A number of weak links have doomed the Washington Redskins this season. But following a bye week of rest and reflection, the team is convinced it can overcome them, beginning Sunday at home against Philadelphia.
Both teams enter the contest with disappointing 3-6 records, but the winner could find itself back in the thick of things in the NFC East.
In the following slideshow, we'll touch upon Washington's weaknesses and the sense of urgency the Redskins have as they face a stretch run that includes five of seven games against division rivals.
Washington's secondary needs to keep its composure.
When training camp began in July, the Washington Redskins were excited about the potential of their secondary.
Cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson returned, as did safeties Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes. Washington added free-agent corner Cedric Griffin and replaced departed safeties LaRon Landry and O.J. Atogwe with free-agent vets Brandon Meriweather, Tanard Jackson and Madieu Williams. And the Redskins drafted rookies Jordan Bernstine and Richard Crawford before taking a chance on undrafted Virginia standout Chase Minnifield.
Then, all hell broke loose.
After a promising camp, Minnifield was released following a setback to his surgically repaired knee. Meriweather and Bernstine hurt their knees in the preseason, and the league suspended Jackson indefinitely for violating its substance-abuse policy for the third time.
So Washington started the season short-handed and was forced to play the hand it was dealt.
It may be unfair to label the team's secondary its weakest link, but when it's ranked 30th against the pass through nine games, it is what it is. And that's not very good.
According to The Washington Examiner's John Keim (via CBSSports.com), "the secondary surrenders too many big plays. They are on pace to allow 57 pass plays of 20 yards or more, one fewer than last season when only four teams allowed more."
"The Redskins also struggle to keep teams out of the end zone," adds Mike Jones of The Washington Post. "(They) yield 301.7 yards per game and are allowing 27.6 points a game (fifth-most in the league). Hall has struggled mightily; Wilson has had some ups (and downs), and Williams (and Griffin) have struggled with consistency."
As luck would have it, Washington is expecting Meriweather's return this week against the Eagles. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Brandon won't be catching passes in warm-ups.
The last time he did that was Week 4, when his expected return was derailed following a brutal pregame collision with second-year receiver Aldrick Robinson.
Ryan Kerrigan can use some help with getting after quarterbacks.
Washington's secondary has made plenty of mistakes this season, but much of their struggles come from a below-average front seven.
If the Redskins had any semblance of a pass rush, their defensive backs would have a chance to make plays instead of giving them up.
Injuries have decimated this group as well, but it's been weeks since Washington lost linebacker Brian Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker for the season. You would think there would be some improvement by now. Instead, the team's pass rush has been missing in action.
According to The Washington Post's Mike Jones:
The Redskins haven’t been able to register quarterback sacks in either of their last two games. The lone sack against Pittsburgh came when a receiver ran a reverse and then turned passer.
In the meantime, "Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield and Jarvis Jenkins have a combined two sacks (all season)," according to Greg Bradshaw of Rant Sports. "The Redskins (also) rank near the bottom of the league in team sacks with 14."
Washington' pass rush has a chance to redeem itself this week with an Eagles team that may be forced to start rookie quarterback Nick Foles. But even against Foles and a decimated Philly offensive line, the Redskins will have tough sledding if their linebackers fail to get penetration.
Since replacing Orakpo, Rob Jackson and Chris Wilson have combined for just 26 tackles and one sack since Week 2. That has put more pressure on Ryan Kerrigan to perform, and he's been limited to 4.5 sacks because of double-teams and chips off the edge.
For the Redskins to have any chance of making noise over the last seven games, the pass rush needs to step up. If it doesn't, Washington's secondary will continue to suffer the consequences, and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett may find himself out of a job.
Flags have been plentiful on Redskins game days.
With 82 penalties in nine games, the Redskins lead the league in shooting themselves in the foot. That statistic is bad enough, but with a veteran coaching staff, it should be inexcusable.
