First-round draft pick Ryan Kerrigan will line up opposite Brian Orakpo at the outside linebacker position. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Despite their struggles in the win column over the last decade, the Washington Redskins usually could count on their defense for a solid showing. The unit generally ranked among the upper half of the league’s leaders. But that all changed last year, when Mike Shanahan came aboard and hired Jim Haslett to install the 3-4 defense.

Shanahan looked at the Steelers and Packers and wanted the same unpredictable, havoc-wreaking defense in Washington. And Haslett — who played linebacker in Buffalo’s 3-4 in the 1970s and ’80s, and ran a 3-4 as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator from 1997 to ’99 — was perfect for the job.

But growing pains were unavoidable. With many players adapting to unfamiliar roles, they were learning on the fly for much of the season. The Redskins’ defense plunged from 10th in the league in total defense in 2009 to 31st in 2010.

The Redskins aren’t expecting a repeat in 2011. A year after stumbling through the season without a dominant (or willing) nose tackle, without a skilled pass rusher to complement second-year outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, without great depth up front or health at the safety position, circumstances already have significantly improved, Redskins players and coaches say.

During free agency, the team signed defensive tackle Barry Cofield away from the Giants. Unlike his predecessor, Albert Haynesworth, the sixth-year pro is eager to anchor the 3-4 front, even though it means drawing double-teams and fewer sack opportunities.

The Redskins also added another defensive end in Stephen Bowen, drafted outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan to line up opposite Orakpo, and added free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe and cornerback Josh Wilson to upgrade the secondary. (The Redskins also drafted defensive end Jarvis Jenkins in the second round, but the Clemson product tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Aug. 25 against Baltimore and is lost for the season).

No doubt, the new pieces will help fortify Washington’s defensive attack, but so will experience. With a year in the system under their belts, the players feel more comfortable. They find themselves thinking less and reacting more, because they more clearly understand their roles and the defense as a whole.

“We’ve got guys that understand what’s required of them,” said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who led the team with six interceptions last season and reached the Pro Bowl. “They understand what we want them to do and don’t have any problem making those sacrifices. There’s no one guy that feels like, ‘Oh, I need to go get sacks,’ or ‘I need to get interceptions.’ ”

In each of their first three preseason games, the Redskins’ first-team defense played a half of football. They limited opponents to an average of 123 yards of offense, 7.3 first downs and seven points per outing. The performances came against watered-down attacks and sometimes with incomplete starting lineups. But execution has been crisper.

“It’s a lot smoother from all aspects,” Haslett said. “I feel a lot more comfortable calling it because [last year] you hadn’t called it in 10 years. And the guys playing it, obviously we’re in the second year and you can tell they feel more comfortable. You can see how Brian [Orakpo] reacts. There’s not a lot of thinking going on. It’s kinda funny seeing Ryan [Kerrigan] and Rak, and how Ryan is where Rak was this time last year.”

According to inside linebacker London Fletcher: “Second year in a system, guys are more comfortable, and they did a great job of adding guys as great pieces to the puzzle, whether it was drafting Ryan Kerrigan, or bringing in Barry, bringing in Bowen and those types of guys.”

Fletcher said the Redskins “have the making to be one of the elite defenses in the league just by getting out there each day, each practice, working on it and then carrying it over into games.”

The Redskins’ top priorities are improving their consistency and producing more turnovers. The team held opponents to 17 or fewer points in nine games last season, but on other weeks gave up big plays that led to lopsided defeats.

“We’ve just got to be more consistent. Execute every week,” said Orakpo, who hopes to improve upon his 8.5 sacks of a year ago. “We obviously had ups and had some downs, but we have to be more consistent. We don’t need to be giving up any big plays like we did last year.”

The key to limiting those big plays and clock-eating drives is turnovers, Haslett preaches.

The Redskins last season forced 27 turnovers (14 interceptions and 13 fumbles); the New England Patriots led the league with 38. A year later, with improved personnel and knowledge of the system, Haslett believes Washington’s numbers in those categories will rise.

“We keep stressing it because that’s our No. 1 goal — keeping people off the scoreboard and getting the ball,” Haslett said. “If you can do that, you’ll be a much better football team. One thing that’s never changed over the years is the team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game.”

10 th

in the league
in total defense
in 2009.

31 st

in the league
in total defense
in 2010.