When the game was in the balance, when the fans who filed into FedEx Field wearing burgundy hadn’t yet been shamed out of their own building, the Washington Redskins needed a stop from their defense. This is the defense around which this roster has been built. This is the defense that regularly makes statements that resemble this, from cornerback Josh Norman late Sunday afternoon: “We’re much better than what we’re doing right now.”

Are they?

How they’re doing right now is lousy, and for every time you hear a player or coach say, “It’s early,” think about how the defense responded when handed a 7-0 lead in the second quarter of the home opener against Dallas. The Cowboys’ remaining six drives of the game went something like this: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, ballgame.

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Not a single stop, from the middle of the second quarter until the clock ticked to zero on a 31-21 loss that left Washington 0-2. The offense, with a journeyman keeping the seat warm for a rookie at quarterback and unproven players at so many skill positions, has been an acceptable version of itself. The defense? The group’s preseason self-assessments and in-season results are a Lamborghini and a jalopy. They have nothing in common.

“Really, we should be better than this,” Coach Jay Gruden said.

Here’s the scary part: What if they’re not? What if the Washington unit that allowed the Cowboys a staggering 474 yards — including 213 on the ground — is exactly what we have seen the first two weeks in divisional losses to Philadelphia and Dallas? This, right now, is a bend-and-then-break squad, with its defense shattered all over the kitchen floor in tiny little pieces. Don’t walk through here barefoot. You’ll get cut.

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“I’m a little bit surprised,” said Norman, the big-money cover guy who was seen most prominently Sunday trying and failing to prevent the 51-yard bomb to Devin Smith that pulled the Cowboys even. “I’d lie to you if I say I wasn’t. It’s shocking, I think not just for myself but everybody else.”

There’s so many ways to peel back this onion, but start with this one: When the Cowboys took over the ball with 4½ minutes remaining in the first half of what was then a tie game, quarterback Dak Prescott missed receiver Michael Gallup on second down. That was — get this — the last incompletion Prescott threw for the remainder of the game. Prescott hit on his last 18 passes. Couple that through-the-air accuracy with 23 carries for 111 yards from back Ezekiel Elliott — whose preseason holdout now seems as ancient as Tony Dorsett — and this is a difficult offense to stop.

(An aside: If Washington is going to be looking for a new coach at the end of this season, which is a real possibility, owner Daniel Snyder and team president Bruce Allen might have done well to introduce themselves to Kellen Moore before he boarded the Cowboys’ team bus. The 30-year-old first-year offensive coordinator fits the mold of the modern NFL head coach, and the variety of plays he called Sunday — enabled by some excellent personnel, of course — was occasionally brilliant.)

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Still, good pitching is supposed to beat good hitting. And Washington looks as if it needs more arms.

In the interest of fairness, it’s worth pointing out that not only was top defensive tackle Jonathan Allen out with a leg injury, but cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau were also inactive. That pressed into action all manner of rookies and pieces off the street.

But 474 yards?

“The defensive line and linebackers,” Gruden said, “we can’t give up 200 yards rushing to anybody — anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”

And on a sunny September Sunday in beautiful Landover, that’s just what they did. The reason the Cowboys scored on those five straight possessions to embolden their own fans at FedEx: They found a way to stay on the field, converting 7 of 11 third downs.

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“We’ve got to get off the field on third downs,” Redskins defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “We got to learn how to put a whole game together.”

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It’s the kind of lament we hear so frequently from this crew as the results appear worse and worse. Want another layer off this onion? Through two games, Washington has allowed 910 yards. In the past 35 years, according to pro-football-reference.com, exactly one Washington team has opened a season by allowing more yards in its first two games. That team: the 2013 squad that was Mike Shanahan’s last here, a season that ended in a 3-13 death spiral.

Can this defense prevent that kind of result over the remaining 14 games? In discussing that possibility, Gruden and others made sure to say there were “no excuses” before listing the injured players as excuses.

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“It’s not like we’re the most experienced group,” Gruden said. “We feel like we’re very talented, yes. But experienced, we’re still fighting through some things. A very young defense, so there’s a lot to look forward to, without a doubt. But we do have to play better.”

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Maybe — maybe — there’s the talent here to do it. The defense does have a first-round pick from each of the past three drafts in Allen, fellow tackle Daron Payne and rookie end Montez Sweat. It imported safety Landon Collins from the Giants this offseason. Norman believes he is elite, even as results show otherwise. Ageless Ryan Kerrigan had the only sack of Prescott on Sunday.

But what evidence is there that those pieces actually make a good unit?

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“We can say we have a great defense,” rookie cornerback Jimmy Moreland said, speaking a dose of the truth. “But we have to go out there and play like that.”

This is Gruden’s sixth season here. His previous five defenses have ranked, in points allowed, 29th, 17th, 19th, 28th and 15th. In yards allowed, the ranks were 20th, 28th, 28th, 27th and 17th. The best unit — last year’s — barely cracked the top half of the league in either category. That’s not just injuries. It’s not just facing good offenses. It’s mediocre-to-terrible defenses year after year after year.

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So could it be coaching? Coordinator Greg Manusky is in his third season at the helm. Gruden, an offensive coach by trade, said he is spending a significant amount of time game-planning with him during the week.

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“We have a very talented group on defense, and we’re not reaching them,” Gruden said. “We have to play better, and we will play better.”

If not, then hope Snyder and Allen got Moore’s number — or have any sort of plan for what’s going to happen beyond this season.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.

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