By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009
Long gone is the sentiment that the Washington Redskins' defense would need to bail out the team's anemic offense if Washington was to win many games. In each of the past three weeks, quarterback Jason Campbell and the offense built fourth-quarter leads, only to watch on the sideline as the defense took the field and relinquished them.
Statistically, the defensive unit is still one of the league's best, but late in games it has given up big plays and long drives that have cost the Redskins potential wins against playoff-caliber teams.
As the defense prepares for Sunday's game at the Oakland Raiders, players and coaches are determined to curb the trend but can't point their finger at a solution.
"There's no secret to it," defensive end Andre Carter said. "It's all about 11 guys being mentally strong and in sync."
The explanations range from effort and execution to scheme and strategy, and players and coaches say they expect fourth-quarter improvement in each of those areas this weekend. Secondary coach Jerry Gray said the team has recently gotten away from "playing Redskin football."
"And that's swarming, taking the ball away, doing the things that we know and wanting to be out there in the fourth quarter," he said. "I think that's the position you want to be in. The thing we have to do is think about getting a sack or interception in the fourth quarter. And that creates turnovers, that creates different change in plays. And we haven't been able to do that.
"Until we do that, every team is going to want to play us in the fourth quarter," he added.
That's likely true for any future opponents who've studied film of the past three games, losses against Dallas, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Through their first nine games of the year, the Redskins were outscored only 42-41 in the game's final quarter. In blowing leads the past three weeks, the Redskins have been outscored 27-6 in the fourth quarter. In doing so, they've allowed five scoring drives of 60-plus yards.
The defensive struggles aren't limited to the final quarter. In the team's first seven games, Washington allowed an average of 17.6 points and 283 yards per game. In the past five, opponents have amassed 23 points and 352 yards of offense per outing.
A pass defense that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL through 11 games plummeted to fifth after Saints quarterback Drew Brees's performance last Sunday. Brees's 419 passing yards were the most by a quarterback against the Redskins since the Cardinals' Boomer Esiason in 1996. The game provided a low point for the defense, as the Redskins allowed 463 yards of offense, including 282 after the first half.
This is a defensive unit that finished the 2008 season as the league's fourth best and was expected to be even better. After adding All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and drafting Brian Orakpo, the team heads to Oakland with the league's ninth-ranked defense.
"We've been working our butts off," Carter said. "You always see guys holding up a four-quarters sign, but for us, that last push, that last bit of will to go out there and fight -- and we are fighting -- but we just need a little bit more."
Coaches will apparently do their part, tinkering a bit with formations to cut down on big plays. In the past two games, the Redskins have allowed five pass plays of 35 yards or longer.
Against the Saints, free safety LaRon Landry was twice beaten on double moves, which led to touchdown passes of 40 and 53 yards. The team might tinker with its cover-2 zone defense to spread out the responsibility going forward, which could be especially important this week with the Raiders' speedy receivers.
"We're doing some different stuff, different looks, which we do every week," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "But some of our big plays have been on some coverages where we should have guys deep. It's our fault. It's what we messed up. He's going to make some changes. I can't go into specifics of what we're doing, but some changes will be made. Some different coverage we're going to play this week against those guys."
Though the team was quick to bench Rogers last month when he was beaten for a pair of touchdowns on double moves, Gray defended Landry and said his starting job is not in jeopardy. Gray said Landry, the team's first-round draft pick in 2007, is still learning the free safety position, which he took over shortly after Sean Taylor's death in November 2007.
"He's going through a learning process," Gray said. "The guy was an all-American strong safety, great player, really aggressive. Now you're playing free [safety], which is more cunning. You've got to be really thinking in that position. And that's the thing he has to do. He has to learn to be more passive, rather than aggressive, at free safety."
While Gray stresses individual responsibility, the unit's struggles are a collective problem, one that's certainly not aided by injuries to some key participants. Haynesworth and cornerback DeAngelo Hall will both likely miss their third game of the season this week.
As the Redskins' offense continues to make strides -- last Sunday's loss marked the first time the team scored 30 points under Coach Jim Zorn -- the defense has regressed, at least statistically. In October, the Redskins held four straight opponents to fewer than 275 yards. Each of the past five foes, though, has gained at least 300.
Carter says many teams develop a "killer instinct" early in the season and know how to deliver a knockout punch later. The Redskins, though, suffered disappointing losses at Detroit, at Carolina and against Kansas City in the first 1 1/2 months of the season. When they reached the pivotal points in later games, there was little to call on.
"Don't get me wrong, it's there," said Carter, who leads the team with nine sacks this season. "We have it, we've seen it. But it's about the level of consistency. When you do it constantly, the repetition sets in, you get used to the feeling, you know you can do it again. We're still figuring it out."