By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006
The 97-yard drive featured all the hallmarks of the Washington Redskins' 2006 defense, from the missed tackles to the third-down ineffectiveness to the huge, backbreaking play with tailback Tiki Barber bursting free for a 55-yard touchdown run. The 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter was more of the same, with Barber racing 50 yards for a score to put the game away.
The New York Giants gouged Washington's once-proud defenders, ensuring that the Redskins enter the offseason with vivid recollections of precisely how far they have plummeted. Barber, playing what he says will be his final regular season game, was a one-man offense, rushing 23 times for a career-best 234 yards and three touchdowns in New York's 34-28 victory at FedEx Field.
Barber first exploded through the defense for a 55-yard gain, with safety Sean Taylor diving and missing a tackle, for a 17-7 lead. The Redskins had come back from a 27-7 deficit and trailed 27-21 midway through the fourth quarter, but then Barber headed right, waited patiently for a hole to form and cut back 50 yards, with safety Troy Vincent missing him. Both plays were emblematic of the season. Associate head coach Gregg Williams's defense slipped from third overall in 2004 to ninth in 2005 to 30th overall entering last night, and surrendered 355 yards to the Giants.
The Redskins gave up 5,688 yards for the season, perilously close to the franchise mark of 5,723 (1996). Given all of their dubious accomplishments -- and the Super Bowl aspirations this team harbored after finishing 10-6 last season and then setting spending records on coaches and players in the offseason -- this defense has been one of the worst in team history.
"For the first two years we played exceptional football on defense, and we've got to find a way to get back to that," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "The explosive plays have been something that have really bothered us. On defense that's where we need to focus our attention for sure."
Of all the unexpected twists for Washington (5-11) this season, the failure of the defense tops the list. This unit was the least opportunistic in NFL history, setting a record with just 12 takeaways, three fewer than ever before in a 16-game season. Two of those turnovers were actually caused by the special teams and the Redskins finished with an unthinkable seven takeaways in the final 12 games.
"I never imagined we would be in the situation we're in," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "I can't even point to when it went wrong. That's the sad part of it."
The lack of big plays from the defense was astonishing and the group regularly gave them up as well. They lead the NFL in most passes of 20 yards or more given up, have allowed the highest passer rating of any team and have just six interceptions all season, setting a franchise record (11 was the previous low). The Redskins also produced just 19 sacks, another franchise low; the previous mark was 25 (2001).
Washington's defense, playing without Marcus Washington and Shawn Springs, suffocated New York in the first quarter, wrapping up Barber, and thumping quarterback Eli Manning. The second quarter went more according to form. The Giants moved the ball at will, Barber dominated whomever crossed his path and New York fortified its playoff position, while the Redskins were left to contemplate a defensive overhaul.
The Giants were 6 for 6 on third-down conversions in the second quarter, despite repeatedly facing long yardage in those situations, and amassed 168 yards in the quarter. Washington led, 7-3, at the start of the quarter and trailed 20-7 by the half.
New York opened the quarter and converted on third and nine from the 29; two plays later Barber, the Giants all-time yardage leader, darted 15 yards for a touchdown."Today we were poor tacklers, myself included," Vincent said. "We had multiple opportunities to make plays in the running game, and we didn't do it."
The Giants converted on third and 8 and third and 7 on the next drive, which began at their 3. Barber tore off 11 yards on the ground to get near midfield, then popped through the line for a 55-yard score.
The quarter triggered flashbacks to the first game between these teams this season, when the Redskins' defense first showed its fissures. New York piled up 411 yards in its 19-3 win in Week 5, the most ever given up by Washington under Williams at the time. Two weeks later, the Colts had 452 -- including 202 in the third quarter -- and last week was the most damning, as the Rams posted 37 points and 579 yards.
Last night, Barber had 12 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns at the half; Barber was the first player to top 100 yards rushing on Washington this season, and last night's outing marked the seventh time in 11 games that a running back has hit that benchmark on the Redskins.
The Redskins entered this game ranked 29th against the pass, and were last in average allowed per pass, sacks per pass play and interceptions per pass play. They did nothing particularly well, and coaches will begin planning for the future today.
"I'm looking forward to rolling our sleeves up and getting this thing fixed," Williams said.