Wednesday, June 11, 2008

LaRon Landry expected the fine levied by the NFL in November. A repeat offender for late hits, the Washington Redskins rookie safety was docked an entire game check for his helmet-to-helmet hit on New York Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens.

What he didn’t expect was the tackling dummy outfitted with two strips of white athletic tape the following Wednesday.

Penalties in two of the last three games had forced safeties coach Steve Jackson to try something different. He didn’t want Landry to slow down, just to be smarter about where he pummeled a quarterback or receiver. Jackson put one piece of tape across the neck area and another in the waist region.

For 20 minutes that afternoon, Landry practiced blitzing and hitting the dummy between the strips. Sometimes even the most gifted NFL players need to drill through a fundamental.

“It was comical, but really it was important to tell LaRon that penalties like that can hurt the football team but to also tell him to not change what he was doing and to keep the intimidation factor,” safety Reed Doughty said.

Landry didn’t have another late hit the rest of the season.

The penalty was just one lesson he learned in his first season, which included 17 starts, 101 tackles and two interceptions counting the playoffs. In his second season, Landry will be given every opportunity to shine as a playmaker in the secondary.

“I want to see him start right where he left off,” Jackson said after the Redskins’ organized team activity session Tuesday. “You can’t simulate experience, and he got a big dose of it last year, and he did well. … I really can’t wait to see how he progresses this year.”

Much was made early in the month about a possible move to strong safety. But as was the case with Gregg Williams, the two safety spots are interchangeable in Greg Blache’s system.

When teams are more likely to pass, the Redskins will station Landry in a free safety-like spot - 25 yards downfield - to serve as an umbrella of protection for the cornerbacks from allowing the deep ball. Other times, he will blitz. Other times, he will line up in the box and play the run.

“Some guys are better suited for strong. Some are better suited for free,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the few guys who can play both.”

Landry’s versatility was why he was selected sixth overall in the 2007 draft, why he was a starter from his first day of training camp and why the Redskins have so many options as to where he can line up.

But things weren’t so great right away. Although he was starting, Landry was pressing. Instead of using his freakish athleticism, he would break down a play mentally. Problem was the ball already had been snapped.

“The overall thing for me was the mental aspect and the speed of the game,” Landry said. “It took a little time for me to get really familiar and comfortable with the playbook. It was a mind-boggling thing for me. But as the weeks went on, I started to learn more and more things, and then it became the same game.”

About a month into the season, Jackson told Landry “to stop being so cerebral and start being more visceral. Just let things happen with your instincts.”

Being cerebral Monday through Saturday was fine, but that didn’t cut it completely on Sundays.

There wasn’t an official corner-turning game for Landry, but at midseason, he had a three-game stretch in which he made 31 tackles. And in the Redskins’ four-game winning streak to end the regular season, he had 17 tackles and three pass breakups as his role changed after Sean Taylor was murdered.

“My goal wasn’t to just play last year,” Landry said. “I wanted to step in, showcase my talents and help the team win. I wasn’t like, ‘All right, I just want to get on the field.’ I wanted to make an impact and compete.”

Landry saved arguably his best game for last - two interceptions in the playoff loss at Seattle.

Current Redskins coach Jim Zorn was part of the Seahawks’ coaching staff. They wanted to challenge Landry and see just how quickly he could make up ground downfield.

“We felt, ‘Hey, let’s take a shot,’” Zorn said. “What was frustrating for us was that they played LaRon so deep and he was so rangy, it allowed the corners to play aggressive in man coverage. He’s so fast, he takes great angles to cut off a player.”

Citing a play during Monday’s practice, Zorn said Landry’s strength in the passing game is to deke the quarterback into thinking a throw is available.

“We had a play where LaRon was weak-side low and he came all the way across the field, and what it does to the quarterback is give him a false sense of, ‘I’ve got this. I can’t see anybody,’” Zorn said. “Jason [Campbell] threw an inside vertical, and LaRon had a knockout shot. It’s the quarterback saying, ‘I got him, I got him and, oops, no I don’t.’ And we’re calling for the next receiver because this guy is out [cold].”

Landry is used to letting those types of plays speak for him. He has never been a rah-rah leader or a motor-mouth like Fred Smoot. But Jackson calls him the unquestioned leader of the team’s safeties.

“There’s an old saying: Talk doesn’t cook the rice,” Jackson said. “It’s not about what you say. In his own way, he communicates everything he needs to. Everybody follows his lead.”

Said Landry: “Being in a guy’s face and pumping him up, that’s not me. My style is to show by example and help the other guys get the train rolling.”

Doughty, who started alongside Landry after Taylor’s death, is like Jackson - he can’t wait to see how much better Landry can be.

“He has all the skills,” Doughty said. “He’ll keep learning more and more little things, and that will help him make more big plays and just be incredible.”

Note- Running back Clinton Portis and defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin remained excused from activities. Cornerback Shawn Springs has yet to show up.

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