According to Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times, the team's problems started early and snowballed from there, despite coach Mike Shanahan's insistence that the team was disciplined:
Joshua Morgan's personal-foul penalty—and 10 more against St. Louis (in Week 2)—revealed an underlying problem. Still, coach Shanahan guaranteed 'at the end of the day, we won’t have those penalties.' Seven games later, they still do.
Redskins fans have witnessed it all this season—from simple false starts to emotional outbursts by players and coaches. But as the saying goes, "if you want to dance, you've got to pay the piper." And boy, have the Redskins paid.
So how do the Redskins plan on extinguishing the errors, mental lapses and bad judgment?
“I think it’s about focus," said veteran tight end Chris Cooley, via Whyno's column in The Washington Times. "It’s about not overwhelming yourself with what’s going on and being able to focus from play to play. You can practice it, but we’ve all played football for a long time, and it’s about focus.”
Accepting blame and vowing to change are a good first step for the Redskins. They may also keep Shanahan from having to defend a coaching style that has always kept penalties at bay.
According to Whyno, "last year’s 5-11 Redskins were in the middle of the pack league-wide, with 91 penalties for 897 yards. Counting 2010 and his last seven years with Denver, Shanahan had not coached a team that finished higher than 12th in penalties or yards penalized."
Remember back in Week 5, when Robert Griffin III spoke at length about the Redskins problems with third-down conversions?
According to Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler, RGIII called it a "glaring issue" that Washington's offense "would get better at."
Well, it's five weeks later, and we're still waiting.
Entering their last two games, the Redskins were 29th in the league on third downs, with a conversion rate of just 31 percent. They then proceeded to go from bad to worse.
In Pittsburgh, the offense converted just three of 12 third downs, and at home against Carolina, it finished 3-of-15.
With a bye week to consider his options, Kyle Shanahan should have had plenty of time to examine the team's playbook. Let's just hope he tossed out plays that haven't worked and developed a few more that will.
Per Redskins.com, Washington is 32-of-112 on third-down conversions this season (28.6 percent). That's almost three percentage points worse than the Redskins were after a Week 7 loss to the New York Giants.
A week ago, I was asked to come up with a recipe for stopping Robert Griffin III. Personally, I don't think any single thing can stop him, but RGIII can be limited if he allows pressure to get to him.
One aspect of Griffin's game that needs improvement is how long it takes for him to release the ball. According to Pro Football Focus, Griffin is in the bottom five of NFL quarterbacks who hold the ball too long.
Constant pressure and punishment have not boded well for Philadelphia's Michael Vick, who may miss Sunday's game against the Redskins with a concussion. On average, it takes Vick 3.12 seconds to get rid of the ball (per PFF). That's second only to Seattle rookie Russell Wilson (3.14).
Griffin's mobility may allow him an extra split second to make decisions, but history suggests that any time over three seconds is far too long in the NFL.
At 3.01, Griffin is just over the threshold, but when you compare his time to Tom Brady's NFL-leading 2.49, there's certainly room for improvement.
Overall depth was addressed by Washington in the offseason, but the Redskins' quality of depth is still lacking.
Since losing Pierre Garcon, RGIII has lacked a go-to receiver. The rookie's health is also in constant danger because of injuries and inconsistency along the offensive line. And when Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker went down for the year, Washington's defense went down with them.
Some of the Redskins problems can be attributed to the salary-cap penalty the NFL slapped on them in March.
"(The impact it had) was obviously very strong," said head coach Mike Shanahan (via Comcast SportsNet). "You're talking about $36 million, and you find out 10 minutes before your free agency starts. So yeah, it (was) a wake-up call."
Shanahan's ability to address the problem won't get any easier during the remaining years of his five-year contract. The Redskins do not have first-round draft selections in 2013 or 2014 (because of the trade to acquire RGIII). They will also have to endure the second half of the $36 million fine in March.
Joe Versage is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He previously covered the Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens as a television beat reporter. Follow him on Twitter at: @JoeVersage Takip et: @JoeVersage