The Redskins remain one of the league’s worst defenses in yards and points allowed. Now the points are a little misleading because opponents have scored quite a few points when the Redskins defense isn’t on the field. While those numbers count against everyone, the Redskins have had more TD’s scored against their offense/special teams than the majority of teams in the league. Also, due to special teams miscues and turnovers opponents have the 4th best starting field position against the Redskins. Despite being dealt a bad hand, the Redskins need their defense to step up if they ever want to be considered a perennial contender.
Many want to blame Jim Haslett and this coaching staff for all the defensive issues, which is definitely not the full story. They might not deserve the full blame, but they definitely deserve their fair share. Now there are definitely limitations on this team that you can’t expect them to be an elite unit, but you should be able to get more out of it than you currently are. The Redskins seem to be notorious for using guys out of place. Using DeAngelo Hall off the ball has proven to be a major liability in the past, and he had been playing much better this year when he was up close on the receiver. Yet versus the Vikings he played a lot more off man coverage and the Vikings were able to take advantage of him. The coaches have also failed to truly minimize the snaps of declining inside linebacker London Fletcher. Fletcher may be a popular player, but it is clear his skills are declining and as a coaching staff you need to do what is best for your team.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Redskins defense is their need to show the versatility of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan in coverage. Now being a 3-4 team you need your rush linebackers to drop in coverage from time to time, but the Redskins are doing it far too much. According to Pro Football Focus among the 24 rush linebackers who have played 50% or more of their team’s snaps, Kerrigan (80%) ranks 16th and Orakpo (77.9%) 19th in terms of percentage of pass rush plays they are rushing the quarterback. That percentage isn’t out of total defensive plays, or even total pass plays, it is solely looking at the number of pass rushes when they are on the field. If it’s a run play or if Rob Jackson/Darryl Tapp are subbing in it doesn’t count in those percentages. The Redskins defense simply can’t afford to have their two best players being misused this often. While it is likely that most snaps at least one of these guys are rushing, this shows that they aren’t having both rush the quarterback nearly enough. For other teams perhaps they could get by because they are a better blitzing team or are generating a lot of pass rush from multiple defensive linemen, but that simply isn’t the case for the Redskins. Until this team is more talented at every position group, you can’t afford to not utilize guys like Kerrigan and Orakpo to their fullest potential.
The one area on defense the Redskins have showed well is their turnover mentality. Currently the Redskins are in a 5 way tie for 12th place with 16 turnovers so far this year. Their pace is almost as good as they were last season when they finished 7th in this department. They’ve even done a better job this year once they get the ball, returning 5 of those turnovers for touchdowns. Unfortunately by focusing on being a ball hawking team, it has left the Redskins vulnerable in other areas on defense. Most notably is their inability to tackle. While this isn’t the only reason the Redskins are struggling to tackle it has been a significant factor in the secondary. Brandon Meriweather is a big play guy and he looks to go for the big hit to knock the ball loose or the interception by jumping a route. This has led to some ugly penalties, and some big miscues in the secondary. Both David Amerson and Josh Wilson have been too aggressive at times and have been beaten for big plays because they went for the ball or bit on a double move to jump the route. Now on a more talented team this might not be an issue, but it’s exposed the Redskins to more big plays than they are creating and it’s costing them.
Another issues with the ball hawk mentality is this defense isn’t built on the strength to get stops and hold up when their backs are against the wall. They are not a team that will be able to shut down opponents each and every drive because they lack the overall talent and balance of players who aren’t so high risk/high reward. It also means that with the offense/special teams giving up such great field position, the likelihood of the Redskins not giving up at least some points is pretty small.
While I think you can point to the coaching and the style of play for a number of issues on this defense, at the end of the day the biggest factor is just a true lack of talent on this team. This defense lacks a truly elite player in the vein of J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Patrick Willis, Joe Haden, or Earl Thomas. While you don’t need an elite guy, it does help because they can carry your defense, especially when things are going poorly. Now if you don’t have an elite player on defense you can still do well by having the majority of your defense filled with very good to great players. While the Redskins have a couple of these guys, they simply don’t have enough.
Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan would be the two guys who fit the bill of being very good to great players at their positions (though as said above they aren’t used properly), but beyond them the Redskins don’t have a lot to hang their hat on. Barry Cofield would probably be the next talented guy on this team, but he’s far better versus the pass than the run, which limits some of his effectiveness and also means he’s not on the field as much as the other defenders. DeAngelo Hall is having probably his best year in a Redskins uniform, but even that doesn’t have him approaching elite status. Some people may try to throw Perry Riley in the mix, but he really doesn’t deserve to be in this group. Riley is a much more streaky player, who will have some good games and make some big plays, but other weeks he’s making some costly miscues. Riley’s definitely not a part of the problem, but when he’s your 5th best defender you are probably in trouble.
Outside of those 5 players, the Redskins defenders are pretty bad. The defensive linemen aren’t stopping the run or getting any pressure on the quarterback, London Fletcher has become a huge liability on the field, and the rest of the secondary is giving up a lot of big plays that is costing this team each week.
There is no easy solution to the Redskins defensive woes and they really need to have a wholesale change this offseason. From bringing in a completely new defensive coaching staff (not just replacing Jim Haslett, but the entire staff), to not being so turnover dependent, and finally bringing in an influx of talent, it all needs to happen if the Redskins want to fix this defense. Just replacing Haslett and bringing in one or two solid players isn’t going to be enough. The Redskins need to get this unit on track if they want to not be in the situation they face today. Where they are 3-6 in probably the weakest division in football and will need to win at least 6 of their remaining games to have any shot at the playoffs.