Though Jay Gruden’s background may be on the offensive side of the ball, his first real task as the Redskins head coach is to fix the Redskins defense. Mike Shanahan largely ignored the Redskins defense and a once proud unit turned into one of the league’s worst during his four year tenure. Now if Gruden wants his tenure to fare better than Shanahan’s he should focus on getting the defense back up to par and hopefully one of the top units in the league within the next couple of years.
The old adage that defense wins championships still rings pretty true. Yes there are teams who are led by a top QB who get to the SB despite average or below average defensive play, but typically it is the teams with the best defense that make the playoffs and advance in the post season. Even in today’s NFL that remains the case. That is even more true when you have a young quarterback who is still learning the NFL game, like the Redskins have. Look at the success of the 49ers, Seahawks and Panthers and it is clear that building up a strong defense can be a quick way to get back to the postseason.
Not only can top defenses carry teams, but they make the job that much easier for a young developing quarterback. If the offense isn’t forced to score 28 points a game to win, you don’t have to put a quarterback in as many pressure situations. Also a top defense can make up for any quarterback mistakes and minimize the damage. Most importantly though could be the impact off field position on a young quarterback. If a defense is forcing turnovers or 3 and outs, they are probably putting the offense in a strong starting field position (special teams obviously plays a big role here as well). If they are allowing TD’s or forcing punts after the other team can flip the field, the offense will need to drive 80 or more yards for a TD. That is tough to do even if you have Peyton Manning at the helm and it’s much tougher with a developing young quarterback like RGIII. Now there is of course a reciprocal part to this as the offense needs to make yards and score points so they are flipping the field and putting the defense in a strong position, but a top defense can overcome when an offense can’t do that consistently.
Now this does not mean that the Redskins ignore the offensive side of the ball this year, as they have plenty of needs there as well. But the overall focus should be on the defense this year. More of the money and draft picks need to go in that direction. It won’t be an easy task since already the first round pick has gone to the offense, as part of the RGIII trade. The Redskins should look to bring in 2-3 starting offensive linemen (honestly they could use 4), and 1-2 wide receivers this year, but still a greater focus needs to be on the defensive side of the ball.
Top defender Brian Orakpo is an unrestricted free agent, the Redskins are either going to need to re-sign him long term or Franchise him to ensure he doesn’t leave. Right now counting Orakpo the Redskins really only have 4 guys locked in as starters next year on defense (regardless of formation they use). In addition to Orakpo you have DT Barry Cofield, OLB Ryan Kerrigan and CB David Amerson. Even with Amerson there are questions if he is really ready to be a starter after and up-and-down rookie campaign facing a number of 2nd tier WR’s. After those four you have four other guys: DL Jarvis Jenkins, LB Keenan Robinson, S Bacarri Rambo, S Phillip Thomas, who could be inline for starting jobs or significant roles, but none should be considered locks to start. Two of those players (Robinson and Thomas) are coming off of lost seasons due to injuries and are likely to be behind. Even if the Redskins can get two starters out of that group, that only puts the Redskins at 6 current starters. That means the Redskins need 5 starters in free agency or the draft.
Now some of those starters could be players the Redskins currently have, as LB Perry Riley, CB DeAngelo Hall and DL Chris Baker are all free agents the Redskins could look to bring back. All three guys are going to come down to money. They were all cheap this past year as Riley was finishing up his rookie deal, Hall took a major pay cut and Baker was on a low restricted FA tender. Next year that won’t be the case, as all will look to be paid. While they all deserve more than what they were making, the Redskins need to ask themselves if these players are worth the money they are looking for. Even with all three players having essentially career years, they had their share of mistakes and they couldn’t stop the Redskins from having one of the league’s worst defenses.
The fact that the Redskins defense struggled so much despite very good years from Orakpo (really a great year from Orakpo), Kerrigan and Cofield and decent years from these three guys, shows a couple things. One you need positive contributions up and down your line-up. Having six above-average to very good players just doesn’t cut it. The Redskins had some players really struggle and it brought down the entire defense.
Two, consistency is a big factor. While some guys played well throughout the year (Cofield, and Orakpo), other players were much more streaky. Ryan Kerrigan had a great first half of the season, but fell off down the stretch. It was later found out he was playing through an injury, but still that is a factor that needs to be considered. Hall is another player who fell off as the year went on, he had some games where he shut down or limited top notch receivers and then other games where he was getting beat by second tier guys. Riley was a very streaky player as well with some great games, but then other games where he was a liability.
The third thing that really comes into focus is the overvaluing of the top guys. Fans of course do this for every team, but it gets problematic when some of these guys are hitting free agency. Most Skins fans probably want guys like Riley and Hall back, but their years this past season and track record shows that they aren’t worth significant investments. That doesn’t completely mean that the Redskins should let them walk, but if they can’t get them at a value price they should spend that money on guys who have produced at a level worthy of that dollar figure.
The last thing that is apparent in looking at the defense is the lack of depth. There is a reason why some guys got so overexposed this season, and that is due to depth being a big factor. The Redskins were forced to start too many below average players, and then the back-ups to them were even worse. The most troubling part was the Redskins weren’t that injured this season, so what would have happened if they lost another starter or two for an extended period.
The Redskins need to fix this defense and bring in some more quality starters. Guys like Orakpo, Cofield and Kerrigan can’t do it alone, and there needs to be depth in case of injury. Now the Redskins don’t have the resources to fix this defense entirely, but they can’t afford to ignore it any longer.