Good defense stops opponents consistently throughout games, while great defenses are capable of changing the flow of a game with big plays and smothering opposing offenses to the point of submission. The Washington Redskins, at least in the last few seasons, have been neither great nor good.
Atrocious pass defense has played a major part in the overall average performance of the 'Skins defense.
Even with the makings of an elite unit, at least from a pass rush standpoint, the Redskins always seem to hit a bump along the way, be it injuries, or just poor play from players they expected to be big contributors.
Regardless of the reasons for the Washington defense finishing 31st and 28th in two of the last three season, here are the ways they can improve their pass defense, and take the next step toward becoming an elite defense.
One of the more frustrating things about the Redskins secondary is the lack of physicality. Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall routinely allowed opposing receivers to run their routes with little or no jam at the line of scrimmage or into their breaks.
Big plays are often a result of receivers being allowed to run free, while defensive backs rely on an all-too-substantial cushion to keep the play in front of themselves.
With the addition of the younger, more aggressive, rookies David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo, physicality may not be an issue in the coming season, particularly over the middle.
The Redskins gave up 95.8 yards per game on the ground, good enough for fifth-best in the NFL in 2012. Before we jump to any conclusions about their stout run defense, consider the fact that the Redskins defense faced a league-low 363 rushing attempts, while allowing a very middling 4.2 yards per carry and 11 rushing touchdowns.
The moral of the story is that the Redskins cannot neglect their run defense in favor of improving their horrendous pass defense.
Not that the 'Skins aren't capable of stopping the run, they've got enough beef in the middle and athleticism on the edges to close running lanes and contain running backs.
It would just put more pressure on their secondary if they give up more yards on the ground and are forced to play up, and possibly get sucked into play action more than usual.
Though this may seem like a bit of a catch-all, big plays are the undoing of even the strongest defensive units. There is nothing more disheartening than fighting tooth and nail for an entire game only to give up a 50-plus yard touchdown to break the game wide open.
Inconsistent and mediocre safety play left the Redskins corners on islands when they expected help over the top, or in the deep middle of the field.
Regardless of who starts at free safety, Rambo or Thomas, even their rookie presence is an upgrade over the likes of Madieu Williams, who was thrust into the starting position due to Tanard Jackson's season-long suspension.
With credible free safety play, Hall, Wilson and Amerson will have help everywhere down the field, which should prevent big plays down the field, like the 77-yarder Victor Cruz had for New York early on in 2012.
The Redskins have been up and down in terms of generating turnovers. They were middle of the pack in 2011, generating 21 turnovers, but tied for fifth in the NFL in 2012 with 31 turnovers. The issue with their turnovers is where they've taken place.
In 2012, Washington's linebackers combined for 10 interceptions, while the secondary as a whole combined for 11.
While the split is respectable, and shows how talented their linebackers are, it means that their secondary wasn't getting their hands on the ball nearly enough. Wilson managed just two sacks while Hall nabbed four.
If the Redskins can't generate turnovers in their secondary, teams will not shy away from attacking them throughout a game.
Interceptions from corners and safeties force opposing quarterbacks to shy away from one side of the field, or shorten the field, which takes the pressure off of the secondary because the offense will be run almost exclusively in front of them.
It stands to reason that the longer a play lasts, the more likely it is that the offense is going to come away with the advantage. Without a pass rush, or at least a healthy pass rush, the Redskins gave up a laughable 4,511 passing yards in 2012.
By comparison, they gave up 3,553 passing yards in 2011, good enough for 12th in the NFL.
With Brian Orakpo expected to be at full health and full strength—entering a contract year no less—the Redskins should see an outburst from both he and Ryan Kerrigan, who has always been a high-motor player capable of at least hurrying the quarterback.
Washington needs to put hits on the quarterback, tackles for losses, sacks, strip-sacks and everything in between. Even with the youthful upgrade to the secondary, it would provide a tremendous boost if Orakpo and Kerrigan combined for 30 sacks, however lofty that goal may be.