Monday, January 17, 2011

Redskins position review: Defensive backs

Wrapping up the defensive as I continue to go position by position through the Redskins roster. Here are the links to the previous posts...

Defensive line review

Linebackers review

... and now we'll get into the cornerbacks.

We’ll start with DeAngelo Hall, because let’s face it he’s the kind of guy you start with.

Hall’s critics point to his very high completion percentages on passes targeted at him (nearly 74%, according to Pro Football Focus’ charting numbers). To a large extent, however, that is a natural product of Jim Haslett’s defense. He calls a lot of soft zone coverages, consciously trading off some easy completions in exchange for giving his DBs a chance to break on the ball and create turnovers. And many of those completions were on screens or quick hitches that were called specifically because Haslett had Hall a good 8 to 10 yards off the ball at the snap. You can agree or disagree with Haslett’s approach (I am for from sold), but it’s hard to argue that this is one case where the defense system is adapted perfectly to benefit from the skills of one of its premier players. Hall is far from perfect, but he is most certainly a net positive for the team.

Hall also needs credit for his dramatic improvement in run defense. Note that he had a reputation as a poor tackler and the kind of corner who avoided contact. I never thought that reputation was fully earned. I found him very enigmatic over 2009 and 2010 – it seemed like once per game he would stick his nose in and make a tough, physical play, then spend the rest of the game unable to tackle anyone. I interpreted it as a simple lack of technique and instinct for tackling rather than outright cowardice. But whatever the issue was, it is gone. He aggressively attacked ballcarriers – this was frequently necessary since, as noted above, he played off and frequently allowed receivers to take quick passes in front of him. And as the force defender on running plays he routinely launched himself at lead blockers to direct the play back inside to traffic. Sadly once a reputation is gained it is hard to shed, so we will probably continue to hear him referred to as a non-tackling cornerback – but Redskins fans, at least, should know to give him the credit he deserves.

Hall’s partner Carlos Rogers is probably gone, and in my opinion that is unfortunate. As much as he deserves the heat for his inability to come down with interceptions (and at this point in his career it’s not something he’s going to learn) his coverage skills are underrated. Rogers is sounding like he wants to cash in big on free agency (understandable, since the expiring of the CBA screwed him out of his eligibility last year – yes I’m still mad about that) but if the Redskins let himgo they will still be left shelling out money for a new starter from elsewhere.

The Redskins did have some quality depth at corner. But whether that situation will persist next year is an open question, and I’m not at all sure another viable starter is on the roster. Philip Buchanon (a free agent) is basically a mediocre veteran, but he played nicely enough and proved to be a perfectly adequate third corner. Teams frequently tried to pick on him, and he often responded by making surprising plays (with the obvious exception of the Giants, who abused him to the extent that he was finally granted a mercy benching). And Kevin Barnes looked like he is developing into a nice player as well, though much of his playing time came as an emergency free safety towards the end of the season. But I am not convinced either one of these guys should be a starter, so despite the fact that speedy Byron Westbrook seems to show some potential, if Rogers leaves we will be left scrambling for corners at a time when there are plenty of other needs to be filled.


I will admit, during the 2009 season I wanted LaRon Landry off the field and off the team. He was that bad. But in another example of the secondary being the only level of the defense with which Haslett managed to properly utilize the skills of his players, Landry suddenly looked like an exceptional safety again. The defense was designed for him to be the primary playmaker, and until he got hurt he capitalized. He was kept out of the sorts of coverage responsibilities where he was likely to be embarrassed, and allowed to play a strong safety role in which he was essentially an absurdly fast linebacker. And he seems to have learned just enough discipline without sacrificing too much aggressiveness. Gone were the total whiffs, where he would try to make a highlight hit and instead give up a big play. And he managed to avoid any 15 yard penalties for late hits, aiming for the head, and so on. Apparently someone, presumably Haslett and/or secondary coach Bob Slowik, managed to teach LaRon that it is possible for him to play aggressively but still under control. The results were stellar.

Free safety is another matter.

Early in the season many fans, and a few in the media, started portraying Kareem Moore as essential to the Redskins defense. Considering his limited snaps in 2009, this seems to have been based solely on media reports that the coaches were impressed by his “ball skills” in OTAs and minicamps. While I make no argument that Reed Doughty is great in coverage (more on him below) people seemed to be way too excited for Kareem Moore and rather than live up to their expectations he lived down to mine. He got lost in coverage as much as anyone, and the vaunted “ball skills” resulted in a total of one interception. The real damage came in run support – he is quite possibly the worst tackler I have ever seen. I don’t chart the games as I’m reviewing them so I don’t have data to back this up (I intend to buy Football Outsiders’ charting data when it comes out) but I’d be willing to bet that Kareem missed a tackle on nearly every long run the Redskins defense gave up (and as you know, that was a lot).

So now back to Reed… Reed Doughty, much like Landry but slightly less-so in both respects, is a natural strong safety who excels against the run and is not best-used in deep coverage. However, I think you would be hard-pressed to argue that his coverage skills are significantly worse than Moore’s, and even if he is somewhat worse I still think he’s the better safety. Simply, Moore’s run defense hurt us much worse than Doughty’s pass defense.

In a perfect world the Redskins would add a playmaking free safety who could lock down coverage and create turnovers, allowing Doughty to be a backup and spell Landry at the strong spot or fill in at an average level at free safety when needed (or create a run-heavy nickel or dime set as Greg Blache liked to do with his “Cobra” package). But with many other urgent areas of need, it seems quite possible that Moore and Doughty may have to fight for the free safety job again in 2011. If that happens, I hope Doughty wins. And if, much like folks thought in September, Doughty turns out to be the biggest weakness on the Redskins defense next year, then that will be good news as it means we vastly improved several other areas of greater concern.

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