By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 9:40 PM
ARLINGTON, TEX. - With less than four minutes remaining in the second quarter Sunday, Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall was covering Dallas tight end Jason Witten near the 10 yard line. A pass floated toward both men, and Hall made a decision: Go for the ball, at the risk of giving up a score.
"I got my hand on it," Hall said later. "But a guy like that, you got to get two hands on it."
Hall did not, and as he went for the interception, Witten took the ball and strolled in for a touchdown, leaving Hall on the ground behind him.
"This game's about inches," Hall said, "and he got that one inch on me."
For the Redskins defense, though, 2010 has been about yards, not inches. Lots and lots of yards. Sunday's 33-30 loss to the Cowboys will be remembered because heretofore backup quarterback Rex Grossman nearly led an unlikely comeback by throwing four touchdown passes. But the Redskins lost the game because, once again, they couldn't stop their opponent. The tally Sunday: 434 yards, a number that in another year would seem inexcusably large, but in 2010 fits right in. That is only the fourth-worst total of a season that has officially slipped away.
"It's definitely embarrassing," outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "It hurts, especially when you come from being a top-five defense and now you're 32nd in the league. It's just embarrassing as far as how many yards we give up."
The theme for Sunday's game, which the Redskins trailed at one point 27-7, was little different than it has been all year. Washington decided this year to switch from a 4-3 base alignment to a 3-4 because Coach Mike Shanahan believes, long-term, that it's a more dynamic scheme.
"I still believe," outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "I still believe."
But with only two games remaining, the performances have been staggeringly uneven, and the numbers are historically bad. The Redskins are now allowing 397.6 yards per game - not only the worst average in the league this year, but the 11th-worst of all-time. With two games remaining, the 2010 Redskins are threatening to overtake the 1954 team - which gave up 399.4 yards a game - as the worst in franchise history.
"The yards are gonna play a part in some way, shape or form," inside linebacker London Fletcher said. "But at the end of the day, you want to win football games. We've been ranked top-five defense, top-10 defense three out of the last four years. But we haven't won enough ballgames. So all that doesn't matter. You just need to win football games."
At 5-9, the Redskins haven't done that, either. And after beginning the year by being opportunistic - forcing 19 turnovers in the first eight games - they are no longer making plays, either. Sunday was the third time in the second half of the season in which they failed to force even a single turnover. They have just five in the past six games.
Sunday, though, the defense played a role in keeping the Redskins in the game. Because of poor coverage by Washington's kickoff and punt teams, the Cowboys' first four drives started at their own 46, the Redskins' 30, the Redskins' 27 and the Redskins' 35.
"We didn't cover well at all," said Alexander, a key member of the coverage teams. . . . That definitely put us in a hard spot and kind of put us chasing from very early."
But the results of those possessions weren't nearly as bad as they could have been. The Redskins held Dallas to a field goal, then Fletcher and fellow linebacker Rocky McIntosh stuffed running back Tashard Choice on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to squelch the Cowboys' next drive. After Hall allowed a three-yard touchdown pass from Jon Kitna to Miles Austin, Washington stiffened again, forcing another field goal. And the Cowboys' only touchdown of the second half came after Grossman fumbled, giving Dallas the ball at the Redskins' 15.
Add to the list of explanations Sunday the players who were out with injuries (strong safety LaRon Landry) or left with injuries during the game (Orakpo, safety Reed Doughty, McIntosh). Some players said they are still adjusting, and the proper personnel isn't in place.
"The reality is, as of right now, you got a lot of ex-[defensive] linemen, D-ends, D-tackles playing out of position," Hall said. "Some are playing linebacker, some are playing end. And it's definitely a little different for them."
Shanahan, clearly, is not going to change back to the 4-3. And he said Sunday it's hard to evaluate the performance of this year's defense, choosing to separate the games into two categories.
"There's seven games this year that we've averaged giving up 131/2 points a game," Shanahan said. "That's pretty good. Then there's seven other games, including today, that we've given up 35 points a game. That's not very good."
The sum total - whether measured by yards or points or wins - isn't very good, either.
"It's a work in progress," Alexander said. "We're not going to lay down. We're going to continue to fight, continue to work through it, because we got to play it next year."
Next year, there will be no way to say they're adjusting to the scheme. Next year, there could be much different personnel executing it. And next year, the results have to be different.