The Washington Redskins have survived and are alive in the NFC playoff race in December despite possessing the league's 31st-ranked pass defense. Only one NFL defense has surrendered more yards, touchdowns and 20-plus-yard passes.
And now things could get a whole lot worse, as Washington will be without arguably its strongest cornerback for the remainder of the regular season after Cedric Griffin was suspended four games on Tuesday for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Griffin may "only" be a No. 3 corner, but he's one of the most important third cornerbacks in the league. That's because so many opposing offenses use three-wide-receiver sets in order to take advantage of the Redskins' shabby secondary. He's been on the field for 79 percent of the team's 231 defensive snaps the last three weeks, and he's been the best defensive back on the team during that span.
Pro Football Focus rates him as the team's best corner in coverage overall, but he's really found a groove since the Week 10 bye. The physical 30-year-old is finally fully healthy after missing time earlier this season due to a hamstring injury, and in one-on-one matchups with Hakeem Nicks, Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson the last three weeks, he held those three dangerous wideouts to just four total catches for 34 yards on 12 targets (per PFF).
But the real concern here is the domino effect. DeAngelo Hall is playing his best football of the season, too, and he's become a real force in the slot (where he's taken 23 percent of his snaps during that same three-game span). Whenever the 'Skins face three-receiver sets, it's Hall who moves inside.
Can the Redskins defense survive the loss of Cedric Griffin?
But with no viable outside cover guys behind Griffin, Hall will be forced to remain outside almost all the time, giving quality slot receivers like Anquan Boldin, Greg Little, Jason Avant, Jeremy Maclin and Miles Austin opportunities to go to town on unreliable rookie Richard Crawford over the next four weeks.
Crawford hasn't taken a snap since Week 6 after a tough start to his rookie campaign, and neither he nor journeyman D.J. Johnson is fit to handle regular snaps against those aforementioned receivers. They'll need help, which will limit Washington's ability to blitz Hall (something they've done 34 times this season) or use its safeties as pass-rushers or devoted run-defenders.
The point is that this puts further strain on a defense that has already been doing its best merely to stay afloat. Bend, but don't break. That'll be harder to do with another veteran down.