The switch to a 3-4 defense was, for 2010 at least, a catastrophic failure. It’s not hard to see the reason – the Redskins had a solid defensive line and chose to do away with it by imposing a scheme that completely neutralized it’s best player (Albert Haynesworth), moved its other star (Brian Orakpo) to linebacker, and shifted everyone else to roles for which they were unsuited – all while being unable to bring in new players who could adequately compensate for these newly created weaknesses.
As anyone who has ever watched football knows, everything that is done with a 3-4 defense starts with the nose tackle. The job of a nose tackle is to be hard enough to move that he occupies multiple blockers, so that offenses can’t take advantage of the big gaps provided by a three man front and give blockers clean shots at the inside linebackers. And it is not really possible to compensate for poor nose tackle play – everyone else is utterly dependent on that one guy to allow them to do their jobs. Unfortunately, the chosen nose tackle (after it became clear that Haynesworth could not/would not be converted to a role that was such an obvious misapplication of his skills) was Ma’ake Kemoeatu.
The fact that opponents were content to block Ma’ake with only a center shows just how completely ineffective he was at the job. Centers are usually the weakest blockers on an offensive line. A 3-4 nose tackle should pretty much never, under any circumstances, lose a one-on-one battle with a center. Yet Ma’ake lost these almost every single time, and in dramatic fashion. In fact there were darkly humorous scenes where offenses would try to double Ma’ake – because that’s what one does with nose tackles – but the guard would lunge at him and miss because the center had already driven him so far off the line. This rendered almost every other member of the front seven incapable of doing his job correctly.
I do feel obligated to put in a quick word in Ma’ake’s defense. He missed the entire 2009 season with an Achilles injury and it seemed clear during camp and preseason that he was not yet up to full strength. I suppose it’s possible that with another offseason to get his conditioning back he could prove to be much better, and if he pulls that off then more power to him. The fact that he was thrust into a role which he was so clearly unable to fulfill, and continued in that role for so long, goes on the coaches rather than on him.
Ma’ake’s partner in crime on the defensive line was right defensive end Kedric Golston. I had been cautiously optimistic that he could make the transition to this new scheme because he had been consistently, though quietly, productive as a tackle in the 4-3. Unfortunately it was not to be, and he ended up rivaling Ma’ake for ineffectiveness. Simply by running up the middle or to their left, offenses were entitled to a free five yards whenever they needed them. Play after play, the defensive line would basically swing open like a door, with Ma’ake and Golston being picked up and carried downfield, thus opening up running room and cutting off the linebackers’ pursuit angles.
The pivot that the door swung around, though, was Adam Carriker – the only member of the defensive line to play effectively for the full season. Unfortunately, Carriker got screwed by that pesky “quintessential team sport” aspect of football. When he stood up his blockers on the line – his job as a 3-4 DE – the fact that his colleagues were getting blown away rendered his efforts moot. Carriker is an exceptionally strong player, and was often able to penetrate into the backfield. Once he got there, though, he often lacked the quickness or athleticism to make a play on the runner or quarterback. Of course it would have been easier if the other linemen had been holding the line and not making it so easy for opponents to escape such penetration. It is not a coincidence that once Anthony Bryant and Vonnie Holliday started getting significant playing time in the final few weeks that Carriker finally started providing some real, measurable production. It helps a lot when the running back can’t just cut away from you and take advantage of the yards and yards of open space opened up where the other two thirds of the defensive line used to be.
Speaking of Bryant and Holliday, I continue to find it absolutely appalling that they weren’t given the starting jobs until both Ma’ake and Golston went down with injuries. The change to the overall quality of the defense was immediate and dramatic. Holliday is able to play with a lot of power – he gets good leverage and very often was able to drive blockers back to squeeze the pocket or close off cutback lanes on running plays. And Bryant did a much better job of holding his ground than Ma’ake. At the very least, he was usually successful in controlling centers, which, as discussed, is really the absolute minimum you expect a nose tackle to accomplish. Now I don’t want to oversell either of these guys – they weren’t perfect and at times were knocked out of their gaps on running plays (especially Vonnie). Ideally, they would be good backups rather than starters. But unfortunately mere competence tended to look borderline miraculous compared to the guys they replaced.
So despite the improvements represented by Holliday at right defensive end and Bryant at nose tackle, those two positions are probably still priorities for the offseason (Jeremy Jarmon also got some limited time at end near the end of the season – he didn’t get enough time to really judge him but there’s a good chance he will contribute next year). We don’t need to worry about left defensive end due to Carriker, but I could picture free agent signings or perhaps our second round pick going to address these other two line spots, secure in the knowledge that we have found a couple of guys who can provide quality depth and rotate in for significant numbers of snaps.