Three late-game turnovers proved key to the Washington Redskins’ 31-20 victory over Cleveland on Sunday at FedEx Field. They made for thrilling theater, too, with Quinton Dunbar, Will Compton, Ziggy Hood and Josh Norman each starring in momentum-shifting plays that roused a home crowd fast losing patience after the Redskins squandered a 14-point first-quarter lead.
But in the feel-good aftermath of a victory that lifted the slow-starting Redskins to 2-2, Norman’s interception and the two recovered fumbles obscure the glaring shortcoming that got the team in the predicament in the first place against the Browns: poor tackling.
And unless defensive coordinator Joe Barry finds a way to shore up this fundamental skill quickly, the Redskins will be trailing, if not losing, many of their 12 remaining games in a regular season schedule that’s back-loaded with tough opponents.
“I’m very excited about the win and the big plays, but we have a lot of work to do,” said Compton, who described the defense’s play in stretches as “horrible” after Cleveland’s third-year running back, Isaiah Crowell, repeatedly flicked off would-be tacklers as if gnats. In other cases, Crowell streaked freely through yawning gaps in coverage en route to a 112-yard, one-touchdown day, averaging a staggering 7.5 yards per carry.
“You can’t just be happy about the win and try to neglect what the hell happened out there,” added Compton, the Redskins’ defensive co-captain who led all players with 11 tackles.
The Redskins’ run defense was a liability last season, surrendering 122.6 yards per game. That ranked 26th in the NFL.
So far this season, it is worse. Through four games, the Redskins are giving up 133.0 rushing yards per game, which ranks 30th.
Not surprisingly, the defense’s performance on third down is abysmal, allowing conversions 57 percent of the time — worst in the NFL by a good margin.
Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said Monday that he counted 11 missed tackles upon reviewing the game, far too many.
“Our tackling was poor,” said Gruden, who was also disturbed by the defense’s performance on third downs (Cleveland converted 8 of 12, or 67 percent) and in red-zone defense.
“We’ve had some plays that we should make, quite frankly, and for whatever reason we’re missing tackles. That’s something we have to fix, something we have to clean up. You’re responsible for a gap and you’re sitting right there, and the guy makes you miss — it’s going to be a long run.”
In the locker room after Sunday’s victory, every man from the Redskins’ front seven to the revolving cast in the defensive backfield knew he should have done better against the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Crowell, whom Cleveland signed as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama State.
“That dude is a baller; a tough tackle. He’s going to be a hell of a player in this league,” Compton said. “But we helped him out on some occasions.”
Compton wasn’t alone in feeling that way.
Veteran Will Blackmon, who got his first start at free safety in place of DeAngelo Hall, who underwent surgery Monday on his torn anterior cruciate ligament, called Crowell one of the top five backs in the league.
“I think he is elite. He earned every yard today,” said Blackmon, 31, who has faced dozens of backs in his 10-year NFL career. “But we can help ourselves by just wrapping up [tackles.]”
Blackmon faulted himself for not finishing tackles.
“A lot of times I didn’t run my feet — meaning, when I hit a guy, I’ve still got to run my feet,” Blackmon explained. “I would just dive instead. Therefore, I have no power in my legs, which makes it easy on the running back.
“I think we’re doing a lot of diving and not so much running our feet. If we just work on that, it would help.”
Just four weeks ago, in his final news conference before the Sept. 12 season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Barry was asked what made him believe the Redskins’ run defense would be better in 2016 than it was in 2015.
Without hesitation, Barry said: “It’s always going to start with tackling. That’s always the number one thing.”
Barry acknowledged that missed tackles were “a glaring issue” in 2015, particularly in the season’s early going. He went on to explain that he pored over film to identify the root of the problem and found that in 90 percent of carries that gained 15 yards or more (what he calls “explosion plays”), a missed tackle was involved.
“Very rarely is it a gaping hole,” he added.
So he made tackling a priority in all three phases of the Redskins’ offseason workouts — spring minicamps, training camp and the preseason.
“We really put a heavy emphasis on tackling better,” Barry explained. “When you look at the elite defenses, they’re great tacklers. You don’t see a lot of missed tackles. And when you see an average or below-average defense, poor tackling is at the root of it.”
Clearly, the tackling remains poor.
But in the Redskins’ locker room, the defense isn’t pointing fingers at Barry — at least publicly.
“That’s on the player, not the coach,” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. “The coaches can go till they’re blue in the face. When it’s time to get on the field, that coach ain’t going to be out there to help you. We didn’t tackle. You can’t make an arm tackle on a guy that’s coming downhill and [weighs] 235 pounds. That ain’t never going to work! Not in the NFL, it won’t.”
Players also aren’t pointing fingers at Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan, who did little to address the run-defense deficiency in the recent NFL draft despite a draft class that was loaded with defensive linemen projected as difference-makers in the pros.
Instead, McCloughan spent the Redskins’ first-round pick on Texas Christian wide receiver Josh Doctson, sticking with his philosophy of taking the best player available even though quarterback Kirk Cousins already had a glut of receiving targets at his disposal. McCloughan’s second-round pick, versatile Southern Cal defender Su’a Cravens, who can line up at safety as well as linebacker, appears to be a playmaker with promise.
But up front, where runs are best snuffed out before they gain steam, McCloughan made no appreciable upgrade of the roster.
Still, Redskins players believe they can tackle better with the bodies they have. It’s a matter of finishing plays, helping one another and working in concert.
“We practice tackling every day with different drills — left shoulder, right shoulder, knifing,” defensive end Chris Baker said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of executing. We’ve got to keep working on it and not depend on one person to make open-field tackles. You can’t put all the onus on one person to make a tackle. We’ve got to get three or four people to the ball.”
In the view of Jean Francois, coaches can’t harp enough on the need to wrap up tackles and swarm to the ball. The defense didn’t do much of either against Cleveland but bailed itself out with the flurry of second-half turnovers.
But that’s not a sustainable formula for success.
“If we don’t have plus-three on turnovers, it’s going to be hard as hell [to win], because we ain’t stopping the run,” Jean Francois said.