The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How concerning is Redskins’ recent defensive play? ‘Very, very. Very, very, very.’

Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper beat the Redskins defense for eight catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper beat the Redskins defense for eight catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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ARLINGTON, Tex. — They were the follies of a defense just learning the game, not of a unit expected to protect a team’s playoff aspirations.

Cornerback Quinton Dunbar tripped covering an inside route, and it resulted in a 40-yard touchdown. Cornerback Fabian Moreau tried to strip the ball instead of tackling the receiver, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix took a bad route trying to clean up the play, and it resulted in a 90-yard touchdown. The entire defense lunged, fell on its face and watched quarterback Dak Prescott do a flip into the end zone.

This was the Washington Redskins, at their absolute worst, on three consecutive defensive possessions in the second half. They looked pitiful. You could say the effort was uncharacteristic of them, but here’s the problem with brushing it off: This performance was the culmination of a four-game regression for the defense, which is supposed to be the team’s strength. But it seems that the more you put on that group, the worse it responds.

During a 31-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Washington tried to follow its usual formula with backup quarterback Colt McCoy taking the helm. It tried to play a simple, ugly game. With 9:02 remaining on the third quarter, it had junked up the game enough to take a 13-10 lead on a McCoy touchdown pass to Trey Quinn. But then the defense, which had been in bend-don’t-break mode, fell apart.

Redskins lose to Cowboys, 31-23, creating a tie atop the NFC East standings

And now Washington isn’t playing from ahead anymore. With a 6-5 record, it is tied with Dallas atop the NFC East. The Cowboys have won three in a row. The Redskins have lost two in a row and three of their past four. Unless the defense returns to its midseason form, when it could stop the run and outmuscle most foes, the skid will get worse.

“Frustrating as hell, man,” safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. said. “We lost two weeks in a row because of the defense. Ain’t no damn offense, man. Defense! We lost the game. We lost the game two weeks in a row on defense. Defense! If you want to be a championship defense, you’ve got to hold that weight on your back. That’s the weight you’ve got to hold if you want to be a championship defense. If you want to be a regular defense, it don’t mean much to you, but until you have that championship mentality as a defense, s--- is going to happen like that week in and week out when you play good teams.”

The Redskins are not even a regular defense right now. They have lost their edge. For most of the season, Washington has ranked in the NFL’s top five in run defense. But here is the rushing yardage it has allowed the past four games: 154, 103, 139 and 146. The Cowboys averaged 4.3 yards per carry while accumulating their 146 yards. In a game at FedEx Field earlier this season, Washington allowed only 33 yards on 15 carries to Dallas star Ezekiel Elliott. On Thursday, before an announced crowd of 92,076 at AT&T Stadium, Elliott finished with 121 yards on 26 carries and scored the first touchdown of the afternoon, rumbling 16 yards into the end zone untouched.

“We haven’t been stopping the run, and that’s the formula for failure,” Swearinger said.

It would be concerning enough if that were the only area of struggle. But this defense isn’t doing much right anymore. The tackling has been atrocious. The secondary is struggling in coverage. The defense is allowing too many big plays, which is a recurring issue. Amari Cooper, the trade-deadline acquisition the Cowboys made to resuscitate their offense, caught eight passes for 180 yards and scored the aforementioned 40- and 90-yard touchdowns. He’s fast and an exquisite route runner, but he shouldn’t have embarrassed Washington in the manner that he did. His big plays were proof of how bad this defense has become.

This is how much the defense failed Washington: McCoy threw three interceptions, Adrian Peterson ran for just 35 yards, and the defense was still the eyesore. Certainly, the offense was hard to watch. But it has been hard to watch all season, and it wasn’t going to get better with a backup replacing the injured Alex Smith and making his first start since 2014. With Smith out for the rest of the season with a broken leg, the defense has to take the lead. It didn’t Thursday. You have to wonder whether it simply can’t handle such an assignment.

Colt McCoy, in first start since 2014, looks ‘a little rusty’ as Redskins fall in Dallas

Showing early-season improvement is one thing. Dominating when it matters is another. Over the past four games, the defense is allowing 429 yards per game. Dallas gained 404 on Thursday. In the first seven games, Washington gave up just 322 yards per game. Lay it out, and it’s easy to see why a 5-2 team has slipped to 6-5.

There are some talent issues. An overall lack of speed is hurting the defense now that teams aren’t as willing to go right at the Washington defensive line and get pummeled. This is a defense that pays for nearly all of its mistakes because it doesn’t have many speed demons flying around and covering flaws. But there are also fundamental problems, such as tackling and taking the proper angles.

It’s the little things that bother you the most. At this point in the season, plays such as Cooper’s 90-yarder can’t happen. They just can’t. And it’s sickening to watch three straight drives in which Cooper scored from 40 yards out and then 90 and then Prescott, who also threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns, turned into Houdini on a touchdown run that should have been a sack or, at worst, a stop.

This from a defense that wants to be respected? That preaches after every victory that things are different? That wants to lead a team to the postseason?

Asked how disappointed he was in the defensive performance, Coach Jay Gruden said: “Very, very. Very, very, very.”

While the coach was busy searching for another “very,” Swearinger — the vocal and emotional leader of the defense — was fuming.

“You don’t do the simple things right, you’re going to get embarrassed on national TV, and that’s why we don’t get respect as Redskins: We don’t do the simple s--- right,” Swearinger said. “I see why we don’t get the respect; we don’t win the big games. We’ve got to win the big games. The only way you win the big game is you prepare for the big game, and that’s every day. And that’s got to be in your heart.”

Do they have the heart to turn this around? That’s a very, very good question. A very, very, very good one.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.

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