Choosing the area where the Redskins improved the most from coach Mike Shanahan’s 2010 debut to this season is as easy as an extra point: the defensive line.
A year after ranking 31st overall and 26th against the run, Washington finished 13th overall and 18th against the run in 2011.
And where the defensive line accounted for just nine sacks in 2010 – eight by players who didn’t return this season – the unit doubled that total to 18 sacks in 2011.
Or look at it this way: the focus of Washington’s line in 2010 was Albert Haynesworth, the $100 million malcontent who refused to shift from 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 nose tackle and wound up being suspended for the final four games before New England coach Bill Belichick finally took him off Shanahan’s hands for a fifth-round draft choice on the eve of training camp in July.
In contrast, the focus of the line in 2011 was Barry Cofield, who leapt at the chance – and Washington’s six-year, $36 million offer in July – to move from defensive tackle with the New York Giants to nose tackle in Redskins coordinator Jim Haslett’s 3-4 defense despite the lack of an off-season program to help him make the adjustment to the self-sacrificing spot.
Cofield opened with six tackles in the upset of his old team, became more comfortable as the season continued and helped the Redskins complete the sweep of the Giants – who’ll play for the NFC title this Sunday — in his return to the Meadowlands in Week 15.
“I’m very happy to be here,” said Cofield, whose career-high nine passes defensed ranked behind only the total of cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson and Pro Bowl inside linebacker London Fletcher. “The future is bright for this team. We’re an off-season away from being a great defense. With a great off-season of preparation and a full training camp, I expect to be one of the top nose tackles in the game.”
Shanahan called Cofield “unselfish” and “off the charts” smart. Haslett said an opposing coach predicted that the 27-year-old Cofield will really be a beast once he masters the position because he can rush the passer and run sideline to sideline like few nose tackles.
Cofield had plenty of help up front this season from ends Adam Carriker, a 27-year-old holdover, and Stephen Bowen, a 27-year-old free agent signee from Dallas. Each finished with a career-high in sacks, Carriker with 5.5 and Bowen with six. Kedric Golston, who lost his starting job to Bowen, chipped in with 1.5 before going on injured reserve in November, and rookie nose tackle Chris Neild, a seventh-round draft choice, added two.
Haslett said that the Redskins signed Bowen, usually a backup with the Cowboys, because of his run-stopping ability and that they worked with him successfully on becoming a better pass rusher.
“Outstanding,” Haslett said of Bowen’s Washington debut.
Like Carriker, both newcomers are also great in the locker room, Cofield as the leader of the line, and Bowen for his upbeat attitude during a very tough stretch which began with the loss of one of his premature twin sons and ended with the death of his mother-in-law hours before kickoff against the New York Jets.
“I don’t wish for anybody to through none of the stuff I’ve been through,” said Bowen, who played that day.
Carriker went through missing all of 2009 after shoulder surgery and then being virtually given away by the Rams to the Redskins on the eve of the 2010 draft.
“Hopefully I proved myself to be a little more valuable than that,” said Carriker, who might be supplanted in 2012 by Jarvis Jenkins, the second-round pick who was looking great before tearing an ACL in the third preseason game. “I think I played pretty well this year.”
Haslett, who had coached Carriker in St. Louis, said that he made great strides in his second year in the system. Shanahan said that Carriker is a natural 3-4 end, who played in 2011 like the position was second-nature.
Carriker and Golston can both be free agents in March, but both want to return. If the Redskins re-sign them and with Jenkins primed to make up for his lost rookie year, the line should be even more formidable in 2012.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.