October 3, 2008

First Quarter Review: Defense

While much of the credit for a 3-1 start goes to the Redskins' offense, the defense is certainly carrying its weight as well. They are ranked 14th in the NFL giving up 20.2 points a game, but the average numbers don't tell the whole story.

In the Dallas game, the Skins only gave up 10 1st half point and prevented the offense from getting into any rhythm. TO only had two catches in the first half, and the secondary played a physical man coverage which Dallas struggled beating out.

In the second half when Dallas made the necessary adjustments to spring TO, the Skins retaliated with a huge interception by Chris Horton. That was really what allowed the Skins to take a two score lead.

This opportunistic play isn't confined to this one game, however. The New Orleans game was very similar. The Saints, like Dallas, have a great offense capable of scoring in bunches. The Skins played a bend-but-don't-break defense for most of the game, but when New Orleans made a mistake, the defense was there to take advantage.

Horton recovered a fumble caused by Rocky McIntosh and caught two tipped balls for picks. The second interception sealed the game and allowed the Skins offense to run out the clock.

In the next week against Arizona there was much of the same. Kurt Warner caught fire late in the game after being stymied for much of the game. He threw a deep TD pass to Larry Fitzgerald and then went right back to the air on the Cardinals' ensuing possession. This time the ball was tipped in the air and intercepted by Carlos Rogers. Another big play by the defense when they were on the ropes.

This isn't the most dominating unit we've seen, but it stays strong for long stretches. The offense stays on the field for such long periods of time that it really keeps the defense fresh and when the defense has stumbled, someone step up and makes a play.

Sure, the defense needs tightening up. The offense won't be dominant in every game and so the defense will have to really put on better performances. There's room for improvement and with time I think we'll see it.

Firstly, the defense has been going up against great offenses all season, but now they will a reprieve over the next month. The offenses playing the Skins after Philadelphia will be St Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. These teams are not powerhouses and actually can be downright awful. This is a great remedy for a team looking to get over the hump. The turnovers and sacks are coming slowly, but they might pour in over the next month.

As for individual performances, the most disappointing would have to be Jason Taylor. He hasn't been healthy or productive. He has one sack and his absence really means that the defensive line is reduced to stopping the run. You can't get sacks on a QB with just Andre Carter and Demetric Evans.

The line has been able to generate some pressure, but the sacks are few and far between. Taylor needs to come back at full strength if the line wants become anything special. However, it's wise that no one is pushing to come back quickly. He will be needed healthy down the stretch.

As for the run defense, the Skins are ranked 11th, giving up 92.2 yards per game. Cornelius Griffin continues to play at a high level despite his age while a rotating front has kept the line fresh. The Giants and Cardinals both ran with much success against the Skins which leaves some concern.

We really haven't seen a team just pound the ball against the Skins with the exception of the Giants so the line might be tested more in the future if opposing offenses see this as a weakness, but for now the line appears to be much improved against the run since week one.

London Fletcher is a constant plug and phenomenal leader in the middle. He ranks second in the league with 36 tackles and is a steady presence who will always keep the defense at home.

The outside backers are a mixed bag. The good is that Rocky McIntosh has really developed into a reliable LB. He doesn't wreak havoc, but he has a forced fumble and half a sack. He also has 26 tackles and his performance is always solid with no glaring mistakes. As for the bad, Troy Aikman commented in the Dallas game that Marcus Washington is looking old and a step slow. I agree with this. Washington is definitely struggling with injuries and can't cover like he used to. HB Blades is the future in the middle, but he played well in Washington's place in week two. Look for him to get more time if Washington's struggles increase.

Jim Zorn and Greg Blache have shown no favoritism thus far. They have been playing the best players. Jon Jansen was benched and Todd Wade was cut; Reed Doughty was also shown benched for the vastly superior Horton.

Speaking of Horton, the read he made on Romo's out route this past week was beautiful. The man makes plays, wraps up ballcarriers, and can cover unlike Doughty. He has athleticism, strength, and speed which enable him to play either on or off the line with ease. Strong safety was a question mark until he came along. Not anymore.

LaRon Landry has yet to really take off and yet he hasn't been beaten in coverage. You want to see him lower the boom or make a great interception and don't worry it will happen. He is a freak athlete who will make his mark. Unfortunately, he is stuck in the shadow of Sean Taylor who made a highlight reel play just about once a game. Landry is good, but no Taylor.

The corners are battling those nagging injuries and that is the thing that worries me the most. Shawn Springs is the life of the defense. At 33, he can still cover most receivers with little help, but his shin and calf injuries have forced him to miss time already. Fred Smoot has been playing physically and he seems to fit well at nickel corner. Carlos Rogers has also been steady in coverage.

The secondary has room for improvement and it would only get better if the defensive line started sacking QBs. I know they are ranked 23rd in pass defense, but they really have made the most of opposing QBs mistakes. In addition, they have played against Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, and Drew Brees. They have done a great job against these guys and the good news is that they won't be playing them every week. I expect them to really turn it on against Jon Kitna, Marc Bulger, etc.

Overall, I think given the matchups the Skins have played great defense and will be even better when they get to the easier parts of the schedule. Greg Blache has a disciplined unit that responds well to challenge and their confidence will soar once more results come.

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