By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
The goal of Gregg Williams's defense is to produce turnovers and sacks, but through his three seasons as assistant head coach in Washington, the Redskins have few of either.
Washington's defense is on the verge of becoming the least opportunistic in NFL history, with only five interceptions and five recovered fumbles -- two of them by special teams -- through 13 games. The NFL low for take-aways in a 16-game season is 15, by Green Bay and St. Louis in 2004.
The Redskins also rank last in the NFL this season in sacks per passing play and have just 15 sacks as a team. They have been held to one sack or fewer in eight of 13 games and have played eight games in which they failed to register a turnover.
The inability of the defense to make big plays has forced the offense to produce long drives, since the offense has rarely been provided good field position as the result of a turnover. Washington has scored only 13 points off turnovers, a figure that could be among the worst all-time. The Redskins have been outscored 51-13 in points off turnovers, and outgained 279-25 in return yards off interceptions.
"Man, 13 points, for the season?" defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn said. "You look at us last year towards the end when we made the playoffs, in those games that was the difference-maker: We had a bunch of turnovers and we ended up scoring off them, or the defense scored for us. And that's one thing we have not done at all this year for whatever rhyme or reason, and that makes a huge difference."
Washington also does not have a defensive touchdown this season, and just three since Williams took charge of the defense in 2004.
Sunday, two defensive players again failed to hold on to potential interceptions. Cornerback Carlos Rogers let a would-be interception slip through his grasp early in the game; he has dropped at least seven catchable passes dating from the playoff games in January. Linebacker Marcus Washington is often around the ball, but he flubbed a chance at an interception in the 21-19 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Either play might have swayed the outcome.
Those plays were emblematic of the season. Philadelphia scored 14 points off turnovers to win the game, one coming on an 84-yard interception return.
"When you go after things like that physically, that ball should be coming out of there," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "In the game we had two in our hands. I think it's just a matter of making the plays when you get a chance to make them. We've had some opportunities this year, but for one reason or another we haven't been able to get them."
Many Redskins could not remember the last time they scored points off a turnover; they produced 10 points off take-aways in their win over Jacksonville on Oct. 1.
The NFL does not keep official statistics for points off turnovers, and the Elias Sports Bureau could only track down such figures for the last 10 seasons, dating from 1997. However, in that span only one team had failed to produce at least twice Washington's current figure -- 26 points -- and that was the 2005 Oakland Raiders, who scored just 19 points off turnovers.
The Redskins' defense has struggled to intercept the ball or recover fumbles for most of Williams's time in Washington. During his three years as Buffalo's head coach, the Bills never caused more than 19 take-aways in a season, and ranked last two seasons and second-to-last the other.
Cornerback Shawn Springs, who produced six sacks and five interceptions in 2004, said he could not explain Washington's low take-away figures. "I didn't know those numbers, and I don't know why that is," Springs said. "But you need them in this league. That's the name of the game. There's no reason why that would be. I'm not sure."
The Redskins have never finished higher than 21st in the NFL in take-aways in the three years since Gibbs returned to coach the team and have just 64 since the start of 2004, third worst in the NFL in that span. Gibbs discounted the notion that the defense lacks playmakers who produce turnovers, but players have asserted the opposite privately.
During their 5-0 regular season-ending run to the playoffs last season, the Redskins recorded 17 turnovers and 17 sacks (outscoring teams 59-10 in points off turnovers); in their other 40 games in Gibbs's second tenure with the team they have just 47 take-aways and 75 sacks.
This season, the Redskins have just 25 combined sacks and turnovers; the all-time low is 22 sacks and turnovers held by the 1982 Baltimore Colts, according to Elias. The Colts went 0-8-1 in a strike-shortened season that year. The Redskins this year are actually on a worse statistical pace of 1.9 combined sacks and turnovers per game, while the '82 Colts averaged 2.4.
Sacks and turnovers are closely related, one often prompting the other. But the Redskins' pass rush has been inconsistent the last three years. The Redskins' linebackers -- the heart of the defense and the keys to Williams's defense -- do not have an interception and have combined for just four sacks.
Considering the Redskins' inability to score touchdowns on offense, and the propensity of the defense to allow big plays, producing take-aways is essential. Four of Washington's losses have come by three points. The Redskins' turnover ratio in those defeats was one to five. "All I can say is, when we don't get no turnovers, and they get some, that's usually the difference in the game," Springs said. "That ratio is it."
Redskins Note: A team official confirmed that Gibbs was alive and well after a rumor made the rounds last night that the coach was involved in an auto accident. Gibbs actually was at Redskin Park, working.