The Washington Post Sunday
Trouble on both sides of ball
Alex Smith’s catastrophic leg injury accelerated Redskins’ decline on defense, but players and coaches argue there’s more to the story
Alex Smith’s injury created issues for Redskins on defense, too.
When Alex Smith was rolled off FedEx Field on a cart that Sunday four weeks ago, who knew how much his broken leg would decimate not just the Redskins' offense, but their defense, too? Their coach, Jay Gruden, is sure of this. So are some of their offensive players.
Washington had followed a safe and predictable formula to first place in the NFC East. As the Redskins’ quarterback, Smith slowly maneuvered the offense downfield by mixing quick throws with handoffs to Adrian Peterson. Time drained from the clock. Some of his drives lasted more than five minutes. And even if Washington didn’t score, the offense allowed the defense to rest.
In the games after Smith’s exit, the Redskins have lost that gentle balance of a methodical, controlling offense that built early leads and churned through time, letting a fresh, physical defense hold on to win. The defense has looked weary — missing tackles, giving up more and more big plays.
“We’ve been playing behind a lot, which wears down a defense — they’ve been on the field a lot — and the entire playbook has been open for the other team,” Gruden said. “When we were ahead, when we were successful, teams were throwing more and we had our pass rush going and had a lot of sacks and pressure, a lot more success. [Now] teams are lining up in two tight ends, three tight ends and then spreading you out.”
Because those other teams no longer have to throw the ball to get back in games, they can mix runs with short passes the way Smith did in September and October, forcing Washington’s defense to stay on the field longer.
“As an offense, we have been having them on the field a whole lot, and any defense — I don’t care who you are, if it’s Chicago’s defense out on the field for 40 minutes, they’re going to get tired,” running back Chris Thompson said.
In the weeks since Smith’s injury, the Redskins’ defense has collapsed, allowing an average of 414 yards over the past three games compared with 337 yards before he broke his leg. The team’s average time of possession was 30 minutes per game in the first 10 games of the year; it’s now down to 28.
A unit in decline
While the loss of Smith on Nov. 18 was a devastating blow for Washington’s defense, the unit had been faltering even before his injury. The previous week, Washington allowed 501 yards at Tampa Bay, only winning the game by virtue of four Buccaneers turnovers and two missed field goals. But the big defensive plays have not come in the past few weeks. The defense forced 21 turnovers in the first 10 games but only two in the past three.
Still, bigger issues than the offense’s struggles are to blame for the defense’s collapse. Around the Redskins, no one seems to have a clear answer as to why a defense that carried the team through the season’s early weeks has turned into a weakness.
Throughout the fall, players and coaches have talked about communication problems that have led to opposing receivers winding up wide open. A few players have hinted at midseason changes in the way the defense is structured, something linebacker Zach Brown grumbled about when he said last week: “They changed stuff. If it’s not broke don’t fix it.” Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was supposed to combine with D.J. Swearinger Sr. to give the Redskins one of the NFL’s best safety tandems when he was picked up in a late-October trade, has not played well. The start of the defense’s decline almost matches his arrival.
Mostly when asked, though, Washington’s players and coaches offer some version of the phrase “can’t put a finger on it” and promise that the mistakes will have to be “cleaned up.”
Privately, coaches say they have not lost faith in the defense. They still believe in the defensive front of Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis. They continue to rave about outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith and say that cornerback Josh Norman has played well after struggling early in the year.
Still, the Redskins have not tackled well in recent weeks.
“It seems like a team that’s just rolling over and not paying attention to detail and not necessarily not giving 100 percent effort,” Louis Riddick, a former Redskins executive and ESPN analyst, said when asked about the defense. “But the intensity and the consistency with which they play the game with, the ferocity that they need and that they were doing early in the season, that’s just not there.”
“I will say that the game, obviously, a big part of it is mental; a big part of it is staying motivated and having hope and remaining dialed in,” Riddick added. “And once you see your franchise quarterback go down like that like Alex did, it can be just deflating for your frame of mind and your attention to detail.”
