Questions regarding the Washington Redskins run defense tend to elicit a similar response from those within the organization. Eyes typically lower a bit, and sighs escape from mouths pulled tight. The look is a combination of frustration, exasperation and acceptance.
The topic is not a popular one at Redskins Park after the run defense ranked dead last in the NFL and allowed 134.1 yards per game last season.
Injuries were a major factor, as Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, Mason Foster, Will Compton and others missed significant amounts of time. But defensive line coach Jim Tomsula isn’t a fan of excuses.
“The easy answer is to go out and talk about injuries and who you don’t have and all that kind of stuff,” Tomsula said. “The bottom line is we need to be able to do it with the people we do have.”
Tomsula expects growth from simply having guys back for another year in the system, including Allen, Ioannidis, Ziggy Hood — who will be back at his natural end position — and Anthony Lanier. Then there’s the addition of first-round pick Daron Payne, a defensive tackle out of Alabama, and fifth-rounder Tim Settle. But proper technique, communication and playing within the scheme are what is required by whoever is on the field.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Foster said. “We have a certain type of defense where we need those guys up front to be monsters. You need linebackers to make plays. And stuff happens, big runs busting or whatever it may be, but definitely that’s been the focus this year.
“Coaches are harping on little things and getting stuff right. I think we’re headed in the right direction. But the biggest thing is keeping guys healthy, staying on the field, keeping our guys ready and fresh to go. We’ve definitely made that a big point this season with all the stuff we’re doing in the weight room and the training room.”
Foster specified playing with eye discipline, trusting the teammates in front of him and playing off those big defensive linemen.
Zach Brown, who led the team last season with 127 tackles, pointed to communication and being detailed with movements after the ball is snapped.
“One step can put you in a bad position and create a gap,” Brown explained. “So, for us, we’ve got to make sure everybody, as a whole, reads their keys and step right. Because you step wrong in this defense and the running back is [able] to go for 70, 80 [yards].
“You’ve got to over-communicate. Let the person know behind you, look, this is what I might do if this play happens. . . . That’s the big thing. If you over-communicate, everybody gets it. . . . As long as everybody’s on the same page, it shouldn’t be a problem with the defense. It doesn’t matter [what coverage we’re in].”
The Redskins want to run an aggressive defense with those linebackers chasing down the ball. But if anyone gets overly aggressive, it can open gaps and holes for runners to cut back to. Much of the attention in improving the run game has been on getting Payne, the top run stopper in the draft, and Allen on the field. Coach Jay Gruden, however, is quick to point out it takes all 11 men on defense to address the issue. Like Brown said, when one or two people get out of position, the scheme breaks down.
“You have got to be in your right gap. . . . So it’s up to the defensive line to stay in their gap, the linebackers will play off of them and obviously the safeties have to be a part of it,” Gruden said. “And sometimes when the safeties get blocked by the receivers, then the corners have got to come and crack-replace. So it’s a total team thing on defense.
“Everybody has got to run to the ball, and every once in a while somebody’s going to get a hit, but we have to limit the damage and the guys have got to wrap-tackle and make good, sound tackles and limit the damage and live to fight another day.”
Gruden also cited the return from injury of several players as critical heading into next season.
“I think getting the guys healthy, getting Zach Brown back out here and Mason Foster with him . . . I think we have got a great chance for that front seven to be very, very good,” Gruden said.