Mike Shanahan drafted Robert Griffin III in April with the intention of plugging him into a proven formula for success with a rookie quarterback.
Shanahan himself studied its validity throughout league history. To win at least eight games with a rookie quarterback, he must be paired with a running attack and/or defense that ranks among the league's best. So Shanahan figured Griffin would benefit from a Redskins defense that made great strides in 2011, its second season in a 3-4 scheme. Through three games this season, however, the defense — specifically, the secondary — is not matching Griffin's contribution to the formula. It ranks last in the NFL with 8.8 yards allowed per pass.
"It's definitely frustrating," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "This defense hasn't been used to things like that happening."
With the Redskins' list of injuries growing and the schedule about to intensify following Sunday's road game against Tampa Bay (1-2), solving the secondary woes are the top priority.
"It's more of a sense of urgency for everybody," Shanahan said. "When you are not getting something done as a unit, everybody picks up their game and that is what we challenged our secondary to do. Everybody has got to make sure they have their responsibility down. No missed assignments, and you play to the best of your ability, and that is what we are working on."
Big plays have been the greatest problem in consecutive losses to St. Louis and Cincinnati, and even in the Week 1 win over New Orleans.
Washington surrendered a 33-yard touchdown pass against New Orleans, a 34-yarder against St. Louis and touchdown passes of 73, 48 and 59 yards against Cincinnati.
Analysis of the root cause this week has produced an interesting revelation or two, but players and coaches ultimately say the execution on the field must improve.
"You can't worry about the calls that's being made on the sideline," free safety Madieu Williams said. "It's up to us to execute whatever call that is made, regardless of the situation."
The starting point for discussion has been Cincinnati's 73-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage.
Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu lined up as the quarterback in the wildcat formation, with quarterback Andy Dalton as a receiver wide to the right. Sanu threw a deep pass to slot receiver A.J. Green, who outran strong safety DeJon Gomes in man-to-man coverage.
The Redskins expected Cincinnati to run out of that formation.
Multiple players, including Williams, said they were unaware of Sanu's throwing ability despite his four collegiate touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said in a national radio interview this week that he saved that pass specifically for Haslett's Redskins because he knew they would play without a deep safety against that formation. Gruden and Haslett coached together in 2009 with the United Football League's Florida franchise.
"We actually knew that the receiver could throw," Haslett said. "We just didn't know he could throw 50 yards on a rope."
Haslett said the Redskins wouldn't have surrendered a touchdown on the play if they had lined up properly with cornerback DeAngelo Hall covering Green in the slot instead of the slower Gomes. Hall initially covered Dalton on the play, and he was too far away to catch up to Green.
"They were just taking a shot," Haslett said. "If DeAngelo gets on him and you're off at 10 yards, then you're still fine."
The Bengals' other two long touchdowns were clear player breakdowns. On the 59-yarder, receiver Andrew Hawkins beat rookie Richard Crawford to the deep middle in a Cover-2, a weak point in that defense Crawford is coached to defend.
Armon Binns went 48 yards for a touchdown on a quick out route on second-and-20 after cornerback Josh Wilson slipped coming out of his break.
The Redskins blitzed seven defenders without any safety help, hoping to force a quick throw that could put the Bengals in third-and-long. They were successful — Dalton released the ball 1.4 seconds after the snap — but Wilson didn't make the play.
That re-ignited last year's discussion about the risks and rewards of the Cover-0 blitz, of which Shanahan is a proponent.
"I had a guy like Champ Bailey," said Shanahan, who coached the all-pro cornerback in Denver. "He wanted to run zero blitz every play. He wanted an opportunity to make a play. But the zero blitz is not very good unless you can put pressure on that quarterback and a guy is free. So a lot depends on the confidence of your corners. A lot depends on how well you disguise things to keep an offense off-balance."
As the maligned secondary pushes forward this week, Haslett is confident it can positively impact games. He cited its strong performance against the Saints.
Although Washington gave up a long touchdown pass on a double move, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees in that game posted his lowest single-game completion percentage since 2006.
"They're in tune," Haslett said. "We covered our butts off in the first game against maybe the best offense that ever played in the National Football League, so I know they can do it. We've just kind of got to keep working."
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