Sunday, January 9, 2011

Redskins season review: Linebackers

I talked about the troubles of the defensive line a few days ago, so here is part 2 of evaluating where we stand after one season of the 3-4 defense.

The Redskins need to find two new starters in the linebacker corps. But since there are multiple other positions where we need to concentrate limited draft picks and free agent dollars (defensive line, offensive line, wide receiver, and apparently quarterback) there would seem to be an imperative to make do with what we already have at linebacker. If we add better linebackers without significantly upgrading the defensive line it won’t do any good. Fortunately, I think we can focus our resources on the line and improve the linebackers by re-signing a couple of guys already on the roster and letting them compete for jobs.

Let’s start on the inside:

London Fletcher is one of the few guys who did not live down to my expectations with the defensive switch. He still has remarkable instincts for reading the play and retains the speed to close, and having to cover less of the field hid his declining range. And while he wasn’t great in coverage, he was probably the least bad out of the linebacker corps. He was certainly victimized by the poor defensive line and had blockers in his face much more than he should have, but he actually did a better job taking on blockers than I would have thought and when he was able to have the initiative in those collisions he wrecked more than his share of linemen.

Rocky McIntosh is a free agent, and there is almost no chance he will be brought back. He was not at all a fit for this scheme, and did it ever show. He simply had no natural instincts for playing inside, and frequently overran gaps and took himself out of plays. Now granted he was left for no margin for error due to the poor line play in front of him (it’s even harder to recover from overpursuit when your angle back to the play is cut off by a reeling nose tackle being pushed six yards downfield) – but Fletcher had this same disadvantage and managed to avoid being as victimized by it. Rocky also was terrible in pass coverage. He couldn’t turn and run down the seam with tight ends, and he always reacted very slowly to backs attacking shallow zones (as did all the other linebackers). All of these problems were predictable of course, so although he played poorly it should be remembered that his coaches put him in a position to fail. One thing he did do well: despite my concern that he would not hold up well against blockers, he was consistently attacked lead blockers, be they fullbacks or pulling guards, with a special ferocity and directed many a running play back into traffic.

With Rocky sure to be gone (and not very good anyway) obviously we will be needing a new starting ILB to join Fletcher. But between Perry Riley and H.B. Blades, I’m reasonably confident we can find an acceptable player without having to add someone new. We haven’t seen Riley play much, but of course he was drafted specifically to do this job. And H.B. has always played well during his limited opportunities. He has exceptional run instincts, always anticipating where a play is going and sifting through traffic to meet the back in the hole and make his characteristic sound tackle. Unfortunately his contract is up – I think it is very important that he be re-signed because even if he can’t beat out Riley for the starting job, we will obviously still need quality depth at ILB and H.B can provide it.

Now the outside:

Obviously we know what we have on Brian Orakpo. If it seemed like his pass pressure was a little less consistent this year, I think that goes back to the defensive line play again. Edge rushers are very reliant on the interior line for squeezing the pocket – when that doesn’t happen quarterbacks can easily step up to escape. That happened to Orakpo a lot this year. One thing that people don’t seem to have remarked upon much is that Orakpo was a liability against the run. Tight ends absolutely dominated him, kicking him outside with ease and keeping him there. He certainly isn’t lacking in physical strength, so hopefully this is a technique issue that can be improved upon in the offseason.

The other outside linebacker spot is unfortunately a bit of a mess. Andre Carter started out there but was hopelessly out of place, and quickly ended up as a situational defensive end and had little impact on the season. He is as good as gone, and is yet another example of wasted talent due to the defensive switch. He was replaced by Lorenzo Alexander. Now keep in mind that I own a Lorenzo Alexander jersey and write hagiographic blog posts about him. And given that he is a converted defensive lineman (and a converted guard if you go back far enough) he probably played better at LB than we would have any right to expect. The fact is there are many ways Alexander can help a football team, but starting outside linebacker isn’t one of them. Obviously he provided little pass rush threat, and he was also a problem against the run. He was particularly prone to giving up the corner by trying to jump inside rather than maintaining gap responsibility. In fairness he was also victimized by the poor line play – teams ran up the middle so frequently and easily that the only way to stop it was to sell out and make yourself very vulnerable to counters. Nonetheless, Alexander should be used as a backup at multiple positions. He can provide depth at defensive end, can play tackle in some passing situations, and could still be used in a pinch at OLB. Prior to the season they even had him do some work at inside linebacker, so he could even provide depth there (in fact he would seem more natural for that position – when the first announced he was becoming a linebacker I assumed he would be inside).

There is a strong possibility that the LOLB spot will be filled by a free agent or a high draft pick, but again I think we can fill this from the current roster. Rob Jackson played well in the last two games – he provided consistent pass pressure (although he benefited from the improved line play out of Anthony Bryant and Vonnie Holliday) and was solid against the run. Two games is two games, but he showed he can at least be part of a competition for the job.

The other participant in the competition should be Chris Wilson. In 2009 he was the backup for Orakpo and filled the same hybrid LB/DE position. And he did it well. So I figured that he would be a pretty good fit for the 3-4 and would push for serious playing time. And yet, when Carter showed he couldn’t play the position the job went to Alexander instead. Wilson got very few snaps on the outside; he mostly played in Haslett’s linebacker-heavy packages and blitzed up the middle. So there is reason to suspect the coaches don’t see him as a quality OLB, but I don’t know why that would be. And he was on a one year contract so we could just never see him again. But if he can be brought back it sure seems likely that between him and Rob Jackson we should be able to find one starter and one decent backup.

Keep in mind this is not a prediction, this is just how I would approach the situation. If Blades and Wilson are not retained then it is much dicier trying to find two new starters from what we already have on the roster. But if we can fix the linebacker spot with what we already have on hand and give ourselves the luxury of focusing on improving the defensive line, then it will go a long way to fixing this defense sooner rather than later.

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