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Washington Redskins' defense gives up yardage in bunches, but gives team a chance to win

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; 1:01 AM

There is no simple formula for determining how well a defense is playing, and there is little doubt statistics can be deceiving. The Washington Redskins know that. They also know this: They have given up more yards than any other team in the NFL, and while there may be ways to twist that fact and explain it and justify it, there's no denying it.

"It bothers me a lot," inside linebacker London Fletcher said. "I'm not used to being on defenses that are ranked last in the league. That doesn't sit very well with me."

With Sunday's game at Chicago approaching, that standing doesn't sit well with anyone associated with Washington's defense. Worse yet, through six games, the Redskins are not just last in the league in yards allowed; they are, at 420 yards per game, on pace to fit in with the most generous defenses in league history.

The record for yards allowed in a season is 6,793 - an average of 424.6 yards a game - by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, a team that went 2-14. The next most is 6,470 yards (404.4 per game) by the 2008 Detroit Lions, a team that went 0-16.

The Redskins? They're already 3-3. But as they approach midseason, they're on pace to allow 6,720 yards - which would make them the second-worst defense, in terms of yardage allowed, of all-time.

"Nobody's happy about it," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "Nobody wants to be last in the league in yardage. But there's a lot of circumstances that play into it. I think people have to understand."

Indeed, this is a complex equation - and there isn't necessarily a direct correlation between yards allowed and wins and losses, the statistic Haslett and Coach Mike Shanahan said they care most about. Two years ago, the Redskins ranked fourth in total defense - and missed the playoffs. Last year, they were 11th - and went 4-12. In fact, in each of the past five seasons, at least two teams in the top 10 in yards allowed missed the playoffs.

"It doesn't tell the whole story," outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said.

So what is the whole story? Clearly, one factor in the Redskins' early struggles has been the quality of their opponents. Indianapolis, Dallas, Philadelphia and Houston rank second, third, fourth and fifth - respectively - in yards per game. Five quarterbacks Washington has faced - Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Matt Schaub and Aaron Rodgers - have combined for 18 Pro Bowl appearances.

"We've been playing against some quarterbacks that [throw] the ball and put up so many yards," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Peyton, at times he can move the ball, and then [we] made them kick field goals. I think we did give the opportunity [for us] - still - to win the game, no matter how many yards they put up."

Given that array of quarterbacks, it would make sense that, statistically, the Redskins' defensive deficiencies show up more in the passing game. They are ranked 31st in passing yards allowed at 298.2 per game. Though Houston has allowed more passing yards, should the Redskins keep this pace and the Texans improve, Washington would set a new NFL record by allowing 4,771 passing yards for the season. The current mark: 4,541 yards, an average of 283.8 per game, by the 1995 Atlanta Falcons.

"To be naive and think that we're going to hold Peyton Manning and that offense to 200 yards? That's not realistic," Fletcher said. "But should they have 469 yards on us? No. That's not something we accept either."

There are other factors as well. The Redskins have played two overtime games - one against Houston, the other against Green Bay - and their opponents have had two extra possessions in each of those games, totaling 98 yards. In regulation, the Redskins have allowed 403.7 yards a game.

Shanahan and Haslett, though, throw out most of those numbers.

"The second thing you look at from an offense and a defensive standpoint [after wins and losses] is points scored," Shanahan said. "And when we talk about short-yardage, we talk about the red zone, we talk about goal-line - all those things, the reason why we talk about it and emphasize it is it all relates to points."

So it is possible for the Redskins to be abysmal, statistically, in yards allowed, yet hold up in the categories Shanahan and Haslett consider more important to winning? They allow opponents to convert just 34.9 percent of their third downs, which puts them ninth in the league. They rank 14th in the percentage of times opponents have scored touchdowns during trips into the red zone. And two weeks ago, when Green Bay threatened to take a 14-0 lead in the first half, the Redskins came up with a game-changing goal-line stand.

Add all that up, and even after giving up yards by the bunch, the Redskins allow 19.8 points per game, better than 13 other teams.

"There's some defenses that will give up a lot of yards," Shanahan said, "and it's a bend-and-don't-break defense."

Some of the struggles in yards allowed also come down to the fact that the Redskins have fundamentally altered their defense from a year ago, changing their base set from a 4-3 to a 3-4. But as Haslett pointed out Thursday, the Redskins all but scrapped the 3-4 the past two weeks against the Packers and Colts, choosing to play more defensive backs against pass-oriented offenses.

"Every week, it's always a transition," said veteran Andre Carter, who's still adjusting from his old spot at defensive end to a new one at outside linebacker.

The Redskins believe all of this will correct itself over the course of the season. The Bears average just 285.2 yards per game and have struggled mightily to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. The next opponent, Detroit, has moved the ball much better, but will be playing its first game in more than a month with starting quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The Redskins know any improvement is ultimately up to them.

"We've got to go out and work at it," Fletcher said. "We can't, week in and week out, give teams 400-plus yards, 500 yards. That's just ridiculous."

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