The pattern has become familiar for the Washington Redskins’ defense in recent weeks. In its last two games, the unit has been disappointing in the first half, but greatly improved after halftime.
As a result, the team’s defense, which has struggled for much of the season and has been the target of heavy criticism, has begun to do its share of the heavy lifting as the Redskins have revived their season with a four-game winning streak.
Players on the defense say they take pride in the group’s contributions to the turnaround that has put the Redskins in the thick of the NFC playoff chase.
“A lot of guys are making big plays,” defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. “And unsung guys, quote-unquote backup guys, just a lot of guys that weren’t expected to contribute to this team, have come in and made big plays. So whenever you’re helping your team win, that’s a good thing. You can play great defense and still lose, 3-0. I’d rather win 31-28 in overtime than worry about my own personal defensive goals.”
The Redskins will take a 7-6 record into Sunday’s game at Cleveland. They’re a game out of the lead in the NFC East and one game behind the front-runners in the NFC wild-card race. With the possibility that rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III will be hampered or sidelined Sunday by a sprained ligament in his right knee, the defense might have to take a more central role against the Browns.
For a good part of this season, the notion that the Redskins could follow their defense to a win was farfetched. They have been at or near the bottom of the league rankings in pass defense. They’re currently 31st among the 32 NFL teams against the pass and 28th in total defense, based on yards allowed.
But after surrendering three first-half touchdown passes by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco last Sunday at FedEx Field, the Redskins limited the Ravens to seven points after halftime. They pressured Flacco into a pair of second-half turnovers, one when linebacker Rob Jackson stripped the ball on a sack and recovered the fumble himself and another when Ryan Kerrigan hit Flacco to lead to an interception by fellow linebacker London Fletcher.
The defense also forced a punt after the Ravens won the coin flip to get the opening possession in overtime. The Redskins won, 31-28, on place kicker Kai Forbath’s overtime field goal. That came six days after the Redskins permitted only three second-half points to beat the New York Giants, 17-16, in a Monday night game.
The Giants had 273 yards of total offense in the first half against the Redskins, then managed only 117 second-half yards. The Ravens had 141 yards in the second half and overtime after getting 218 first-half yards.
“Obviously we know what teams came out and did in the first half,” defensive end Jarvis Jenkins said. “I think we’ve just got to eliminate the mistakes we make in the first half. The second half, we get a good grip on what to expect. The first half of this last game, we didn’t really stop the run. . . . I’ve been preaching this for the last three weeks: If we can play two halves together, we can be a special defense. But it starts with focus.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said the Redskins’ second-half improvement against the Ravens stemmed from a combination of strategic changes and better execution of fundamentals.
“After that first drive, we started correcting some things that we messed up,” Haslett said. “From a game-plan standpoint, we changed some things at halftime. But from a technique standpoint, we were correcting, trying to get better [throughout the game]. You’re always doing that on the sideline.”
Cofield also said the defense’s second-half play during the past two games resulted in part from halftime adjustments and in part from other factors.
“Definitely there were some halftime adjustments, definitely a lot of bad language being thrown around, definitely some disappointment,” Cofield said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. We definitely have big expectations going in. We didn’t meet them. Guys were disappointed. Personal accountability is probably the biggest thing that has to change at halftime. A lot of times, you get different looks in the first half than you were expecting. That’s the mark of a professional group and the mark of good coaching, to be able to adjust.”
It has been an uphill climb for the defense all season. The team’s two projected starters at safety, Tanard Jackson and Brandon Meriweather, have barely seen the field. Jackson was suspended for the entire season for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Meriweather played only one game because of a series of knee injuries. Two other starters, defensive end Adam Carriker and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, suffered season-ending injuries early in the season.
But now, the patched-together defense is at least contributing.
“I’ve definitely been on some defenses that were statistically better, really talented defenses, but we’d come out and get punched in the mouth early and we never responded,” Cofield said. “The ability to be able to weather that storm and bounce back in the second half is very important. And with the offense we’ve got, the talent we’ve got, the quick-strike ability we have, we feel like if we can stay in the game, create a turnover late, we’re never out of it. And it’s been true.”
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