The Washington Redskins' defense has been on the field for 181 plays and nearly 85 minutes over the past three games without forcing a turnover. Despite the aggressiveness and attacking nature of defensive coach Gregg Williams's unit, the ultimate payoff -- fumbles and interceptions -- has come infrequently.
When analyzing the defense's performance last season, when it ranked third in the league, Williams pointed to the lack of turnovers as its biggest failing and its best opportunity to help an offense that ranked 30th. Although the defense has been excellent in the team's 3-1 start this season, it has not provided enough game-turning plays.
"It's been kind of strange, really," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "A lot of missed opportunities. We're getting our hands on the ball, and we've just got to come up with it and just make it happen. It's not something that's going to happen unless we make it happen. It's an attitude, and we've got to continue working at it, and sooner or later it's going to open up like a floodgate."
That sentiment was expressed last season as well, but never quite played out. The Redskins produced 26 turnovers last season (22nd out of 32 teams) and have nine fumble recoveries dating from the start of the 2004 season, second fewest. Washington has produced two turnovers this season (one fumble and one interception), second fewest in the NFL, and its minus-5 turnover differential is 25th in the NFL.
The problem is compounded by a lack of sacks, which often result in fumbles. The Redskins have one sack in the past three games and only four this season, tied for the league low. The NFL average is 10.4 sacks per team this season and Indianapolis already has 20.
Washington has caused seven fumbles this season, but recovered only one. On several occasions it appeared that an opposing player had fumbled, but the officials ruled differently. It has not been uncommon for multiple defensive backs to buzz around an errant pass as well, with the ball falling harmlessly to the ground.
"We've had balls on the ground," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "The quarterback threw about three of them we should have got our hands and should have picked off. It's just one of those things where we haven't been able to get them. I don't think it's anything [opposing teams] are doing, it's just that we haven't been able to come up with turnovers."
Of course, part of it might simply be bad luck.
"Bad luck, that's what it seems like to me, man," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "We play hard and work on it and get them in practice all the time; it's just not happening in the games."
"Turnovers are something that kind of come with being comfortable with what you're doing and comfortable in the fact that you know what their offense is doing, and then you can make a play," said injured lineman Brandon Noble, who is assisting the coaching staff. "Somebody's got to go out there and get one, and then it can build and you have a big day."
Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington has made a career out of such plays, but the staff's lack of comfort with him in the team's defensive system led to his benching. Arrington has said that he is confident in his ability to still be a difference maker, but the chore will fall to others in the interim.
Arrington also terrorized passers in his heyday -- including an 11-sack season in 2002, well above the single-season best of anyone else on the defense -- but that was in a different scheme. Given Williams's full-throttle style, opponents are taking precautions to prevent sacks.
The unheralded defensive line must provide more pressure, while teams are resorting to a three-step drop and quick slant patterns to protect the quarterback. Passers have also been rolling out more frequently, making it harder to get to them, and altering their protection schemes as well.
"They know we're a blitzing team," Wynn said, "and they're not going to just stand back there and let us hit them. Against Denver we expected to get a lot of pass rush and thought they would only five-man protect. Well, they changed their scheme on us and max protected and kept the tight ends in on both sides. They know what kind of team we are."