The early struggles began with season-ending injuries in Week 2 to top pass rusher Brian Orakpo and one of the team’s top run-stoppers, defensive end Adam Carriker , who also had 5.5 sacks in 2011. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather battled knee injuries and wound up playing only half a game before he tore his ACL in Week 11. And projected starting free safety Tanard Jackson was suspended for the year for violating NFL substance abuse policies.
“In the beginning it [was] hard,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett recalled. “You lose two safeties who I think are two really good football players, and in the matter of five plays you lose your best pass rusher and your best defensive run player on the front. So, it’s not easy.”
Without Orakpo, Haslett was forced to platoon of Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson at the right outside linebacker position. He turned to second-year pro Jarvis Jenkins — who missed all of his rookie season with a torn ACL — to replace Carriker. In the secondary, Madieu Williams and DeJon Gomes started the year at free and strong safety, respectively. But soon, Haslett replaced Wilson with special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander, and Gomes with Reed Doughty.
The result was not an immediate turnaround, however. The Redskins struggled to get to the quarterback and the secondary was susceptible to the big play.
As Washington entered the bye with a 3-6 record, the defense ranked 30th in the league, giving up 397.9 yards per game, including 301.7 yards through the air. The unit gave up 27.6 points per game, fifth most in the league. Big gains by opponents proved crippling; in their first nine games, the Redskins yielded 17 pass plays of 25 yards or more.
Haslett came back from the bye determined to get more out of his unit than he had in the first half of the season. Because an in-season talent overhaul wasn’t possible, and with no healthy player versatile enough to play strong safety full-time, Haslett shuttled Doughty, Gomes and Jordan Pugh in and out of the lineup, depending on the situation. On most run plays, Doughty got the nod, On some pass plays, Pugh came in, on others it was Gomes. Together, they began to get the job done.
To help his pass rush, Haslett concocted ever more exotic blitzes. He’d overload the edge, with inside linebacker Perry Riley coming from the outside as well. At other times, he’d send left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan on a stunt up the middle. Haslett also gave Jackson more opportunities on third down, and the linebacker delivered with 4.5 sacks in the second half of the season.