Searching for answers
An offseason emphasis on toughness and stopping the run carried into the season’s first two months. Through the first seven games of the year, Washington only gave up 100 rushing yards twice (104 to Indianapolis and 100 to Green Bay). The Redskins have allowed at least that amount every week since. After holding New York Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley and Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott to under 40 yards each the first time the Redskins faced them, both had big games the second time they faced Washington. Barkley had 170 yards in Sunday’s 40-16 Giants rout of the Redskins.
“I think we got to keep on practicing, keep on preaching the tackling, the angles to the ball and swarming to the ball,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “I think those things eventually we have to make sure we take hold of in these next three weeks that we’re playing, because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Cornerback Josh Norman and the rest of the defense have regressed in the past few weeks.
Swarming to the ball was a big part of Manusky’s plan earlier in the year. It was something the Redskins did well in the season’s first weeks, when they surrounded running backs with two and three tacklers. It’s hard to know exactly why that isn’t happening now. Supporting Gruden’s theory that the offense’s limitations have forced the defense to stay on the field longer, the first 100-yard game by an opposing back against the Redskins (Elliott’s 121 on Thanksgiving) came in the first game after Alex Smith’s injury.
The coaches also have put more pressure on Allen and Payne by relying on their youth and strength, playing them on almost every down. Both have taken more than 75 percent of the defense’s snaps. And while Stacy McGee has come off injured reserve to offer a bit of a break, veteran Ziggy Hood — praised for his quiet leadership — rarely played and was let go when McGee was activated.
Gruden and Manusky say Allen and Payne (and even Ioannidis, who has battled injuries in recent weeks) have not worn down. And yet the defense seems strained by a lack of depth — especially in the secondary, where the Redskins seem to miss cornerback Kendall Fuller, who was sent to Kansas City in the offseason trade for Smith. His replacement, Quinton Dunbar, played well until a nerve injury forced him to miss several games before he finally landed on injured reserve.
The loss of Fuller, combined with the failed free agent signing of Orlando Scandrick, cut in training camp, left the Redskins without enough experienced cornerbacks to cover for Dunbar. Fabian Moreau had to move from nickel to the outside, forcing promising rookies such as Greg Stroman to play nickel, a position that has a variety of coverage challenges.
“It’s a lot to ask a guy who just got here,” Gruden said.
Three games to turn it around
Not long after Smith was injured, when the Redskins still had hope that quarterback Colt McCoy could continue to manage a clock-eating offense, Gruden said the final playoff spots would be decided by which teams could run the ball well on offense and stop the run on defense. In the Redskins’ past three games, opponents have 503 rushing yards to their 268. After realizing that a patched-together offensive line was not going to properly protect Mark Sanchez, who started Sunday in place of the injured McCoy, Gruden’s best hope is that newly signed quarterback Josh Johnson can scramble enough to sustain drives and give the defense time to rest.
A lot depends on the success of this plan — including, perhaps, the jobs of Gruden, Manusky and the other coaches. But the future of the Redskins’ defense may rest on what happens in these last three games. Coaches continue to believe in the foundation built by Kerrigan, Allen, Payne, Ioannidis and Dunbar. Preston Smith is a free agent who could easily get more than $10 million per year as a pass rusher in his mid-20s.
Given recent comments from Brown and those attributed to Mason Foster on his Instagram account, neither Brown nor Foster expect to be back next season despite having years remaining on their contracts. Norman, who will take up 9 percent of the team’s salary cap next year, could be released or traded if the team decides to go younger.
The reason the Redskins claimed middle linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers, despite Foster’s arrest on domestic violence charges, is that they imagine they will get a young, fast linebacker at a bargain price should the NFL clear him to play next season. But even if the team does get him, the past weeks have shown that it needs more depth, especially in the secondary.
Those decisions are for the winter, however. The biggest issue for the Redskins’ defense is the season’s remaining three games — and the playoff appearance that remains possible despite the group’s collapse.
“I think just overall consistency of swarming to the ball is major in the National Football League,” Manusky said. “We didn’t get it done [last Sunday]. We have to do a better job in a coaching aspect, and same thing on the field. We have to make sure we get those big [running backs] down.”
They have three weeks left to see if they can.