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Embarrassing record spurs Redskins hope to improve takeaways

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) -On the first play of the first 7-on-7 drill on the first day of Washington Redskins training camp, free safety Sean Taylor read Jason Campbell's pass perfectly. Taylor stepped in front of tight end Chris Cooley and got both hands on the ball, a sure interception if there ever was one.

Then he dropped it.

The moans from the fans could have been subtitled "Oh no, not again!" The Redskins were historically inept at intercepting passes and recovering fumbles last season, and the last thing they or the team needed was an indication that the trend might continue.

Just hours earlier, in fact, coach Joe Gibbs had cited the team's 12 takeaways - an NFL record for a non-strike season - in his opening speech to the team. The coach was trying to motivate the players, not embarrass them - they've already been embarrassed enough by that statistic.

"It bothers us," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "It's just one of those years when nothing went our way."

The job of finding more ways to force more turnovers falls on assistant coach Gregg Williams, whose stock plummeted last season as the defense's overall ranking fell from No. 9 to No. 31 in a 5-11 season. Williams has an in-your-face, I'm-always-right coaching style that's more difficult to tolerate when his schemes aren't working, and he enters this season knowing he has to much to do if he is again to be considered a future head coach with the Redskins - or anywhere else.

"We have a lot to prove," Williams said Monday. "We've got to reprove ourselves, and I think I'm a better coach when we have a chip on our shoulders. Nobody should be feeling good about last year. I know I'm certainly not feeling good about last year, and so we've got a bitter taste to get out of our mouth."

The Redskins tried all sorts of gimmicks in practices last year to increase turnovers, and they've added a few more this year. Defensive players are being told to pounce on incomplete passes as if they were fumbles and take off toward the end zone.

"We've got to get used to scooping and scoring," Williams said.

Turnovers can have an element of chance - fumbles have funny bounces, and passes can be tipped the wrong way - but the Redskins could double their tally by simply catching the easy ones and playing better all-around defense.

"I could have had 10 more myself, just by catching the ball," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, who had one interception but displayed hands of stone on several other chances. "It was just concentration. It's not thinking about taking the ball and scoring, just catching the ball first and running."

Williams has also altered his defensive schemes. Taylor will play safety more like a center fielder, using his speed to chase down the ball. An upgraded secondary - including newcomers LaRon Landry, Fred Smoot and Vernon Macklin - should give the defensive line more time to rush the quarterback and cause havoc. London Fletcher is an upgrade at middle linebacker, and outside linebacker Marcus Washington will be allowed to play more aggressively.

And Williams, who used to boast about the complexities of his defense, has simplified the game plan so that each player can focus on his strengths.

"We've identified fewer things that we want them to master," Williams said, "so that they can get real good at those things."

All those factors, plus fewer injuries, should add up to more takeaways, which in turn should give the offense better chances to score. Taylor has picked off several passes since his drop on the first day, and Omar Stoutmire hauled down a nice interception off a tipped ball Monday.

One thing is for sure - it will be very hard to be worse than last year. Williams likes to needle his players over their shortcomings, but the stark reality of forcing only 12 turnovers is one topic for which he had no humor.

"We laugh and joke and we smile an awful lot about different things that are funny that happen on the field of play - but that's not," Williams said. "I don't have a big smile on my face about those kind of things. We hope to have more of those (takeaways) this year."

Notes: Four-time Pro Bowl LT Chris Samuels could miss all of the preseason games after hurting his right knee during the afternoon practice Monday. An MRI revealed an isolated grade 2 sprain of the MCL, which will sideline him up to four weeks. Samuels was injured when another player fell on the leg during a play-action pass, and the surrounding players reacted with a collective "oooooh" as he went down. "I thought it was over with for the season," said Samuels, who sprained the same knee in 2003. ... TE Pete Schmitt hurt the rotator cuff in his left shoulder and was also scheduled for an MRI. WR Mike Espy (bruised knee), LB Dallas Sartz (strained hamstring), G Randy Thomas (sore knee) and LB Marcus Washington (sore hip) missed practice. ... The Redskins signed rookie free agent TE Jake Nordin and released K Tyler Frederickson. ... Gibbs mourned the death of Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. "He was one of the most creative people in the sport," Gibbs said. Walsh's 49ers and Gibbs' Redskins combined to win five Super Bowls from 1981-88. "I think we would have been to another two or three Super Bowls if we could have got through the 49ers at their place," Gibbs said.

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