Jim Haslett entered last offseason with a wish list as long as a football field. His first year as the Washington Redskins‘ defensive coordinator was a major struggle following coach Mike Shanahan’s mandate to install a 3-4 alignment mostly with players assembled by the previous regime to run a 4-3.
The growing pains were deep, and numerous holes were exposed. The defense forced more takeaways, as Shanahan hoped, but it allowed more yards than all but one team in the NFL.
Seven months later, at the dawn of a new campaign, Haslett’s list is considerably shorter. Shanahan prioritized defensive upgrades in the draft and free agency, giving the unit a facelift that should move the Redskins closer to achieving their vision for the 3-4 scheme.
“I think it’s a big upgrade for us,” Haslett said Saturday.
As understatements go, that’s near the top. Of course, it wouldn’t have taken much to improve a defense that surrendered 5.9 yards per play, but Shanahan followed through.
Haslett openly lobbied at the end of last season for the Redskins to use their first- and second-round picks on defensive players. Shanahan drafted outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan 17th overall and defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins in the second round.
Before the lockout, Haslett helped sign free agent free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. And last week, the Redskins signed free agent nose tackle Barry Cofield, defensive end Stephen Bowen and cornerback Josh Wilson.
Atogwe, Cofield, Bowen and Kerrigan are expected to start, and Jenkins at least will regularly factor into the defensive line rotation. Wilson might start, depending on whether the Redskins sign another cornerback.
Shanahan believes the most important additions are to the line. The trio of nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu and ends Adam Carriker and Kedric Golston was a liability last season. Too often they were pushed off the line of scrimmage. Kemoeatu was cut last week, Golston is a free agent who remains unsigned and Carriker is in camp.
“You got two guys [Cofield and Bowen] who are 27 years old, natural leaders, and that’s to me how you build a football team. You build it up front,” Shanahan said. “It starts with that defensive line and that offensive line. We’ve got a couple young guys that, I believe, are future captains, guys that can lead and play well.”
“That’s the big thing,” Haslett said. “We had some age last year up front. You could see we wore down as the season wore on.”
The Redskins expect the new additions to generate a pass rush that was almost nonexistent a year ago. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo had a team-high 8.5 sacks, six more than any defensive lineman. Washington ranked 29th in the league in sacks per pass attempt.
“As a defensive lineman, you should feel like no center should block you one-on-one,”said Cofield, unknowingly acknowledging one of Kemoeatu’s shortcomings last year. “That’s something you should relish. I think I can do a great job collapsing the pocket here.”
The Redskins expect Kerrigan’s pass-rushing prowess to balance the pressure Orakpo provides from the right. They hope the attention Orakpo commands from blockers will free Kerrigan for sacks and to create turnovers.
The latter is where Atogwe comes in. Over the past four seasons, his annual total of interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries has averaged 8.75.
“Just all around play-making ability, I believe I’m one of the best,” he said. “I come up with turnovers when we need it.”
“He’s a ballhawk,” Haslett said. “I just think he kind of settles everybody down. He’s got a great demeanor, and he’s a good tackler.”
All of the additions reflect well on paper, at least. Now they must learn the Washington’s defense before the season opener Sept. 11 against the New York Giants.
The lockout delayed free agency until last week, so Cofield, Bowen and Wilson just now are being introduced to the Redskins‘ scheme. Bowen at least came from the Cowboys’ 3-4; Cofield played in the Giants’ 4-3, so his learning curve is steeper.
Atogwe has a feel for what Haslett wants because of their time together in St. Louis. Kerrigan got to know a bit of the playbook and terminology at the players-only offseason workouts. Jenkins did not attend those.
“We’re going to have guys that it’s going to take them a little while to learn,” Haslett said, “but that’s kind of how the game is right now.”