Wednesday, November 29, 2006

There was the third-and-8 play on which he covered for the cornerback and interrupted a potential drive-extending completion.

There was the third-and-14 play on which he gathered a head of steam and stopped the running back 8 yards shy of a first down.

There was the fourth-and-6 play on which he made an athletic, open field tackle, again stopping the play short of a first down.

And there was the victory-cementing interception with 55 seconds left.

Four keys plays in the Washington Redskins’ 17-13 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. All made by safety Sean Taylor.

For the first time all season, Taylor was the ball-hawking, solid-tackling player most expected him to become this year.

“He was a real force,” coach Joe Gibbs said.

“We need for him to play like that always,” assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said.

That’s the challenge for Taylor — string together games in which he is in position for a takeaway, stays in the right coverage and doesn’t miss makeable tackles.

This was supposed to be the year Taylor elevated his game to the safety stratosphere that includes Dallas’ Roy Williams, Baltimore’s Ed Reed and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu. This was supposed to be the year he scored a couple touchdowns and became a Pro Bowl performer.

Instead, Taylor has only one takeaway this season. With 75 tackles in 11 games, he is two from setting a career high. But physical safeties like him are supposed to make more tackles as their knowledge of the league increases. Taylor still tends to tackle around the neck area and is being closely watched by officials for late hits.

But where Taylor falls behind the league’s elite safeties — important because Drew Rosenhaus may want to extend/redo Taylor’s contract in the next 12-18 months — is in the takeaway category, plays that Gregg Williams calls “sudden changes.”

Taylor has eight takeaways in 41 career games. Roy Williams has seven this season and 24 in 75 games.

In his first three seasons, Reed had 21 interceptions. Taylor has seven picks with five games remaining in his third year.

“You would think Sean would have six or seven picks by now and some monster hits, but that’s how the ball has rolled this year,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said.

Before the Carolina game, Taylor’s best-remembered hit came against Baltimore running back Mike Anderson … four months ago … in a scrimmage.

But Gibbs and Gregg Williams have publicly expressed satisfaction with Taylor’s play.

Said Gibbs: “For the year, I’ve thought he’s had great concentration. There are a lot of reasons we don’t play well [in a game], but I think Sean’s play has been a bright spot.”

Said Williams: “I never had a doubt in him. He’s played very well with what we’ve had him doing.”

The Redskins’ modus operandi when it comes to Taylor has been never to question his play publicly. Carlos Rogers playing too much cushion? The coaches mentioned that. The lack of a pass rush? Ditto. But when Taylor struggled mightily against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay earlier this month? Nothing.

The coaching staff obviously has adopted the philosophy that if they are publicly critical of Taylor’s play, he might tune them out, whereas some players would see harsh words as motivation.

“Sometimes, the great things he does go under the radar,” Williams said.

That may be true. One example in the Carolina game was when Jake Delhomme pump-faked to a receiver. Taylor didn’t bite and stayed in help coverage on Steve Smith. Delhomme looked Smith’s way but was forced to throw it away.

Taylor’s best play of the game was something he needs to do more often — correctly read a play and make the open-field tackle. Down 17-13 with less than three minutes left and 6 yards from a first down, Delhomme completed a crossing pattern to Drew Carter. Taylor hit him instantly, giving the Redskins possession.

“He was out in the open a couple times today, and people saw what a great athlete he is,” Williams said.

A great athlete? Yes. A great safety? Not quite yet.

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