By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Safeties coach Steve Jackson considers the Washington Redskins defensive backs to be ardent students of the game, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that during their spare time, some players have started studying film of the New York Giants, their Week 1 opponent.
“It’s what I love about these guys. When the season — it’s over — they don’t just shut it off. It’s part of them,” Jackson said. “They would like nothing more than to put that Riddell on every day of the year, all day long. Walk around, drive their car to and from work, do it all with that helmet on.”
But what has Jackson and other coaches especially excited is the development of their soft-spoken second-year strong safety. The continuing education of Chris Horton, though, calls for a new classroom this training camp.
As a seventh-round draft pick in 2008 — only three players out of 252 draft picks were selected lower — Horton entered camp a year ago relatively unnoticed. During his unexpectedly productive rookie season, Horton was a bookworm. During team meetings, he’d scribble notes, then go back to his room and stay up late studying everything.
“We’d meet on certain defenses, and I’d have three pages of notes on one defense,” Horton said. “Coach would walk by and say: ‘Man, you need to stop writing that whole time. You wrote way too much. If you take all that to the field, the game will move too fast.’ ”
In Year 2 with increased expectations, he’s still taking note of the details, but he’s doing more of his learning on the practice field than in the meeting room.
It’s an important change for the Redskins, who are counting on Horton and the secondary to contribute more high-impact, game-changing plays this season. As strong as the defensive unit seemed at times — only six teams allowed fewer passing yards — it tallied only 18 takeaways. Only two teams in the league had fewer.
Addressing this shortcoming will be a major goal for the new season, and a player such as Horton, who often finds himself near the ball, has been preparing all offseason so when he’s on the field, his reactions are more instinctual.
“I used to be all over the place. I’d just be running around like I had no clue. I knew what I was doing, but I wasn’t really slowing the game down. I was thinking too much,” said Horton, who led the Redskins last year with three interceptions. “Now I go to meeting rooms, try to focus on a couple of points and stick with that. So when you get out there, you can see the game better. I can see it all happening now and just kind of know what to do.”
Aiding Horton in that preparation is the same man who helped prepare him for the starting lineup last season — Reed Doughty, the man whose job Horton took in Week 2 last year. Doughty went down with the flu, and Horton came up with the starting job.
A year later, when it comes to football, the two are perfect study partners. They talk technique, formations and coverages year-round.
“We have very similar personalities,” Doughty said. “We’re very meticulous, we’re very analytical, we want to know how the defense works — not just what our job is. So we have the same mind-set, and we get along great.”
So in the weeks and months before their Nov. 15 game against the Broncos, Horton thought they also should study some film of the New England Patriots, where Josh McDaniels formerly coached.
“From the day he got here, you could tell he wanted to do everything right,” Doughty said. “He was never just trying to get by.”
A year ago, Horton had no choice but to outwork others. As a seventh-round pick, nearly an afterthought in the draft, no one knew whether he’d even earn a roster spot. Before long, though, he proved to be the only one of the team’s 10-player draft class to contribute significantly.
While Horton’s enthusiasm raised eyebrows when he arrived as an unheralded safety out of UCLA, coaches are even more impressed this year, after he spent the offseason watching film, studying coverages and picking his coach’s brain on how he could improve.
Though Horton’s role in the defense and in the locker room won’t significantly change this season, coaches do anticipate a slow shifting of responsibilities in the near future.
“He’s what I’d consider a football-savvy guy,” Coach Jim Zorn said. “He really likes to play, he understands the concepts. The guys around him notice that, and I suspect that at some point soon, things will flip, and he’ll be one of the real leaders on this team. So I have real high expectations of him, as I know he does of himself.”
Horton said he’s brought the same work ethic and enthusiasm into camp this year. The main difference is that everyone actually knows his name this time around, and he has a solid foundation on which to build. As a rookie, everything was new, from the routines to the drills to the plays.
“I don’t have to spend near as much time trying to learn the playbook,” he said. “Before it was like, ‘Oh, I got to know everything about every defense.’ I know all of that. I’ve been here a year. Now it’s just learning more of the offensive stuff.”
The more he understands what offenses will be throwing at him, the better Horton can position himself on the field. The differences can be subtle, but anticipation is key to his position.
Doughty remembers back to Horton’s first game in an NFL jersey, last year’s preseason opener against Indianapolis. Buried on the depth chart, Horton registered a pair of sacks, and suddenly fans and league observers took notice.
“But he was unblocked,” Doughty said, “so that might’ve impressed the media, but that didn’t impress me as much. What impresses me is when he reads the coverage and puts himself in the right place. Maybe he doesn’t even make the tackle, but he puts himself in the right position. I think he’s able to do that much better now that he’s got a few games under his belt.”
Jackson is not worried about Horton’s preparedness, his understanding of the games or even his quarterback reads. When the season starts — and especially as it progresses — Jackson said he wants to see a more consistent Horton than a year ago.
“Last year he kind of faded as the season went on, like most rookies do,” Jackson said. “We needed him to be stronger, to finish the season off the way he started this year.”
Though Doughty has looked impressive early in camp, Horton is expected to enter the season as the starting strong safety, the team’s third since Sean Taylor’s death from a gunshot wound in November 2007. Horton said he feels pressure entering a second year, but it’s surpassed by his own motivation to improve on last season.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Horton said. “I was named the starter, but you got to come out here and always play every day like your back is against the wall, like you’re always striving for something. That’s the only way I know how to play.”