If there was one thing Washington Redskins fans could hang their hats on during the ill-fated Zorn Administration, it was the misleading top-10 team defensive rankings. The Skins collapsed in the second half of the 2008 season, but they still ended up with the No. 4-ranked defense in the league.
Fans and some members of the media deluded themselves into thinking those rankings -- No. 10 in team defense in 2009 -- actually meant something. Meanwhile, the 25th-ranked defense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints won a Super Bowl. Fortunately for the Skins, new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett knew exactly why the Saints were able to flourish while giving up large chunks of yards. They finished second in the league (to the Green Bay Packers) in takeaways with 39, thus providing a blueprint for defensive coordinators around the league.
From the moment he arrived at Redskins Park, Haslett has stressed takeaways more than any other facet of the game. Redskins Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo told me Thursday morning via phone that it was a point of emphasis on almost every drill during OTAs and training camp. The Redskins caused a league-low 17 turnovers in '09, which didn't help an offense that desperately needed an assist. Washington has now flipped the script and is tied for second in the league in takeaways (17) and is No. 31 in team defense, which is based on yardage allowed. I asked Orakpo if that team defense ranking bothers him.
"It doesn't," he quickly said. "Take a look at what the Saints did last year. They limited the points and they put their offense in good positions by creating turnovers. I'd like to see us get the yardage down, but we're not consumed by that anymore."
In Sunday's 17-14 win against the Chicago Bears, the Redskins had four interceptions -- all by cornerback DeAngelo Hall -- and two fumble recoveries. Quarterback Donovan McNabb played poorly Sunday and the offense was in search of a bailout plan.
"We didn't mind pulling that one out," said Orakpo of the defense's performance. "We have each other's back when one side of the ball's struggling."
Coach Mike Shanahan spent a lot of time studying different defenses during his time away from the league in '09. He believed that a 3-4 scheme could create more problems for opposing quarterbacks because of its unpredictability. Haslett has moved safety LaRon Landry closer to the line of scrimmage, and the former LSU star is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Orakpo told me that Haslett tied footballs to blocking dummies during training camp and asked defenders to work on stripping the ball in every practice. Players would then go to stations before team drills where they'd work on different aspects of creating turnovers. Orakpo said he assigned "imaginary names" to the blocking dummies, although he declined to reveal whether he enjoyed hitting the imaginary Tony Romo or Eli Manning dummy the most.
"You can just say we had a special NFC East dummy," joked Orakpo. "I don't want to get any more specific than that."
Orakpo proudly told me that he did well enough in interception drills that he's considered asking Shanahan to use him in goal-line situations -- as a receiver. And considering the Skins' depth at that position, maybe it's something the coaches should look into.
"My hands are really good," said Orakpo, who has seven sacks and a forced fumble this season, but is still waiting on his first career interception. "I used to work on punt returns sometimes for fun when I was at Texas, and I was pretty good at it."
Orakpo has flourished in Haslett's 3-4 scheme and is on pace to surpass the 11-sack total from his rookie season. He said he's seeing a lot more double-teams than at this time last season, but it hasn't cut down on his production.
"It's even better than I expected," Orakpo said of how he's enjoyed playing in the new scheme. "The sacks are coming, and this defense allows me to stay relentless the whole game."
In case you wondered how important takeaways are, the five teams that are leading the league -- Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago and the Giants -- have a cumulative record of 23-11, according to the ESPN Stats & Information group. The Redskins have equaled their total takeaways for the '09 season (17) and are one shy of their '08 total.
"We've been working on turnovers from the first day," said Shanahan. "We talked about turnovers, we talked about the 3-4 defense, trying to keep people off balance. Offenses [have] some difficulty in their game plan, not knowing which guy's coming, so we continue to do that.
"That's part of the reason we went to the 3-4. We thought we could put some pressure on the offenses that they haven't seen or that we haven't done here before."
And through seven games, you'd have to say Shanahan made the right call.