The Redskins’ starting linemen and linebackers will never achieve the rock-star status of the photogenic new face of the franchise, but they’re definitely front-page news. They’ve steadily improved since Coach Mike Shanahan changed the team’s long-standing defensive philosophy two years ago in an effort to create a championship-caliber unit.
After the first day of training camp Thursday at Redskins Park, they weren’t playing it safe with any of that “we-just-want-to-do-the-best-we-can” talk. The biggest guys on the Redskins’ defense (it would approach being great if the secondary were better) expect to dominate opponents, which would help Griffin in his transition to the pro game. A good defense is an inexperienced quarterback’s best friend — and the Redskins have both.
In their first season under Shanahan and their first primarily using three defensive linemen and four linebackers, the Redskins had the NFL’s second-worst defense (it was the team’s worst defensive performance since 1954). Last season, the Redskins improved to 13th of the 32 teams in yards per game allowed. There were across-the-board gains in many key categories, such as opponents’ scoring average and sacks.
Shanahan spent wisely in free agency before last season, adding productive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen. Defensive lineman Adam Carriker regained his health (he sat out the 2009 season because of a shoulder injury) and experienced a career renaissance after being labeled as a first-round bust with the St. Louis Rams. First-round draft pick Ryan Kerrigan also fit in well after making the transition from a hand-down end in college to a stand-up outside linebacker. He joined Brian Orakpo in giving the Redskins productive bookends.
With the group back intact and no major outside additions, some might wonder if significantly more progress should be expected. The answer is yes.
Talent is the key element in the success of any strategy. Coaches aspire to put players in position to maximize their ability — but players play the games. When talented players are comfortable in a system, coaches say, they’re often more productive. The core group of the Redskins’ front seven has been together for a good stretch, especially in a league in which playing at least three seasons is considered a long career. Bowen, Carriker and Cofield understand their roles well and know what to expect from each other.
“First day back out here, and I look to my left and see Kerrigan back and I look to my right and see Cofield back and Bowen back, and we all know the scheme together,” Carriker said. “We all know each other that much better. That makes a real difference. You build on that and it makes you better.”
The Redskins also envision getting a boost from returning lineman Jarvis Jenkins. He was the defense’s most impressive rookie in training camp last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game.