- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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I know this wasn't your game, Washington Redskins fans, but if you happened to see the third-to-last play of the Cowboys-Panthers game Sunday (maybe it came on your TV after the Giants-Redskins game ended, and you caught a glimpse), the Cowboys' defense showed you what's supposed to happen on a deep, desperate, downfield late-game throw. Cam Newton hauled off on second-and-10 from his own 46 and threw deep to Brandon LaFell down the right sideline. LaFell was double-covered, the way the Cowboys wanted him to be -- the cornerback trailing, the safety over the top creating a too-tight window. The pass fell incomplete. Two plays later, having held their lead, the Cowboys had won the game.
Now, I'm sure you feel like bringing up the Cowboys, of all teams, is just rubbing salt in the wound. But that happened to be the other game I watched in detail from Sunday, and it happens to be a perfect example of what the Redskins weren't able to do to seal their victory over the Giants. Up three points with less than a minute and a half to go, knowing Eli Manning needed to go 77 yards to win the game and would need to hit some big plays in order to do it, the Redskins called for double-coverage on Manning's top two wide receivers -- Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. This was the correct defensive call by the coaching staff.
What the coaching staff did not do is actually go out and cover the receivers themselves. And unfortunately for them, neither did the defensive backs assigned to Cruz. Cornerback Josh Wilson let Cruz get behind him, which he never should have done at that spot on the field. And safety Madieu Williams, astoundingly, did the same. So when Manning's pass found Cruz, the only hope either Redskin had was to catch him. And there was no chance of that happening.
So to those calling for the firing of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, I pose this question: Who do you propose as his replacement, and would that person somehow be able to make Madieu Williams a better NFL safety?
Of course he wouldn't.
The Redskins' secondary is a wreck. The two players they hoped would start for them at safety haven't played a single snap this season. Tanard Jackson got hit with a season-long drug suspension on cutdown day, and Brandon Meriweather has suffered through a series of injuries that have delayed his Redskins debut until some time in the future. That means their best safety is Williams, who's a really good guy and gets the defense but doesn't have the physical skills at this point in his career to actually play it. The rest of the safety crew is Reed Doughty, DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh. What this means is, when you call for double coverage at the end of a game like this and you're assigning a safety as part of that against one of the best receivers in the league, you're not working with top-level options.
At cornerback, Wilson is the Redskins' best player right now. And he's having a fine season for them. But he's not the kind of cornerback who's going to scare teams away from throwing to his side or targeting his man. So when he plays against the better passing attacks, he's probably going to give up a big play every now and then. It is what it is. If Wilson's your No. 2 cornerback, that's probably okay. If he's your No. 1, you have a personnel problem. DeAngelo Hall struggles so much in man coverage that they've been trying to hide him inside, even play him at safety every now and then. Cedric Griffin hasn't shown much. Richard Crawford and Jordan Bernstine are kids.
Now, this could be construed as an excuse for Haslett -- he's got nothing with which to work, so what's he supposed to do? But I think that's oversimplifying the argument, and I would actually take it further. I think that Haslett has actually been doing a remarkable job of coaching the Redskins' defense this year, and that he should be commended for what he's actually accomplished in spite of such extreme personnel deficiencies in the secondary.
Whatever success the Redskins' defense has had from week to week (and it has had some, including a three-interception game against Matt Ryan and the Falcons a couple of weeks ago) has been the result of extremely complex scheming and play calling by the coaching staff. Haslett has been mixing up pre-snap looks and post-snap coverages, moving linebackers into coverage, sacrificing pass rush in order to help on the back end where it's been called for. While they still give up far too many points, the Redskins have been able to make plays to keep themselves in the game against teams like Atlanta and Minnesota, and given what they have on the back end in terms of players, I think that's a testament to the job Haslett is doing calling their plays. It's why I think the return of Meriweather (whenever that happens) will help. Because while Meriweather's not great in coverage, he can help in blitz packages and play the run and do a number of things that will help the Redskins continue to scheme creatively, which they'll have to do every week in order to have a chance on defense.
I know this isn't a popular point of view, and I know it's easy to yell "fire the coach" when things aren't going well. But I submit that, when a defensive coordinator calls for double coverage on a wide receiver, he's expecting at least one of the men assigned to the play to keep himself between that receiver and the end zone. And if the six-year or nine-year veteran to whom that assignment was given can't even do that much, I'm not sure how changing defensive coordinators can fix a problem like that.