Evolving star Taylor will be hard to replace

Losers of three straight games, a spiral that has dropped Washington below .500, Redskins players and coaches must now confront the final five games of the season having lost a teammate and a friend.

And, from a purely pragmatic football standpoint, having lost an impact defender.

The grief that accompanies the early Tuesday morning death of free safety Sean Taylor, 24, from a gunshot wound suffered just a day earlier, will overshadow the football practicalities, as well it should. But it is a cruel reality in the NFL that, for every such off-field tragedy, there is ultimately an on-field, football-related consequence.

For the Redskins, who must somehow absorb the raw emotions inherent in any such tragedy and prepare to play two games during a critical five-day stretch next week, the reality is that an already-struggling team quickly must find a way to compensate for the loss of a Pro Bowl-caliber defender. And while dealing with replacing Taylor in the lineup won't be quite the same as confronting the specter of having lost the fourth-year veteran as a friend, it is still an imperative that must be addressed.

As callous and premature as it might seem to discuss how Washington will adjust to the loss of Taylor, the harsh reality is that the Redskins still have a Sunday afternoon contest against Buffalo and then face Chicago in a Thursday night game Dec. 6.

Scouts Inc. On Taylor

Scout Inc.'s Marwan Maalouf looks back at Sean Taylor's football skills.

Sean Taylor was blessed with the kind of extraordinary physical attributes that all NFL safeties covet. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Taylor's ability to hawk down opposing wide receivers and his natural instinct for finding the football is what made him a Pro Bowl player.

Not only were Taylor's coverage skills exceptional, he brought a physical mentality and toughness that was well respected around the league. A devastating hitter, Taylor wanted to leave his mark in every game by letting receivers know that they had better think twice about going up for a ball in front of him.

Taylor was just now starting to reach his peak and would have been a Pro Bowl player for many years to come.

"He is an unbelievable player," said rookie strong safety LaRon Landry on Monday evening, when asked about his secondary partner. "Sean has been an incredible [mentor] for me, showing me little things that are important to how you play the game. It's hard to describe what he means to us as a player, because there just aren't a lot of guys who have the [combination] of skills that he does."

More than in any of his previous three seasons, Taylor was able to display the full inventory of those skills in 2007, in part because of Landry's presence.

Over the last 20 years, there have been only nine safeties selected among the top 10 players in their respective drafts. Washington was the only team that made two such choices, tabbing Taylor with the fifth overall choice in 2004 and Landry with the sixth pick in this year's draft. The addition of Landry, the former LSU standout with impressive skills of his own, enabled defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to build a scheme that showcased Taylor's underrated ball-hawking skills.

Landry moved to strong safety, playing closer to the line of scrimmage, down "in the box." That permitted Taylor, noted more for his big hits than his big coverage plays over the first three seasons of his career, to roam deeper in the secondary. In the spring, to take advantage of the presence of two top-10 safeties and to complement the abilities of each of them, Williams installed more Cover 1 looks than Washington previously had deployed in Taylor's first three seasons.

The result: Taylor flourished, even though his ball skills were considered nascent by many scouts and maybe even slightly deficient by a few others. The former University of Miami All-American averaged 11.3 passes defensed in his first three seasons and totaled seven interceptions in 46 appearances during 2004-06.

This season, Taylor had nine pass deflections and an NFC-best five interceptions in nine games before suffering a sprained knee that sidelined him the past two contests. A Washington defense that statistically ranked 23rd versus the pass in 2006 is 15th this season, and much of that improvement is attributable to Taylor's emergence as a cover defender.

After notching 114 tackles in 2006, when he was asked to play more run support, Taylor had 42 tackles in nine games this season. Nonetheless, he was still a concussive tackler and one of the NFL's most feared and fearless hitters.

Said Landry: "Sean always wanted to deliver the big hit. But I think he enjoyed the coverage part of the game, too, because a lot of people didn't feel like he could do it. And he liked to show that he was the complete package, you know? That he could beat you by beating you up, making the physical hit, but also by taking the ball away from you."

The new coverage role for Taylor, by all accounts, also made him a more disciplined player.

Despite being named to his first Pro Bowl game last season, Taylor led the league in missed tackles, according to one statistical service. And in his first three seasons, Redskins coaches had lamented, he unofficially might have led the team in missed assignments. A defender who reveled in "blowing up" opposition ballcarriers or receivers blew more than his share of coverage responsibilities.

But not this season.

Middle linebacker London Fletcher said Taylor was "more mentally" into the game. Williams, who in the past staunchly had defended the star safety even when Taylor's indiscretions off the field landed him in trouble with the team and the league, cited his improved approach to game preparation and an upgraded work ethic.

"The details stuff had become [more] important to him," said wide receiver James Thrash. "You could see it just working in practice against him."

In the past two games, with Taylor sidelined by the knee injury and replaced by second-year veteran Reed Doughty, the Redskins' raw defensive statistics weren't dramatically worse than in the nine games he played this year. In fact, Washington surrendered fewer average points (14.0-19.5) and yards (277.0-298.2) in the two games, against Dallas and Tampa Bay, than in its first nine contests.

There was, however, a hole of sorts in the middle of the Washington secondary, and the Cowboys exploited it for four touchdown passes. How the Redskins attempt to patch that hole, to compensate for Taylor's absence the rest of this season and moving forward, remains to be seen.

"I haven't been through it, but I'm living it an hour at a time," coach Joe Gibbs told area reporters on Monday afternoon. "We'll try to do what's best [from a football standpoint]. ... We'll take it a day at a time and see how we do."

A sixth-round choice in the 2006 draft, Doughty, who primarily had been a special teams and sub-package player before Taylor sprained his knee against Philadelphia on Nov. 11, likely will remain in the lineup. An excellent Division I-AA player at Northern Colorado, he is instinctive and smart and was a three-time academic All-American. But he certainly is more modestly talented than was Taylor and has more obvious limitations.

The Redskins might be forced to lean a bit more on nine-year veteran Pierson Prioleau down the stretch.

From a schematic standpoint, the ever-creative Williams might have to revert more to the Cover 2 packages he used before the arrival of Landry allowed him to move Taylor into the roaming, center field-type position designed for him this season.

Opponents are more likely now to attack the Redskins in the middle of the field. Landry demonstrated decent cover ability at LSU, but the coaches seem to prefer him closer to the line of scrimmage, so he probably will stay at strong safety for now.

The bottom line is that, for all his football foibles and lapses at times, Taylor was a top-shelf defender, a guy starting to emerge as a big-time playmaker, more than just a big hitter. And the Redskins' players and coaches will find it just as difficult to replace him on the field as in their thoughts.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.