ATLANTA — DeAngelo Hall, out. Chris Culliver, scratched. It would be a gift from the Football Gods at this point if the Redskins’ defense had just one starter missing from the lineup, considering how depleted it has been through five games.
Through the many hours on the training table, and many moments bowing their heads, the Redskins didn’t see any miraculous recoveries this week. It played without two defensive starters against a potent Atlanta Falcons offense. The outcome, a 25-19 overtime defeat Sunday at the Georgia Dome, wasn’t a joyous one for Washington.
However, it appears that the defense has established a solid foundation of defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s principles in a short amount of time.
Regardless of who suits up, the Redskins have remained competitive through the early part of the season because of their new philosophy on defense, even when the other phases of the team have struggled.
It allowed just 19 points to a Falcons offense that averaged 34.3 per contest, which ranked third in the league entering the game. Quarterback Matt Ryan was limited to 254 passing yards, completing 24 of his 42 attempts, even as the Redskins played without their top two cornerbacks. It applied constant pressure with a line that often hurried Ryan’s decision-making in the pocket, resulting in three sacks and a forced fumble.
It’s not the aggressive defense the Redskins saw under former defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who blitzed often. The Redskins’ attack on opposing offenses has relied on pressure from a deep, veteran-led defensive line while dropping as many defenders into coverage as possible. While incomplete in its current stage, Barry has established this relentless defensive identity on his players.
“This is the type of scheme Joe B wanted and preached that to us every single day in training camp, and he got just that,” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. “It didn’t take long for people to listen to the philosophy. This is how he wants to run it. That means he ain’t trying to sugarcoat it. He ain’t bs-ing us. We already know what we’ve got to do.”
That understanding has trickled throughout the defense, from linebacker Ryan Kerrigan on down to rookie Kyshoen Jarrett, a sixth-round safety who has been the primary nickel cornerback during the past two games. Jarrett finished with three tackles and a pass defended on star wide receiver Julio Jones, who finished with five catches for 67 yards on 10 targets. Nine-year veteran Will Blackmon, who was signed last month, filled in at outside corner and finished with six tackles, a pass defended and a forced fumble.
The thin Washington secondary matched the level of play of its defensive line. The Redskins recorded their first two interceptions this season with cornerback Bashaud Breeland and safety Trenton Robinson hauling in of Ryan’s passes.
“They weren’t out there trying to be greedy or do crazy stuff, and the plays came,” Robinson said. “Guys made plays. It doesn’t matter what corners are out there. We have a really good defensive backs coach [Perry Fewell] that tells us what he wants. We always come in with a good game plan. We know what the other team is going to do. It doesn’t matter who is out there at corner. This is the NFL. If you’re in this league, you’re going to step up. And they stepped up.”
This defense is far from a finished product, and that was the case in Atlanta. The Falcons went 9 of 18 in third- and fourth-down situations. Washington allowed 418 total yards and struggled to stop the run. Devonta Freeman became the first running back this season to surpass 100 yards against Washington. He rushed for 153 yards on 27 carries, scoring a key touchdown that gave the Falcons a three-point lead with 24 seconds left. Washington’s defense relinquished the lead on the 10-play drive that covered 80 yards in 2 minutes 14 seconds.
“They ran the ball extremely well with Freeman there, kind of wore us down a little bit,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said. “And they got the big drive at the end of the game. There were some good things that our defense did, and some things we can correct.”
But it was a game many didn’t think the Redskins would have a shot in when factoring in the opponent, an undefeated Falcons team, and the key defensive injuries. The Redskins were a few plays short of capturing their third win this season. They’re all openly admitting that they won’t take away any moral victories from this game, but it was hard for some to ignore how the defense stepped up again in the face of adversity.
“There’s no situation where we’re going to get nervous,” defensive end Chris Baker said. “No matter how much time is left on the clock, we’re confident that whatever the goal is, we should be able to accomplish it.”