The Redskins hope the return of Brian Orakpo bolsters a defense that ranked 30th in the NFL against the pass last season (Associated Press)

The Washington Redskins went into last season with great expectations for their defense, believing the unit might have to do the heavy lifting while the offense broke in a rookie quarterback and tailback.

Instead, quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris were headliners on one of the league’s most productive offenses and led the way to an NFC East title. The defense gathered itself late to contribute to the Redskins’ run to the division crown. But it was an extremely bumpy ride at times, as the Redskins defense struggled with injuries and finished the season ranked 30th in the NFL against the pass and 28th overall.

Now, with linebacker Brian Orakpo back on the field for offseason practices and safety Brandon Meriweather aiming for a training-camp return, the Redskins are convinced they can have one of the league’s better defenses this season.

“That’s our goal, our expectation,” defensive tackle Barry Cofield said after Thursday’s practice at Redskins Park. “We’ll be disappointed if we fall short of that. With the talent we have, the scheme that we have, if we’re able to stay healthy—obviously that’s a big if—we feel like we should be a top-10 defense. Anything outside of that, we’ll be disappointed. We’ll be letting our team down. We feel like we’ve got the best offense in the league.”

Orakpo expressed similar sentiments, saying: “If we work extremely hard like we’ve been doing and everybody plays together, no busted assignments, guys getting after it, being relentless, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t be a top-10, if not top-five, defense. So we’ve got to keep working extremely hard out here each and every day, giving full 100 percent effort to get to that goal.”

Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker were placed on the season-ending injured reserve list after only two games last season. Meriweather played only one game because of a series of knee injuries. The Redskins hope their returns make a major difference.

The Redskins are eager to have Orakpo and fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan back as a pass-rushing tandem. Cofield said that Orakpo’s return “makes everybody’s life easier” but could be particularly beneficial to Kerrigan.

“It’s going to be a great help, just taking some attention off him,” Cofield said. “[It’s] someone for him to chase. That competitive, friendly competition exists. Everyone wants to lead the team in sacks and be in the backfield celebrating, enjoying the spotlight. So they’ll feed off each other. They’ll make each other’s life easier and in turn the whole defense will operate better.”

The Redskins made some offseason moves to try to upgrade their secondary. But a bolstered pass rush potentially could be the best remedy.

“It goes hand in hand,” Orakpo said Thursday. “Everybody complains about the secondary and this and that. But, I mean, the front and the back end go hand in hand. If we can’t get at the quarterback, obviously the secondary is going to struggle. If the secondary can’t cover, obviously it’s going to be a hard time getting at the quarterback if they’re just dinking and dunking all day. Like I said, it goes back to everybody being on the same page, playing together, knowing their assignment and us as a front getting after it and them on the back end covering and doing the best they can.”

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