Much of the hype surrounding the Washington Redskins entering the 2012 season has centered on the offense and wunderkind Robert Griffin III. Not that I'm saying the hype is unwarranted, but a closer look into the Redskins' youth movement reveals some big gains made on the defensive side of the ball as well.
As the Redskins have struggled mightily for the better part of the last two decades, it's been the Burgundy and Gold defense that has, at times, fielded some elite units.
The good news for fans is that the team's front seven looks to be much improved. London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will be one of the better linebacker trios in the NFL, and the defensive line, which made strides in 2011, will gladly welcome back stud tackle Jarvis Jenkins, who should be an impact player in 2012.
The secondary, on the other hand, will be a bevy of new faces with varying levels of experience, featuring the likes of Cedric Griffin, Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson.
Suffice to say, running the NFC gauntlet won't be a cakewalk in 2012.
Let's take a look at how well the Redskins defense stacks up against opposing NFC East offenses in 2012.
Eli Manning tries to illude several Redskins defenders.
The New York Giants were the prototypical dark-horse contenders entering the playoffs last season. Improbable doesn't even begin to describe the trail they blazed all the way to their second Lombardi Trophy in five seasons.
A five-win season isn't much to hang your hat on, but considering two of those wins came against the defending Super Bowl champs, the Redskins might actually be looking forward to a reunion with their foes from up north.
It was the Giants passing attack that pushed them past the threshold in 2011. Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham made life hard on opposing secondaries as the season wore on, and, of course, they had to when you consider the state of their running game in 2011.
Nicks is nursing a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot right now though, and Manningham has left town.
While Nicks is not likely to miss any time in the regular season, those foot injuries can be nagging to say the least, and any setbacks in Nicks' case means that much of the load is placed on Victor Cruz, veteran Domenik Hixon or the greenhorn out of LSU, Rueben Randle.
For the Redskins, this is a good thing.
The 'Skins front seven was merciless in its pursuit of Manning in 2011 (seven sacks, seven tackles for loss, four interceptions), and with an improved rush unit returning to D.C., expect more of the same in 2012.
Ahmad Bradshaw returns to the Giants backfield, and the Redskins will also have to account for rookie David Wilson, who was a dynamo during his time at Virginia Tech.
But the Redskins know the recipe for success against New York: Pressure Manning and make him move out of the pocket.
That's something they will be more than capable of doing in 2012, and unless Cruz can get the rest of the receiving corp to rise up around him and make big plays of their own, I predict the Redskins to have a good showing against the Giants in 2012.
Brian Orakpo (left) getting held by an Eagles offensive lineman.
The Redskins first met the Eagles last season on October 16th, and while they managed to defend the pass relatively well, LeSean McCoy and the Eagles backfield absolutely ripped through the Redskins defense to the tune of 192 yards.
On January 1st, when the two division rivals met for the second time, it was Michael Vick's arm that did the damage, torching the Redskins secondary for 335 yards and three TDs on 24-of-39 passing.
The long and short of it is that the Redskins have not fared well against the Eagles in recent history.
An aging yet still deadly quick Michael Vick returns in 2012 alongside fantasy favorite McCoy. Dion Lewis, McCoy's counterpart from their days at Pitt, should also see a lot of carries and should add a third, speedy dimension to the Eagles backfield.
Let's not forget about who Philly has out wide, either. DeSean Jackson is lightning in a bottle. He can fly in the open field, and I don't think any of us will soon forget what he did to LaRon Landry in 2010.
Jeremy Maclin is there too, and this could very well be a breakout year for him as a veritable No. 2 receiver. The Eagles offensive line is also a stout mixture of youth and veteran experience led by Demetress Bell.
For the Redskins, it's all about being able to contain. Then contain more, and some more after that, ad nauseam.
Vick has been a nightmare for the Redskins over the past two seasons despite being as injury-prone as he is.
I have faith in the Redskins front seven to lock down the edges much better than we've seen in recent seasons, but it then falls to the secondary to make sure Jackson and Maclin aren't running free in the deep third.
That's what scares me.
DeAngelo Hall needs to be playing big-time football at cornerback, and guys like Kevin Barnes, Brandon Meriweather and Cedric Griffin need to be ready to support him as much as possible.
The Eagles will be a handful for the Redskins simply because of the amount of speed they have in their arsenal. I predict the Washington defense to give up a few big plays but to be better outfitted than it was last year when it gave up a 34-10 blowout.
Don't be surprised if the Redskins split the series with Philly this year, with the defense coming up big the second time around.
DeAngelo Hall pursues Jason Witten
The Redskins could lose the other four games to the Giants and the Eagles, as long as they sweep the Cowboys in 2012.
I kid, I kid. They want to sweep the NFC East, plain and simple.
Tony Romo is arguably the most mercurial quarterback in the game.
Unlike Eli Manning, who has come out of nowhere twice to defy every expectation set against him and his team, Romo can't seem to establish any consistency in his game and, as a consequence, has yet to add any new accolades to Jerry Jones' $1 billion house in Arlington.
Yet, Jason Garrett is bringing a new flavor of offense to Dallas and could have the Cowboys looking very dynamic in 2012.
Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are all back, and all three are dangerous with the ball in their hands.
Garrett is also implementing a bit of the Saints' philosophy into his system by getting the running backs far more involved in the passing game, namely DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma's all-time receiving leader for running backs.
There's also Bill Callahan to consider, who has recently been brought on board to school the offensive line and inject a stale Dallas offense with some West Coast flavor.
All told, Dallas will be looking to push a balanced passing attack with a variety of receiver sets and a heavy emphasis on route-running out of the backfield.
I think the Redskins D can hang, personally.
Romo will be more stationary in this offensive scheme, and that bodes well for the Redskins pass rush, as Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan can fly off the edge and disrupt the pocket.
The Washington linebackers are big and athletic, and if they can take away the edge, that means the Cowboys either pass vertically or run up the middle.
The Washington defense should be stingy against the run in 2012, which means the secondary needs to dominate in nickel and dime sets.
While the secondary is still a work in progress under new coordinator Raheem Morris, I expect enough work done up front to force Romo into making rushed decisions in the pocket. If that happens, even receivers as young and talented as Austin and Bryant will be hard-pressed to make big plays.
The Redskins held Tony Romo under 300 yards passing twice and sacked him seven times in 2011, and I see an even slimmer stat line for him in 2012 with a reloaded and more experienced unit on the field for the Redskins.
Out of the NFC East, I see the Redskins having their best day against Dallas in 2012.