It didn't take long last season for one major principle of the Washington Redskins' new 3-4 defense to become clear. It doesn't work if the nose tackle is pushed back at the line of scrimmage.
That is why they signed Barry Cofield in the offseason to man the position. And that is why Cofield was hard on himself Wednesday in discussing how he played in the Redskins' recent win over Seattle.
"It was a situation where I could have been more stout at times," he said. "I was on the center, but I felt I could have played better. It wasn't my best game."
It was a simple analytical statement. That, after all, is Cofield's nature. A student of the game, coach Mike Shanahan called him.
And that's where Cofield's upside lies. While young players such as rookie running back Roy Helu and second-year inside linebacker Perry Riley learn during game action in the final stretch of this lost season, you can classify Cofield with them. The first-year nose tackle still is learning each week, honing his technique against different blocking schemes.
"He's never played the position, and not having the offseason or an extended training camp, it probably put him behind," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "But he's really a smart player. I think Barry can be one of the better, if not the best, nose tackles in the league."
There's evidence that Cofield at least is on his way. He knows it, too.
"London has got a lot of tackles this year," he said. "That makes me proud."
To be exact, inside linebacker London Fletcher has 107 tackles by the NFL's count. That's the second-highest total in the league and the most in the NFC.
According to the Redskins coaches' tally, Fletcher has 136. That's approximately one game's worth of tackles ahead of his pace from the previous two seasons, both of which ended with Pro Bowl berths.
Cofield is a big reason for that. His responsibility as the nose tackle, in its most basic description, is to keep offensive linemen from blocking the inside linebackers. Linebackers are the designated tackling machines. Cofield keeps them running.
It's not a simple task, though.
"When you play in the 3-4, they do so many things to try to hit you from so many different directions," Shanahan said. "Sometimes it will be a center setting you up by taking off; it looks like he's missing a block. And maybe a tight end will be blocking you one play, a fullback or Tiger-man will be blocking you on another play. So you've got to have your head on a swivel and you've got to feel very confident in yourself."
Cofield is building that self-assurance through experience. Against the San Francisco 49ers' power blocking scheme earlier this month, he became flustered by how the tight end would trap-block him instead of the guard or center in front of him. He hadn't experienced that type of blocking scheme as a nose tackle.
Seattle's offensive line gave him trouble Sunday when it started double-teaming him midway through the game with the center head-on and a guard from the side.
He was pushed back 3 yards on several runs, and on one play a double team by the left tackle and left guard drove him 6 yards back. He craved answers.
"With a team that's that athletic and a side-to-side zone team, a lot of it I was running sideways," he said. "But when they changed their scheme up, I could've been more up the field. As opposed to reacting, I could have been more physical up the field."
Cofield reached that conclusion after he broke down game film with Haslett and defensive line coach Jacob Burney.
The key to success, though, is making those adjustments on the sideline during the game instead of the day after. He expects the experience he's building to provide reference points for future modifications.
"Instead of having to watch the tape on Monday and learn, I'll just be able to go to the sideline and say, 'Hey, this is happening,' " Cofield said. "They'll say, 'Well, you know what to do.'
"Year 2," he said, "I'm sure will be a lot easier than Year 1."
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