Redskins season review: The defense

Jim Haslett managed to mask the Redskins deficiencies down the stretch of the season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett managed to mask the Redskins deficiencies down the stretch  (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The dust has settled from the Redskins’ 10-6 campaign, and over the next several days, we’ll take a look back at what went right, and what went wrong.

Today we’ll review the defense – the unit that was expected to be the team’s strength, but over the first half of the season struggled mightily. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s bunch improved down the stretch and helped the Redskins compile a seven-game win streak. That helped lessen the sting of the troubles that plagued the unit this season. But there likely still will be quite a few adjustments on this side of the ball during the offseason.

Statistical glance: Before the bye, the Redskins ranked 30th in the league, giving up 397.9 yards per game. The pass defense yielded 301.7 yards per outing. The unit gave up 27.6 points per game (fifth-most in the league) prior to the bye week. In the seven games that followed the bye, Washington gave up 351 yards a game (270 passing) and limited opponents to 20.1 points per game. For the season, Washington finished with the 28th-ranked defense,  up an average of 377.7 yards a game (281.9 passing) and 24.3 points a game (22nd).

The good:

  • Second-half turnaround – Washington allowed more than 25 points only twice in the final seven games. After yielding 17 pass plays of 25 yards or more in the first nine games, Washington reduced that number to 10 pass plays of 25 yards or more in the final seven outings.
  • Turnovers – A year after recording 21 turnovers, the Redskins made strides in the takeaway department, snagging 31 (fourth in the NFL). Washington also had seven multiple-interception games – the most since 1999.
  • Rushing defense – For all their struggles in the secondary, Washington did well against the run, ranking 5th and holding teams to 95.8 yards per game.

The bad

  • Injuries/suspensions The Redskins lost leading pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, one of their top run-stoppers in defensive end Adam Carriker, starting strong safety Brandon Meriweather , promising backup linebacker Keenan Robinson, backup safety Jordan Bernstine, and backup nose tackle Chris Neild to season-ending injuries. They also went the whole year without Tanard Jackson, who was projected to start at free safety, because of a drug suspension, and were without third cornerback Cedric Griffin for the final four games of the regular season – also for a drug suspension.
  • Pass rush/defenseWith their secondary riddled by injuries, Washington needed its front seven to pressure opposing quarterbacks and produce turnovers. But the Redskins’ pass rush struggled, recording only 32 sacks, which ranked 23rd in the NFL, (down from 41 – 10th in the league – in 2011). As a result, Washington’s defensive backs found themselves torched often throughout the season. The team’s weakness at safety was exposed regularly as opponents managed success despite going against cover-two schemes and double-teams from the Redskins’ defensive backs.
  • Third downsDespite their second-half turnaround, Washington’s defense finished dead last in the NFL on third downs. Opponents succeeded on 44.2 percent of third down plays, converting 95 for first downs. An inability to get off the field hurt the Redskins, and at times the defenders wore down, yielding game-clinching plays. This was more the case during the first half of the season, but also true in the playoff loss to Seattle.

 The takeaway: The Redskins will always wonder, “What if?” about this season. What if they had a healthy Orakpo, Carriker, Meriweather and a clean Tanard Jackson? Orakpo and Carriker would have helped in the pass rush. Meriweather and Jackson would have given them two versatile playmakers in the secondary. With an improved pass rush and secondary, this unit would have been one of the best in the league. How many more wins would Washington have had if that was the case? … Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett deserves a lot of credit for the way he tinkered, mixed and matched his way to an improved performance after the bye. He shuttled safeties in and out of the game depending on the situation. He drew up one exotic blitz after another to create mismatches, confuse offensive fronts and find ways for his defenders to get to the quarterback. … Defensive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen played well in their second seasons in the system, and are expecting more growth next year. The disruptive play they offered, particularly during the seven-game win streak, is something both anticipate on a consistent basis next season. Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins also did better down the stretch of his first NFL season. … Outside linebacker Rob Jackson had a strong second half of the season, recording 4.5 sacks, and he did well in pass coverage as well, with four interceptions. Inside linebacker London Fletcher had a dominant month of December and another Pro Bowl caliber season. Taking into account that production and how hobbled the 37-year-old Fletcher was this season, Mike Shanahan said, “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.” Now Fletcher will take the offseason to decide whether he wants to return for a 16th season or retire… Second-year linebacker Ryan Kerrigan struggled with consistency and enters the offseason with a list of things he needs to do to become more dominant. He had some strong games, but also seemed to disappear in others. He said at the end of the season that he wasn’t necessarily the subject of frequent double teams, but that he allowed opponents to dictate to him too often. …Cornerback DeAngelo Hall had some of his best games in the final month of the season, but also his share of miscues during the first half. He faces an uncertain future because he carries a $7.5 million cap hit next season. Hall wants to restructure if need be, so he can remain in Washington. But do the Redskins want him? … Rookie Richard Crawford gained valuable experience in the final four games filling in as the third cornerback. Redskins brass must decide whether they should bring back Cedric Griffin, or go with Crawford. … Management also must make moves to improve the safety position. Madieu Williams lacked the speed and range to be the play-making free safety the Redskins needed. Reed Doughty is strong against the run, as he showed against Seattle. But he isn’t the answer at strong safety. DeJon Gomes was too inconsistent. Jordan Pugh did well in spots, but was never a full-time option for Haslett. The Redskins won’t know what they have in Meriweather until late in the summer, and Tanard Jackson’s future in the league is uncertain as well. It’s clear the priority of the offseason will be to address the secondary.

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