While constructing the 2016 Washington Redskins’ roster, officials made a calculated decision not to invest heavily in their defensive line. They chose instead to splurge on Josh Norman, hoping that the all-pro cornerback would help mask deficiencies elsewhere.
If Monday night’s season-opening 38-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers serves as any indication of things to come this season, the Redskins could wind up paying the price for their neglect up front.
Norman could be worth every penny of the $75 million that the Redskins gave him after the Carolina Panthers unexpectedly revoked the franchise player tag they originally extended. But without adequate pieces along their defensive line, it won’t matter.
That proved painstakingly clear on Monday night as Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers moved the ball up and down the field at will despite missing three key offensive playmakers. The Redskins generated very little pressure on Roethlisberger, managing just one sack and only three other hits on the quarterback. Only one of those quarterback hits came in the second half.
Roethlisberger completed 27 of 37 passes (73 percent) for 300 yards and three touchdowns, while getting charged with one interception on a pass off wide receiver Eli Rogers’s hands. And with plenty of time to operate, Roethlisberger performed efficiently on third downs and the Steelers converted 9 of 14 attempts for first downs.
Meanwhile, Washington’s defense proved toothless against the run. DeAngelo WIlliams racked up 143 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
“They did a really good job of finding where we are weak and attacked it,” defensive end Chris Baker said. “We would put out a run defense, and they did a good job of passing the ball. They got into a lot of third and ones and fourth and ones and we were expecting a quarterback sneak, and instead they’d pass it. They did a good job of converting and playing situational football. . . . Any time you play defensive line and they’re able to run the ball, it starts with the defensive line. We’ve got to figure out how to get the right people on the field and fill the right gaps, and when it’s time to make plays, we’ve got to make plays.”
The Steelers clicked offensively despite missing starting running back Le’Veon Bell (three-game drug suspension), No. 2 wide receiver Martavis Bryant (season-long drug suspension) and tight end Ladarius Green (on the physically unable to perform list).
Nothing about the defensive line’s minimal impact should have come as a surprise. The unit struggled last season. The proficiency of the line was among the biggest concerns during the offseason, especially following the decisions to cut an aging Jason Hatcher and to pass on the chance to re-sign nose tackle Terrance Knighton. In free agency, Washington made only one major defensive line signing, adding former San Diego Charger Kendall Reyes, but his contributions have been minimal.
The draft came and went without a meaningful addition to the defensive line as well. General Manager Scot McCloughan admittedly expected to take a defensive lineman in the earlier rounds of April’s draft. But the team didn’t draft one until it took Temple defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis in the fifth round. He didn’t survive final roster cuts after an ineffective preseason and landed on the practice squad.
Washington entered the season with a six-man defensive line unit that featured Chris Baker (the only returning starter and impact player, with six sacks last season), Ziggy Hood (who signed a non-guaranteed deal in January), holdover rotational players Ricky Jean Francois and Kedric Golston, Reyes and undrafted rookie Anthony Lanier.
Those players’ base salaries are a combined $7.97 million — a paltry figure, considering five Redskins players own higher salary cap numbers (Norman, at $8 million, ranking among them).
But Redskins coaches and officials still hoped to receive greater contributions from their defensive linemen, routinely expressing faith in their players’ abilities and versatility. However, on Monday night, they routinely fell short in their quests to stop ballcarriers or fluster Roethlisberger.
“They didn’t overpower us and they didn’t out-physical us,” Jean Francois said. “We didn’t counter on the fundamentals of football: getting off blocks, executing. . . . It was little things we were killing ourselves. . . . We’ve got to execute the fundamentals and get the hell off of blocks.”
Without the threat of an interior push, the Steelers were free to concentrate on stopping Washington’s edge rushers.
Ryan Kerrigan managed a sack and forced fumble during one first-half play, and on that play, Hood assisted in pressuring Roethlisberger. But the sixth-year veteran came no closer to the quarterback the rest of the way. Meanwhile, on the right edge, Preston Smith managed a hit on the quarterback but drew double-teams throughout the night and finished without a sack.
The Redskins will return to the drawing board this week, trying to shore up their efforts in the trenches as they prepare for Sunday’s meeting with the Dallas Cowboys and promising rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and his backup, former Redskin Alfred Morris.
But unfortunately for the Redskins, quick or dramatic fixes or roster upgrades appear unlikely. They can simply hope that with time, continuity will help the defensive line improve.
“Each and every week, y’all need to ask about this until we change something,” Jean Francois said. “If we don’t change something, we won’t have to worry about January football. We’ll be sitting here with you guys looking at the same games. Until we get that run game figured out, we’re going to have problems. We need to turn offenses one-dimensional. You want to put the ball on the ground, we’ve got to stop them. You want to put the ball in the air? Your [defensive backs] can only cover for so long. The front has to do the job. . . . The way [Will Compton], Norman and [DeAngelo Hall] can do their jobs, we’ve got to pass rush and we’ve got to stop the ball.”
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