By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
The Washington Redskins' fourth-ranked defense will not play into January no matter what happens this weekend against the San Francisco 49ers.
The defense doesn't have a single Pro Bowl pick, but allows fewer yards per game than the top two seeds in the playoffs, Tennessee and the New York Giants. Deficiencies in sacks and turnovers had defensive coordinator Greg Blache defending his players vigorously as the season unraveled, yet their opinion of themselves is unwavering.
"I think," linebacker Marcus Washington said, "the sky could be the limit for this defense."
That is the central question. As the Redskins begin to think past the season finale against the 49ers and into next season -- thoughts, they insist, they won't truly contemplate until Monday -- they must consider what exactly are the limits of their defense.
No other defense ranked in the NFL's top 11 in yards allowed enters the final week of the regular season without at least faint hopes of advancing to the playoffs. As strong as the Redskins' defense has been -- and the unit was at its best in Sunday's 10-3 victory over Philadelphia -- it lacks something the players and coaches can't pin down.
"I don't know what it is, man," said cornerback Fred Smoot, who combined with safety LaRon Landry on the hit that kept Philadelphia wide receiver Reggie Brown out of the end zone on the final play. "We've got the players. We make the plays. But for some reason, it's been one thing or another, one play that happens that we don't stop."
Players and coaches who vouch for the unit point out that arguably its best performance came when the Redskins finally had their complete lineup on the field against the Eagles, when they had little hope of making the playoffs.
Washington's defense, hampered by ankle injuries much of the year, was active and back to its normal, enthusiastic self. Tackles Kedric Golston (bone spurs in his ankles) and Cornelius Griffin (abdominal strain) were effective. Cornerback Shawn Springs, who has battled a chronic calf-muscle strain much of the year, started and helped in coverage, and rookie safety Chris Horton came back from a shoulder injury.
That combination of healthy starters not only held the Eagles to their lowest scoring output of the season -- Philadelphia came into the game averaging 26.3 points per game -- but also helped the Redskins' depth, as backups such as linebacker H.B. Blades were effective in reserve roles.
After holding an opponent without a touchdown for the first time all year, the Redskins rank fourth in points allowed (17.9 per game). Those kinds of bullet points make the current members of the unit wonder what might be if everyone comes back and is healthy in 2009, a near impossibility in the churning world of the NFL.
"I think we definitely could be a force to reckon with," Washington said. "We got a lot of talent over there. I think we really showed that we could play together [Sunday], being that we had everybody healthy. I think we got a good group. . . . We got some veterans in some good positions, and we got some younger guys that's coming on strong."
There is a flip side, though Blache is loath to speak of it.
"I'm not going to apologize for who we are," Blache said earlier this month.
Blache has said repeatedly, even as his unit ranked among the league's elite, that statistics don't define football teams. The Redskins' statistical deficiencies, though, are inescapable, and whether they are due to scheme or personnel problems, they will certainly factor in the team's self-evaluation during the looming offseason.
Consider the two areas in which a defense truly can change a game: sacks and turnovers. There is no better example of the importance of such plays than Sunday's win over Philadelphia, in which the Redskins scored their only touchdown after defensive end Jason Taylor forced quarterback Donovan McNabb to fumble a ball that was scooped up by linebacker London Fletcher.
Yet with only one remaining game, the Redskins have but 17 takeaways. Denver, which has 13, is the only NFL team with fewer. (San Francisco and Jacksonville also have 17.) The Redskins have 23 sacks, including two by Taylor against Philadelphia, his first multi-sack performance of the season. Yet only three teams have fewer sacks, and the Redskins rank 28th in the 32-team league in sacks per pass play.
Taylor, acquired in a trade with Miami on the first day of training camp, is one reason. The veteran, who has 120 1/2 sacks in his career, has just 3 1/2 with Washington, and only one in the season's first 13 games. Andre Carter, the opposite end, had 10 1/2 sacks in 2007 and has never had fewer than 4 1/2 in a season in which he has been healthy. Yet this year Carter has just three. Washington's entire linebacking corps and secondary have combined for five sacks.
"I'm tired of talking about what we're not," Blache said.
Thus, the defensive coordinator has tried to instill, over the past few weeks, a feeling of supremacy in his players, reminding them though he generally dismisses statistics, the fact the Redskins rank fourth in the league is no accident.
"The reason why we're number four, which is definitely a blessing, is because we play hard collectively as a group," Carter said. "We're number four with a purpose and a reason. The thing about this defense is that each week, and Greg Blache also pointed it out, you don't know which player's going to shine."
Which players will come back is another matter. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall, signed midway through the season, will be a free agent at season's end. The Redskins also have decisions to make about players such as Washington, Springs and Taylor. Cornerback Carlos Rogers went from the primary cover man to a backup in the final two weeks. And though Fletcher has had a Pro Bowl-caliber year, linebacker Rocky McIntosh has battled iffy knees, and no other linebacker has an interception or a sack.
Still, when the Redskins think about their defensive unit, they think about such developments as the game against the Eagles, when they didn't allow a touchdown, when Smoot and Landry crushed Brown at the goal line on the final play.
"Overall, those are the kinds of things that we've seen from our defense all year long," Coach Jim Zorn said. "Pretty impressive."