year, $27 million dollar contract. It was clearly a contract that paid Bowen not for what he was in Dallas, but what he could be in Washington.
Bowen proved the Redskins right, proving to be not only a solid run defender, but notching a career high six sacks.
"[Haslett]'s scheme gives us the ability to make plays," Bowen said. "They really believe in me, they have a lot of confidence."
But the key for any defense wishing to run a 3-4 front is having a strong nose tackle. After getting sub-par play last season by Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Washington chose to replace him via free agency with former New York Giants tackle Barry Cofield.
Cofield, who played in the 4-3 in New York, was asked to both learn a new position and a new scheme. Because of that, there were some who believed the decision to bring him to Washington to be a gamble. But after helping middle linebacker London Fletcher become the league's leader in tackles -- one of his primary duties as a nose tackle -- it appears that it's one that has paid off for the defensive coaching staff.
"For Barry to play a three-technique and a one-technique to go and play the nose in your first year [is impressive]," Haslett said. "He'll tell you, if you watch his early tapes and watch his now, he's night and day how much better he is."
The 3-4 front is designed to have the defensive line set up plays for the linebacker. They are usually asked to occupy blockers in order to create openings for the men behind them to either plug holes in the run game or create open lanes to the quarterback.
Last season, linebacker Brian Orakpo appeared to be the team's one and only pass rusher. Finishing with eight sacks in 2010, it was obvious that the Redskins needed someone opposite of him to alleviate the pressure of being double teamed every week by opposing offenses.
"I think [Orakpo]'s got to understand that no matter where he lines up, [offenses are] going to have two guys on him," Haslett explained. "Either they're going to chip him or they're going to have two guys on him because they're going to slide to him."
Enter rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. A 4-3 defensive end at Purdue, Kerrigan was asked to learn to play linebacker at the next level, completely changing nearly every aspect of his game. But just like Bowen and Cofield, both of whom were not sure fits for this scheme, Kerrigan was able to thrive and put together a solid rookie season. With one game left to play on the season, he leads the team in sacks with 7.5 to go along with a team-leading four forced fumbles.
His near seamless transition has made a strong impression on Haslett.
"Ryan's been good," he said. "For a rookie to step in and do what he's done, to never play that position, to never cover anybody, to do what he's done to me is outstanding."
With offseason additions in Bowen, Cofield and Kerrigan proving to be key pieces along the team's defensive front seven for years to come, there doesn't appear to be any doubt that Washington took a sizable step in 2011 in upgrading its defense.
But with no additional wins to show for it, it appears the 2011 season was just that: a single step. Along with offensive needs, Haslett and company know there is still plenty of room for improvement ahead on his side of the ball in the coming offseason.
"You like to have [results] from the first time you're out there," Haslett said of his groups progress, "but I think this team should get better and better and we should get better and better every time we go out there."
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