The last couple of seasons the Redskins defense has been the weak link of the team and has hurt the Redskins chances of being competitive. That continued to be the case last season despite strong years from Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Barry Cofield and DeAngelo Hall. The problem was that while those four players played good-to-great football, no one else really came close to their level of play. That left the Redskins defense with numerous holes opponents could exploit and just about every week they did just that. The question becomes now just how much this unit can improve in just one season.
In fairness to the defense their woes weren’t entirely their fault. Football like other sports is a reciprocal sport, where what happens on one side of the ball directly impacts the success rate on the other side of the ball. in most sports that leads to some sort of fast break or counter-attack involving the same players on the field (court). Football is different though, when the offense goes 3 and out or turns the ball over, or the special teams allows a big return, the defense then is tasked with stopping the opponent who is in a favorable position. They are the ones who get the blame if the other team scores, despite the fact that their backs were up against the wall. With an atrocious showing on special teams last year and an offense that really struggled to find consistency, the defense was left in a really poor position most of the time.
Not only did this affect field position, which put the defense in a hole, but the inability for the offense to score points (particularly touchdowns) early in games created two-to-three score deficits which allowed opponents to play safe, eat the clock and not have to rely on the pass. In situations like that it limits the effectiveness of top pass rushers and defensive backs, meaning that three of the Redskins quality defensive players were limited in their effectiveness level last year. Hopefully improvements on offense and special teams will fix some of these issues and make the Redskins defense have more of a neutral hand dealt to them.
The question then becomes what can the Redskins defense do to improve on their own, and just how much can they improve?
In the offseason the Redskins made a big free agent signing of DL Jason Hatcher while using a 2nd rounder on Trent Murphy to add another pass rusher. They also brought in 3 ILB’s in Akeem Jordan, Darryl Sharpton, and Adam Hayward as well as defensive backs Tracy Porter and Ryan Clark on short-term, stopgap type of deals. Inside linebacker and safety Phillip Thomas are also coming back from injury to hopefully improve the total talent level. Beyond that the Redskins are relying on last year’s squad for their starters and key back-ups.
Of all the new additions Hatcher is clearly the key. Not only did the Redskins open up their check book for him, but he was the only real addition to the defensive line, a unit that really needs to make a better and more consistent impact. Ideally he will be the 3rd quality pass rusher and an inside presence, insuring that quarterbacks won’t be so easily able to step up and avoid the edge rush of Orakpo and Kerrigan. Hatcher will also allow for less focus to be on Cofield and the other defensive end (either Chris Baker or Jarvis Jenkins), which could free them up to make more plays as well. Unfortunately Hatcher is on the PUP list right now and though he is expected to return within a week, it’s unclear how far behind he is and how effective he will be when he returns.
The Redskins other big addition is OLB Trent Murphy, but given his position his snaps figure to be more limited this year. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan occupy both rush linebacker spots, and though Murphy can help give them a breather, and maintain an effective level of play, you aren’t going to want to sub them out too often. Other times he could play along side them in certain passing situations, and have all three rushing the quarterback which can create some havoc, but overall that is only going to be a small percentage of the time. If the Redskins offense gets on track this year and starts jumping out to some big leads, then Murphy could see the field a bit more as those passing situations will be more prevalent, but that could be a big ‘if’.
Other than that there doesn’t figure to be any drastic improvements from new players or young guys getting better, but collectively if a couple guys can raise their level of play slightly it could go a long way to improving the defense. Also, while some of the signings were minor and the players returning from injury are unproven, those additions to improve the total depth of this unit which is important. At the end of the day though any real improvement from this defense will be based on the status of Jason Hatcher. If he can come in and be anything close to the impact guy that he was last year in Dallas, this defense should be top 20 and could even get to the mid-teens. If Hatcher is less effective they will likely be in the bottom third of the league and only raise a couple spots in the rankings.
Where do you see this defense being this season?