The Washington Redskins have invested heavily in their defensive line in recent years, attempting to turn a weakness into an asset. Three of their four first-round draft picks since 2017 were used to bolster the front seven, and if you ask anyone in the team’s orbit for the strength of the club in 2019, the answer almost certainly would be the defensive line.
“Defensively, we have a chance to be special,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said before the season.
“You get one of these groups, you wake up, high-five yourself, and you’re excited to get to go to work with them,” defensive line coach Jim Tomsula told the team’s website before the regular season began.
“I knew this was a top-five defense going in,” inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan said on a preseason “Redskins Talk” podcast.
“Man, this defense, we could ride it all the way,” safety Landon Collins added.
On paper, that assessment might appear correct. Ryan Kerrigan, Matt Ioannidis and Alabama alums Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne combined for 128 solo tackles (34 for losses), 33½ sacks and five forced fumbles last year. Rookie Montez Sweat, one of this year’s two first-round picks, came on board after recording 44 total pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) on 203 pass rushing snaps in his final season at Mississippi State, earning him the second-best pass-rush productivity rating among Football Bowl Subdivision edge defenders, according to Pro Football Focus.
Unfortunately, this defense appears to be the victim of its own hype, its on-field performance mediocre at best. And that trend continued Sunday.
During the Redskins’ Week 1 loss at Philadelphia, Darren Sproles, Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders combined for 116 rushing yards. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was pressured by Washington a mere 11 times over 41 snaps, the sixth-lowest pressure rate of the opening weekend. And when the Redskins did pressure Wentz, it was unsuccessful: The quarterback completed 9 of 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns when facing a pass rush, taking just one sack.
Wentz also completed 12 of 13 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns on third down, helping Philadelphia convert 11 of 17 third downs in the game. He had the NFL’s highest completion rate on third down in Week 1 (on a minimum of 10 passes), with a perfect passer rating of 158.3 on those plays.
Underwhelming performances such as that one are not unusual for Washington’s defense, despite the hype. In 2017, Washington’s defensive line ranked last against the run, per Football Outsiders, with a 15 percent stuff rate, the share of rushing plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. (The league average that year was 21 percent.) In 2018, the defensive line improved just three spots to No. 29 with a 16 percent stuff rate. Teams also converted 63 percent of third downs on the ground against Washington last year, the third-worst rate allowed in the NFL.
Pro Football Focus numbers tell an equally grim story, ranking Washington’s run defense No. 22 in 2017 and last in 2018. And the team’s highest-rated run stoppers last season mostly came from the linebacking corps, not the defensive line. Linebackers Zach Brown, Preston Smith (both departed) and Ryan Anderson were the highest-rated run stoppers on the team, per Pro Football Focus, followed by Payne, Kerrigan (another linebacker), Allen and then defensive backs Greg Stroman (released Tuesday) and Deshazor Everett.
It wasn’t until a rusher got into the open field (10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage) that Washington’s run-stopping numbers improved to better than league average. Even in that category, the team only ranked 11th in the NFL.
The Redskins’ run defense, even with Allen and Payne, saved just 2.4 more points per 100 snaps than expected after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each carry last year, placing them 25th among NFL teams, per data from TruMedia. The numbers were poor even before the injury to quarterback Alex Smith crippled the offense; Washington’s defense saved 2.1 points per 100 snaps (24th) during the first 10 weeks of the season. A league-average run defense, by comparison, saved 3.9 points per 100 snaps.
The impact of Allen, who suffered a knee sprain against the Eagles on Sunday, has also been less significant than it may seem. According to data from Sports Info Solutions, Washington had a higher pressure rate and stuff rate when Allen was on the sideline last season. That difference was more pronounced against the Dallas Cowboys, too, Washington’s opponent in Week 2.
Despite the improved results without Allen, the drop-off from him to backup Tim Settle should be significant (backup Caleb Brantley suffered an ankle injury against the Eagles). Allen was the 36th-best interior lineman of 2018, per Pro Football Focus, while Settle was 172nd of 233 players at the position — and that will almost certainly be a concern for Washington against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Dallas also boasts a better running back in Ezekiel Elliott than the Eagles do with their three-headed committee; Elliott employs a running style well-suited to exploiting Washington’s defensive weakness.
In 2018, more than a third of Elliott’s rushes (106 of 304) were straight up the middle, while 76 others were to the left or right of the center. His success rate on those rushes (determined by down, distance and field position of each carry) was better than average, and better still if you isolate his two games against Washington (49 percent vs. 58 percent). Half of Philadelphia’s rushing yards last week were gained either up the middle or to the left or right of center.
The more Dallas outscores its opponent, the more the Cowboys run the ball. Since 2007, Coach Jason Garrett’s first year on staff (then as the offensive coordinator), the Cowboys have run the ball more than half the time when leading by four or more points. That drops to 32 percent when Dallas trails by four or more.
Vegas oddsmakers have the Cowboys as 4½-point favorites Sunday, implying Dallas has a 54 percent chance of winning despite being on the road. If there was a time when the Redskins’ defensive line needs to live up to its hype, it is Sunday at FedEx Field.
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