The Washington Redskins may have a defense now. Like, not just some unit that occupies space and collects grief when the offense isn’t on the field. We’re talking about a real defense with brawn and moxie and a frightening disposition. If it hadn’t been nearly a decade since they could claim such a thing, we’d make the declaration with more pizazz.
For now, let’s temper the enthusiasm a little. It has only been three games, but that’s kind of the point: It has been three games. It’s not enough to make comparisons to the 1985 Chicago Bears, but this represents just shy of 20 percent of the season. Something is happening here and, for a change, it’s good.
Rarely has the team put together three straight defensive performances this credible under Jay Gruden. Heck, rarely did Washington exhibit such consistency for previous coaches Mike Shanahan and Jim Zorn. Overall, the team is off to an encouraging 2-1 start despite an unpredictable nature that manages to be wildly effective. But the defense has been a constant. And the players aren’t performing above their heads just to achieve that. Watch them, and you see both stunning displays of strength and athleticism as well as room for improvement.
Washington entered Week 3 leading the NFL in total defense. Then it limited Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay to 340 yards in a 31-17 victory Sunday at FedEx Field. It held up against the incomparable Rodgers, who is still dangerous despite limping with a knee injury. Steady rainfall helped Sunday, as Green Bay receivers dropped passes and the Packers played sloppy football on the wet turf. But under any conditions, as Redskins linebacker Mason Foster noted, Rodgers presents the ultimate test.
“Anytime you play against him, you’re going to see how your defense stacks up — mentally, physically, anything,” Foster said. “He’s got everything in his book.”
Washington is allowing 278.0 yards per game through three contests. It has given up just 44 points — or 14.7 per game. Those likely would be league-leading numbers if sustained through the entire season. But even in a small sample size, the stats are impressive. What matters more, however, is that the team has something to believe in, finally, after years of struggling to find the right talent and having to work around major issues.
“I think we’re very improved,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “Anytime you can hold the Green Bay Packers’ offense to 17 points, that’s a pretty good day. For the majority of the game, we played some really damn good football. We’ve just got to keep building on that.”
As Washington rests during its bye week, it should find confidence in the defensive progress it has made. For much of Gruden’s tenure, Washington has been an offense-centric team desperately seeking balance. Greg Manusky is Gruden’s third defensive coordinator in five years, emphasizing the unit’s instability and ineffectiveness. But this has a chance to be a breakthrough season. The fruits of rebuilding are evident on this side of the ball, where 10 of the 11 starters have been on the roster for multiple seasons and seven are players the team drafted or acquired as undrafted free agents.
It has taken a long time — too long — but now there is momentum. Cornerback Josh Norman lets out a huge sigh when he thinks about the process.
“The process has been . . . like, wow, okay . . . all right . . . okay . . . (sigh) . . . all right . . . okay, finally, let’s go,” Norman said. “You know, it’s been that kind of thing — up, down, up, down. Good days and bad days. We find our niche, and then we come back down. We find it again, and it’s just a seesaw. Right now, we’re on the verge of being something great. You see the young tackles that we have. You see how effective they were. If those guys are going, anything can be run through them because of how destructive they are.”
Norman continues to be giddy about the virtues of the team’s young defensive line, led by a pair of first-round picks from Alabama, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. On Sunday, the D-line sacked Rodgers four times — Allen twice, Payne and Matt Ioannidis once. In terms of pass rush, it was the most disruptive it has been. The linemen’s performance is why Norman explains the defense’s success this way: “We just service ourselves off of what they do.”
You can’t measure their impact solely by sacks, however. There are subtle advantages to trusting the talent up front. In Sunday’s game plan, Manusky decided to play “light in the box,” meaning he didn’t use defenders from the secondary to help the defense stop the run. It’s common to load the box by bringing a safety forward to assist in the running game. But most of the time, Washington went with six- or seven-man fronts and kept its safeties deep because it respects Rodgers’s passing ability so much.
The strategy allowed the Packers to hit a few more good runs. They finished with 100 yards on just 17 carries. But Rodgers struggled to pass the ball downfield. Geronimo Allison caught a 64-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter, but that was the Packers’ only pass play of more than 20 yards. Rodgers threw for 265 yards, but it took him 44 attempts to do so, a mediocre average of 6.02 yards per pass. The D-line pressured him into making quick throws, and while Washington on this soggy day didn’t tackle as well as it has, it still held Green Bay in check. And when Rodgers was more ambitious and held the ball longer, he was thrown to the ground.
When you look at the raw stats, you think Washington did great against the pass but struggled to stop the run. So far this season, teams have had more success on the ground than many predicted. But you have to put it all in context: By playing lighter in the box, Washington is challenging the opposing offense to try to push around its defensive linemen and linebackers to take advantage. And for the most part, the front seven is holding up so well that Washington doesn’t have to bring a safety forward. It helps the team allow fewer explosive plays in the passing game. The trade-off is a few more rushing yards, but not enough for it to matter.
“We change it every game, but the way that Aaron Rodgers plays, you can’t play a loaded box,” Foster said. “He’s going to dice you up. He sees coverages with different formations. When he motions, he’s trying to get different people to see what defense you’re in, and you can’t show him. So you have to play with two deep safeties for most of the game, and that’s going to put you in a light box. Shout out to the D-line, because they played a heck of a game, man. They were out there rushing, stopping the run, and it was all of us together. We took the challenge head-on and made it happen.”
Said Norman: “Teams don’t want those little quick passes. They want the big plays. When you don’t give it to them, and you get those guys up front hunting like they did, you come back here, and you can see outputs like this. And that’s what we’ve been working to get since we’ve been here. We’ve been working to get that continuity within that system. Once we have that, then, hey, everything is love.”
In the complex world of football, this is a small gesture of faith. But for a defense that once struggled to do anything right, it’s a huge step.
“It builds confidence,” said Norman, who had a fumble recovery Sunday. “It truly does. It can take us far. It really can.”
A defensive-minded Gruden team? It’s possible. We don’t want to make too much of three games, but let’s not render it insignificant, either. The capricious Redskins could have a defense that sustains them.