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Redskins’ secondary is vastly improved in season’s second half

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If there was an indelible image from the ugly start to the Washington Redskins’ season — three wins in nine games, another nicely paved road to oblivion — it came at the tail end of their Oct. 21 game against the New York Giants. Eli Manning dropped back to pass, his team trailing the Redskins by three points with 1 minute 23 seconds left in the game. From his 15-yard line, Manning unloaded, and the ball nestled into the hands of receiver Victor Cruz, just beyond midfield.

The Redskins’ secondary was there, fully exposed. Cornerback Josh Wilson dove at Cruz, who eluded him for the 77-yard touchdown. DeAngelo Hall, the other corner, tried to catch up. Safeties Jordan Pugh and Madieu Williams sprinted, too, before slowing to a jog near the goal line. As Cruz entered the end zone, a likely win turned into a crushing loss, with four defensive backs, wounded and winded, left to symbolize it.

“We’re not a great pass defense,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said then. “I understand that, numbers-wise.”

But whatever the circumstances, whatever the reasons, Washington’s secondary play has picked up since that dismal day in the Meadowlands — a significant reason why the Redskins have won seven straight and will host Seattle in an NFC playoff game Sunday. Haslett and his assistants have played almost the entire season without their projected starting safeties — Tanard Jackson, who was suspended for the year for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, and Brandon Meriweather, who missed 15 games with injuries. They have, at various points, watched Hall and Wilson get torched for big plays.

And yet with the playoffs here, that play from Cruz seems long ago. “We don’t think about it now,” Williams said. “And we put it behind us then.”

The secondary is rejuvenated. “They’re playing their best football down the stretch,” veteran inside linebacker London Fletcher said.

On Thanksgiving Day, the Redskins allowed Dallas 423 yards passing, the most they gave up all year, in a game when the Cowboys were playing catch-up and were forced to throw. When Dallas arrived for the rematch last Sunday, a game that decided the division title, Dallas passed for just 196 yards.

That completed a late-season surge for the secondary. It was the sixth time in the last nine games that unit has allowed fewer than 235 yards passing. Up to Thanksgiving, they averaged 301.4 yards passing allowed. In the five games since, that average has dropped more than 60 yards, to 239.2.

“I think they’re playing better as a unit,” Haslett said. “I think last week DeAngelo played his best game. Josh has really stepped up and played well. The safeties, all four of them, have stepped up and done a good job in the situations we’re putting them in.”

To be sure, the Redskins’ overall numbers are still ugly. Only two teams, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, gave up more yards passing this season. Only four teams have given up more pass plays of 40 yards or more. Only five teams have given up more pass plays of 20 yards or more.

“Our passing stats stink,” Haslett said. “They’re not very good, because you give up an 85-yarder in a game — 50, 50, 60, 60 [yards in one play]. All you got to do is give up one a game, and it just throws everything out of whack. And that’s what we have to eliminate — or we have eliminated, and we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”

To accomplish that, individual players have performed better. The coaching staff challenged Hall, a former Pro Bowler who became the object of fans’ scorn over the first part of the season, to take Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant, who was coming off a nine-catch, 224-yard performance the week before.

“Dez is hot,” the coaches said. “He’s on fire. You need to put the fire out. You need to take him one-on-one.”

So Hall did, limiting Bryant to four catches for 71 yards and holding him without a touchdown for the first time in seven games.

“He was really focused. He was into it,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “He knew it was a playoff atmosphere. He knew he had to play his best game against an excellent receiver who was playing at a very high level the last four or five games, and it was a great challenge to him.”

Now, the Redskins may be getting reinforcements at the most important time. Veteran cornerback Cedric Griffin returned to practice this week after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Though Shanahan and Haslett were intentionally vague about how much they might use Griffin against Seattle, the rest of the secondary clearly expects him back.

“We’ve been able to go out there and still get it done without having him out there,” Hall said. “To have him out there just adds another weapon to the arsenal. . . . We’re able to do a little bit more things, some different things that we didn’t get a chance to actually fine-tune.”

Veteran safety Reed Doughty contributed a stellar play in the run game against Dallas, blowing through a blocker and bowling over the running back in the same play. That helped lessen the impact of the loss of DeJon Gomes, an occasional starter who missed the Cowboys game with a knee injury.

“We have confidence now,” Williams said.

They now have performances to justify that confidence, and Cruz’s play, which at one point threatened to define the season, is now but a blip on their radar, and a distant one at that.

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