The Takeaway: Redskins defense finally steps up

The Post's Jason Reid reports an optimistic outlook for the Redskins after their first win and just before heading into their bye week. Photos by AP, Getty and the Washington Post. (The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist September 29, 2013

Many words were used to describe the Washington Redskins’ defense through their first three games. After Week 4, one seemed most fitting: relentless.

In a must-win game, the much-maligned defense delivered its best performance as the Redskins overcame a two-touchdown deficit and rallied for a 24-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s group gave up the most yards in NFL history through the first three games of a season, but it made big plays throughout the afternoon to help the Redskins avoid a nightmare scenario.

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

Redskins coaches and players were fearful of being 0-4 entering their bye week. Thanks in large part to the defense’s front seven, the Redskins at least avoided having a doughnut in the win column at the break. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan continued his steady march toward stardom, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo had another big day against the Raiders and nose tackle Barry Cofield dominated in the middle to lead the Redskins’ seven-sack show.

There also was a Robert Griffin III sighting. The quarterback delivered his first momentum-changing play of the season to help the Redskins put away the Raiders late in the fourth quarter. Washington overcame its usual assortment of missed tackles, turnovers and poor special teams play to finally win.

For a change, the Redskins got defensive. Let’s start there.

Time to make some plays

In a 3-4 defense, outside linebacker and nose tackle are the most important positions. The defense is designed to apply pressure on quarterbacks from both edges and clog everything in the middle. Against the Raiders, it all came together.

Haslett believes that Kerrigan, Orakpo and Cofield are among the NFL’s best at what they do. The trio showed it against Oakland. Each player recorded two sacks (linebacker Darryl Tapp had the other sack).

Kerrigan and Orakpo hounded Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn from opposite directions. Cofield excelled while moving in a straight line. The consistent pressure they applied rattled Flynn, and the Raiders’ offense remained stuck in neutral most of the game.

Trailing 14-0 after the first quarter, the Redskins scored 24 unanswered points. The Redskins’ sack total was their most in a game since the 2011 season. The Redskins also stopped the Raiders on fourth and one at the Redskins 17-yard line with 3 minutes 32 seconds left to play.

Kerrigan has established himself as the Redskins’ best defensive player. His ability to rush the passer, make plays in coverage and provide strong run support is impressive. He wasn’t to blame for the nonsense that occurred on defense in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

Orakpo hasn’t been as good. He isn’t as effective as Kerrigan in coverage and did not make enough big plays in the losses. Orakpo, however, loves him some Oakland. He had a four-sack outing in this stadium as a rookie and was a force again.

Cofield is the Redskins’ leader on defense. He talks and backs up his words with actions. The defensive line hasn’t been among the team’s strengths, but Cofield has done his best to raise the squad’s level of play.

Ladies and gents, RGIII

Griffin often made spectacular plays in rallying the Redskins to victories last season. Late in the fourth quarter, he had his first game-changing Griffin moment of this season.

Kerrigan forced a fumble while sacking Flynn and Cofield recovered the ball at the Raiders 42-yard line. On the first play of the Redskins’ possession, the pocket collapsed around Griffin and it appeared the quarterback was about to be sacked.

Not so fast.

Griffin, sensing the rush, backpedaled, spun to the outside and connected with running back Roy Helu Jr., who hurdled a would-be tackler en route to a 28-yard gain. On the next play, Helu raced up the middle for a touchdown that helped the Redskins build a 10-point cushion. For Griffin and the Redskins, it was like old times.

Not-so-special teams

Inexperienced coach Keith Burns, in his first season as a coordinator, has struggled to find solutions for the team’s problems in the return game. On kickoffs, the Redskins demoted unproductive rookie returner Chris Thompson, replacing him with veteran wideout Josh Morgan.

Morgan didn’t have any returns against the Raiders, whose opponents often start on their 20-yard line after strong-legged place kicker Sebastian Janikowski booms the ball through the end zone. The Redskins expect Morgan to make better decisions than Thompson — which shouldn’t be difficult — such as knowing when to stay put in the end zone.

Problem is, the speedy Thompson made the opening 53-man roster because the Redskins envisioned he would be a dynamic returner. At best, Morgan would only be steady. Then there are Thompson’s uh-oh punt returns.

Thompson didn’t return punts in college. It shows. He has displayed no feel for his position on the field, the pursuit of opponents in punt coverage and where blockers are aligned — the three most important traits of effective punt returners. One play late in the second quarter summed up Thompson’s shakiness in the important role.

Standing at the Washington 8-yard line, Thompson jumped as high as he could to field a punt before the ball bounced over his head. Wrong decision. If Thompson failed to come up with the ball, it might have landed in the end zone, where the Raiders could have recovered it for a gift-wrapped touchdown.

The Redskins gave one to the Raiders in the first quarter when they failed to pick up a stunt on punt protection. Sav Rocca’s punt was blocked and the Raiders recovered the ball in the end zone for their first touchdown.

During the team’s break, Burns must determine if the Redskins have anyone else who could handle punts. At this point, anyone would be better than Thompson.

The takeaway

The Redskins are 1-3. Although that’s not the record they envisioned they would have at this point, it’s better than 0-4. The Redskins had to start someplace. Getting a victory was the only way to do it.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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