Though the Washington Redskins lost the game yesterday to the Pittsburgh Steelers, sending them 3-5 and on the outside looking in for the NFC playoff race, the biggest loss for the Skins, could be the idea that London Fletcher is a key member of this defense. Fletcher did have six tackles and snuffed out a screen pass, but missed multiple tackles and was once again a liability in coverage. Though it was commendable that Fletcher was even able to play at all given the sore hamstring and balance issues he was dealing with, he became a liability back there. Though it would be easy to say that the injuries affected Fletcher’s play, this has been a story that has been building all season.
Fletcher has been the leader of this defense since he came to the Washington Redskins in 2007. He was a strong run defender, who also did well in coverage. His ability to read a play and find the hole, was as good as any player in the league. Fletcher also got high marks for his leadership and ability to get the most out of other players around him. Though the last couple of years his play, particularly in coverage has dropped off slightly, he was still at a high overall level.
What the Washington Redskins have seen this year though has been a dramatic drop-off, as Fletcher has struggled to play at a high level all season. Now Fletcher still has the instincts and can make a big play from time to time, but overall just hasn’t been consistent. Now expecting the 5’9″ Fletcher, to cover 6’5″ tight ends is not ideal, but in the past Fletcher won enough of those battles. This year he’s losing them and it isn’t even close. The Redskins have seen both good and great tight ends have a field day this year. While he’s not always the one in coverage on them, he has been the majority of the time. In addition, Fletcher has struggled against covering running backs out of the back field as he’s not had the speed to keep up with them. Fletcher has been forced to commit multiple defensive holding penalties just to try to prevent even bigger plays for the other team.
More troubling than London Fletcher’s coverage struggles, is his failures in stopping the run. In the past if Fletcher got his hands on you, or hit you it’s a tackle. That isn’t the case any more as Fletcher has missed multiple tackles this year, and has even seen some running backs run over him. Even when Fletcher is making a tackle, many times he is tackling them forward, leading to additional yardage allowed. Speed backs have also given Fletcher trouble as he’s not been able to get to his position on them near as much as he used to.
London Fletcher is looking to be more like a part time player going forward, and probably needs to be subbed out at least a third of the game. That makes it next to impossible to keep him at his 2013 cap hit of $7.25 million. Unfortunately due to the way his contract was structured, the Redskins would still have to account for $3.25 million of that money, meaning they will save just $4 million next season. The Redskins though probably won’t have a choice, but to release Fletcher (note: even if he retires they are still on the hook for the same amount).
Replacing Fletcher won’t be easy, but the team did invest their second 4th round pick into inside linebacker Keenan Robinson from Texas. Though he is a bit raw overall, Robinson does have solid coverage ability, and good size and speed to project for the future. The Redskins should begin to use Robinson more (also subbing out Perry Riley some as well), to try to speed up his development for next year. It will also give Washington an indication of whether or not they need to invest money into a good free agent next year, or if Robinson is up for the job. There will no doubt be growing pains replacing a legend like Fletcher, but it is something the Redskins need to start the process of doing.