Still, he refused to concede a year that had started with so much promise. He talked about Washington being 6-6 with “a lot to play for,” not "0-12 and playing for whatever.” He talked about still trying to win the NFC East, and he hoped that quarterback Colt McCoy’s broken right leg might possibly heal before the season’s last game.
“We aren’t out of anything right now,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Then he turned serious. Given the state of the team, he added, given that the Redskins' quarterback the final four weeks of the regular season will likely be Mark Sanchez — who hadn’t played for almost two years before Monday night — the only way Washington will make the playoffs is if its defense suddenly comes to life.
“We just got to play better,” Gruden said about the defense. “We got to play more physical. We got to be more sound. We got to tackle better. We got to do everything better on defense. We got to step up our game to heights we never have before.
“It just has to be done to get where we want to get,” he continued. “Great defenses can overcome a lot of deficiencies within our football team, and that’s what we have got to expect from our defense.”
This could be a problem, because for several weeks the Redskins defense has done anything but step up to heights never before seen.
A defense that gave up more than 350 yards just once in the first seven games has allowed over 400 in four of its past five. One of those was a whopping 501 at Tampa Bay. More alarming is the way opponents have been able to run the ball in those past five games — rushing for more than 100 yards each time, something that happened just twice in the first seven weeks.
No one seems able to explain the decline. The nerve injury that has almost completely shut down cornerback Quinton Dunbar has been a problem, but young corners Greg Stroman and Fabian Moreau have played well enough. If anything, the defense should have gotten better with the trade deadline acquisition of Green Bay safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Instead, coverages have gotten softer, pass rushes weaker, and more holes for running backs have opened in the front.
Teams, starting with Indianapolis in Week 2, have discovered the Redskins are vulnerable to pick plays, and more and more offenses have run them against Washington. For a time, players and coaches have said they were fixing the lapses against picks, but lately more and more players have grumbled that the flaw has not been corrected.
The Redskins also have missed lots of tackles in recent weeks. Sometimes this is because they try to knock the ball from opposing players’ hands and sometimes because they just aren’t doing enough to wrap their arms around ballcarriers and bring them down.
Gruden said he believes Washington’s defensive players are good enough for the team to go on a winning streak and get back to the playoffs.
“It might not be pretty, we might not throw for 500 yards and lead the league in offense or what have you,” he said. “We might throw for 100 and rush for 100 and win the game, 7-3. Who knows?”
Tuesday was spent dissecting Monday’s loss at Philadelphia as well as devising a plan for this Sunday’s game against the New York Giants. Sanchez had been given 20 percent of the team’s playbook before the game against the Eagles — just enough for him to be able to function in case of an emergency. The emergency happened to come true.
This week, he and his assistants will look at what Sanchez does best and match it to the things the Giants defense does worst and somehow build a game plan from those two things. Whatever they give Sanchez won’t be complicated, Gruden said. The biggest thing they will ask of him is to not turn the ball over, let them move a little on offense, let punter Tress Way pin New York in its own territory and hope the defense can come to life in a season that is quickly losing oxygen.
“I know we have enough talent in here where we can do some damage and compete with anyone on our schedule,” Gruden said. “It’s my job to get them ready, and it’s their job to go out and perform at the very highest level that they can possibly perform.”
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