In middle of the season, everything started to click

ASHBURN -- At some point during the season, it just happened. No play or series prompted an aha moment. Instead, it was just a feeling. Barry Cofield understood what the coaches wanted; he understood what offenses were trying to do to him.

And he ... just ... got it. He relayed that sentiment to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett sometime in October. Then Cofield went out and started playing better. Along with his performance, the defense started to improve as well.

Others will garner more attention -- linebacker London Fletcher was named the NFC's defensive player of the month for December. But the key to a 3-4 defense is the play of the nose tackle. It's not surprising that Cofield took time to adjust; he had never played nose tackle when he signed with Washington in the 2011 offseason after five years as a defensive tackle with the New York Giants and with a shortened offseason because of the lockout.

"I could talk the nose tackle position, but I didn't know how to play it," Cofield said. "You have to have quick feet. You have to play fast, but you have to play slower than in a 4-3. You have to take up space without being big. So many aspects of the position that went over my head really clicked."

His hand placement improved. He played with better leverage, staying lower off the snap. Cofield understood how various offenses wanted to block him -- last season, he saw different tactics every game.

"I'd feel good after playing, and coaches would tell me I was wrong," he said. "I was confused last year, and now it's like I really understand what they're saying. It's hard to put into words."

In the offseason, Cofield studied nose tackles such as Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton, but experience also taught him how to play. Now the Redskins are using him in different ways. Several times last week vs. Dallas, for example, Cofield didn't rush the passer and would sometimes slide down the line to take away a receiving option. Or he would drop into coverage in the middle. He's playing more by thinking less.

"I thought he overanalyzed [last year]," Haslett said. "Barry is a really smart football player that kind of overanalyzes things once in a while. I think he's finally got it figured out what we were looking for."