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What's Wrong with the Washington Redskins Defense?

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What's Wrong with the Washington Redskins Defense?
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Griffin III and the offense are taking a fair amount of heat for the Washington Redskins' 0-3 start, but let's keep in mind that the 'Skins have still managed to score 20-plus points in all three of those losses. 

Yes, 14 of those points were created by the defense (DeAngelo Hall has scored twice), but the D still deserves the lion's share of the blame for what has happened this month. Some numbers:

  • They rank 31st in the NFL with 98 points allowed. 
  • In modern NFL history (post-1970 merger), no team has given up more total yards over the first three weeks than Washington has this season. 
  • They've surrendered 17 20-yard completions, which ranks 31st. 
  • Opposing quarterbacks have posted a passer rating of 120.1 against them, which ranks dead last in the league by a wide margin.

So, what's the problem? Some factors to consider:

 

The schedule hasn't been easy

The Philadelphia Eagles may have won only four games last year, but it can't be easy being Chip Kelly's first guinea pig. That was bad timing. Green Bay is Green Bay, led by the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history, and Detroit has a strong offense, featuring the best wide receiver in the game. 

Now, there's still no excuse for giving up 32.7 points per game. But the Redskins have had to deal with two turnovers per game from the offense and special teams, and as a result opposing offenses have, on average, been starting at the 33-yard line, which also ranks near the bottom of the league. 

The point is that the circumstances have probably made things a little worse than they were supposed to be. Don't be surprised if they show some improvement in Week 4 against an Oakland Raiders team that has been held to 21 or fewer points in all three of its games.

Most yards allowed, first three weeks
Team Year Yards
1. Washington Redskins 2013 1464
2. Baltimore Ravens 1978 1452
3. Houston Texans 2006 1451

Since the 1970 merger (Pro Football Reference)

 

They're missing a ridiculous amount of tackles

OK, now that we've made excuses, let's look at some terrible individual performances and broad factors. 

It wasn't as though they were good in this area last year. The 'Skins missed 116 tackles in 2012, and Football Outsiders determined that only eight defenses whiffed as frequently as they did. 

But one year after missing an average of 7.3 tackles per game, the 'Skins have increased that average to 14.0 early this season. Fourteen. Point. O. Every single game. 

Most tackles missed, 2013
Missed tackles
1. Washington Redskins 42
2. Jacksonville Jaguars 32
3. Arizona Cardinals 31
4. Philadelphia Eagles 28
4. Miami Dolphins 28

Pro Football Focus

 

David Amerson isn't ready

Because the Redskins are so thin in the secondary, the rookie Amerson has been forced to essentially serve as a starter. Primarily in nickel packages, he's been on the field for 88 percent of Washington's defensive snaps this season.

To Amerson's credit, he made a lot of plays at North Carolina State. But he was also burned constantly during his junior year and simply wasn't supposed to play such a significant amount this early in his pro career. That's why he was chosen 51st overall despite intercepting 17 passes during his final two college seasons. 

Three games in, he has surrendered an NFL-high 28.4 yards per completion, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

Here he is mistakenly believing he has safety help while letting James Jones prance by on a 57-yard completion from Aaron Rodgers.

And here he is getting dominated on an island against Jordy Nelson. Pass interference, declined.

He played a little better against the Lions, but expect this to continue to be a season filled with growing pains for Amerson.

 

The secondary still lacks depth

Hall and Josh Wilson are starting at corner for the league's worst defense, but they haven't actually been that bad. Both struggled against the Packers, but that's not unusual. It's the rest of the secondary that has been the problem.

Offseason acquisition E.J. Biggers hasn't emerged to save the day, Amerson has been a burn victim, rookie safety Bacarri Rambo has also been a deer in headlights and Brandon Meriweather is once again having trouble staying on the field. 

 

London Fletcher is close to done

This is hard, because Fletcher has earned so much love and respect in Washington. He might even be a Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, though, the 38-year-old is quickly losing it on the field. He has missed 29 percent of the tackles he's attempted this season, according to PFF, which grades him as the second-worst starting inside linebacker in football.

You could see this coming last year. He might have been a "tackle machine" because he was in on so many plays, but Fletcher has missed more tackles than anyone in the league since the start of the 2012 season. 

The guy is this team's defensive leader, and he certainly isn't the main problem, but at this point, he's doing more harm than good. The team may be realizing that the NFL's oldest position player needs some relief, which is why we saw veteran backup Nick Barnett steal some of his snaps against the Lions.

 

The pass rush hasn't improved

We've seen it time and again. In the same way that a great quarterback can help a team overcome various deficiencies, a great enough pass rush can mask almost anything on D. With the return of Brian Orakpo this season, that Washington pass rush was supposed to be great.

It's been good, not great. 

Orakpo has just one sack through three games, and he and third-year complementary edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan have combined for four. That's not enough. Their pressure numbers are also down slightly from their 2011 season together, which is concerning considering that they're both supposed to be entering their primes.

Redskins pass rush
2011 2012 2013
Sacks per game 2.6 2.0 2.7
Sack percentage 7.5 4.8 7.8
Pressures per game 15.1 17.3 17.0

Pro Football Reference/Focus

It's not as though they've been going up against stellar lines. The Eagles, Packers and Lions surrendered an average of 44 sacks last season, which would have ranked in the bottom 10. Detroit's line took some hits in the offseason, and Green Bay has been forced to start a pair of completely inexperienced tackles. 

Of bigger concern is that the pass rush actually started strong against Philadelphia and early against Green Bay. But after registering six sacks in the first five quarters of the year, the 'Skins had just two in the seven quarters that followed. 

Altogether, the pass rush has been better this year than last year but not quite as good as it was in 2011. For the 'Skins to turn this around, they'll have to turn it up a notch or two. 

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