If Redskins are to withstand the pressure, they’ll need to create some

Jason Reid
Columnist November 20, 2012

Before we get too excited about one good performance by the Washington Redskins’ defense, let’s be honest: Hitting tackling dummies is tougher than facing the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense.

In his first career start, Eagles rookie quarterback Nick Foles seemed even more uncomfortable in the pocket than shaky Redskins safety Madieu Williams does in coverage. The only thing Philadelphia’s offensive line was effective at throughout Washington’s 31-6 blowout victory was holding.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

The Redskins’ next opponent figures to provide a better yardstick for measuring whether Coach Mike Shanahan’s team is actually capable of salvaging its season.

In Dallas on Thursday, the Redskins will try to corral veteran Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. They’ll face a much more confident offense (Dallas is tied for 11th in the league in total yardage) than the dispirited Eagles bunch that couldn’t produce a touchdown. Second place in the NFC East is at stake.

For Washington to make a realistic playoff push in perhaps the NFL’s weakest division, the defense has to prove its impressive showing was about more than just catching the Eagles at their worst. As spectacular as Robert Griffin III was again, becoming only the second rookie in league history to produce a perfect passer rating, the Redskins won’t reach the postseason on his performance alone. And although the defense fattened up on a weak opponent in the last game, there’s also reason to believe at least a little more in that group.

As is usually the case in football, the good news for the Redskins starts up front. Nose tackle Barry Cofield and defensive end Stephen Bowen weren’t good only because the Eagles’ ragtag offensive line was awful. Their performance was legit.

Pittsburgh Steelers back Jonathan Dwyer is the only player to rush for 100 yards against the Redskins this season. The Redskins’ defensive linemen and linebackers acknowledge they’re the keys to turning around the season (“I still believe we are the strength of this team,” Bowen said).

The Redskins’ strength could match well with one of the Cowboys’ weak spots. Top Dallas running back DeMarco Murray, who has missed the past five games because of a foot injury, is not expected to play against the Redskins. Felix Jones, who started the past four games for Dallas, is not in Murray’s class.

Shutting down the Cowboys’ running game, and thereby increasing Romo’s workload, would be a good way for the Redskins’ defensive front seven to back up their words with actions. Pounding Romo always helps, too. In leading the Cowboys to consecutive victories, the 10-year veteran completed more than 70 percent of his passes and had three touchdowns with no interceptions.

This past Sunday against Cleveland, Romo made just enough plays (he passed for 313 yards) to lead Dallas to a 23-20 overtime victory, but he was sacked seven times. The lesson for the Redskins, which I’m certain defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has learned from past frustrating experiences against Romo, is that you have to keep Romo guessing with different blitzes. And rushing the passer had better result in quarterback hits and sacks.

The Redskins tied their season high with four sacks against Philadelphia, which should bolster the confidence of a unit that hasn’t had much to celebrate this season.

The Redskins’ pass rush disappeared after outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, the Redskins’ sacks leader the past three seasons, and defensive end Adam Carriker, who had a career-high 51 / 2 sacks in 2011, suffered season-ending injuries. The team is tied for 23rd in the league with 18 sacks.

“People ask me, ‘Why aren’t you a top-10 defense?’ ” Shanahan said. “You know why? You lose starters.”

Shanahan hopes the morale booster against Philadelphia was the beginning of a strong finishing kick for the Redskins’ edge rushers. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan could definitely use the help.

The second-year pro is the Redskins’ best pass rusher by far and leads them with 51 / 2 sacks. “He gives you everything that you want on every play,” Shanahan said.

Kerrigan, however, can’t be in two places at once, and pass rushing balance is an important element of successful 3-4 defenses. When you don’t have balance, well, you’re the Redskins.

“Man, with Romo and guys like that, guys who like to run around a lot back there, you got to just keep after ’em all game,” Orakpo said recently. “You do that, you give yourself a chance. You don’t . . . oh, man. It’s gonna be trouble.”

The lack of a dependable pass rush has especially hurt the secondary, which has given up more momentum-changing deep passes than Redskins fans care to remember. Safety Brandon Meriweather provided a boost while playing for the first time this season (he had an interception and was solid in run support) against Philadelphia.

“He brought a spark to the whole team,” Bowen said.

The energy faded quickly: Meriweather injured his knee and will miss the remainder of the season.

On paper, cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson match up poorly against Dallas wideouts Miles Austin and Dez Bryant (seems that’s the case for Hall and Wilson regardless of the opponent). Star Cowboys tight end Jason Witten usually gives the Redskins problems, and it won’t help if inside linebacker London Fletcher misses the game because of a sore ankle.

Granted, that doesn’t sound very encouraging. But if everything goes perfectly up front, Romo will be kept off balance, and the secondary will have fewer chances to screw up.

Still, the Redskins are in position to remain relevant in their division. Their defense just has to make a stand. They’re running out of time to do it — but better late than never.

For previous Jason Reid columns, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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