Redskins’ pass defense is the worst in the NFL

brian burkeThree weeks into the season and a new era for Washington Redskins football, and the story isn’t the hot rookie quarterback. Instead it’s the defense. We can all see that the Redskins pass defense has been terrible through the first three weeks of the season. Poor play and mounting injuries have taken their toll. But just how bad is the pass defense, and what does that mean for the Redskins’ prospects this season?

I’ve written that yards per pass attempt (YPA) is the single most reliably predictive statistic in NFL football. The Redskins rank dead last so far this season with 8.4 net YPA allowed. (Net means that sack yardage is included.) The NFL average so far this year is 6.4 net YPA and the standard deviation is about 1.1 YPA. Since 2000, when the NFL began digitizing its data, only twelve teams have had worse net YPA three weeks into a season.

Only one of those twelve finished with a winning record. That was the 2011 Patriots, who ended the regular season with a 13-3 record, aided by their prolific offense. The other eleven teams averaged just under six wins for the entire season.

The Redskins pass defense actually may be worse than it appears, for a couple reasons. First, the pass defense deficiencies have been obscured by their relatively high interception rate. You might think that that’s a good thing, and it is. Or I should say, it has been. Rarely do defensive interception rates persist throughout the season. The Redskins current interception rate is  3.5%, significantly higher than the league average of 2.7%, but it’s bound to regress. Interceptions are relatively rare and notoriously random, particularly from the defense’s perspective. They’re thrown by a quarterback more than they are taken by a defense.

Second, the Redskins’ opponents so far have been well below average when facing teams other than the Redskins. The Saints, Rams and Bengals have averaged only 5.4 net YPA in their six games against other opponents, a full yard per attempt below the league average. Even Drew Brees and the Saints offense has averaged only 5.9 net YPA in their two games against other opponents.

One of the team efficiency stats that does tend to persist is penalty rate. The Redskins lead the league in penalty yards per play, with 0.74. The average is nearly half that, at 0.45 yards per play. The bad news is that has been extremely costly so far, but the good news is that it could be fixable, at least more fixable than the secondary’s talent level in midseason.

The glass is half empty on offense too. Despite the promising play of Robert Griffin III, the three opposing defenses have allowed 7.2 net YPA when playing other teams compared to the Washington offense’s 6.8 net YPA average and a 6.4 net YPA league average. Griffin’s running is obviously an asset, and he’ll continue to improve as the season goes on, but early indications of success may be misleading. Later in the season, we’ll take a closer look at Griffin’s production and see how he fares against tougher opponents.

Brian Burke is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a Web site about football, statistics and game theory.

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