Was it the extra week of film? A sense of urgency after starting the season 1-3? Who knows? But even with a record of just 1-1 since the bye week, the Washington Redskins pass defense has improved over the past two games. And defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and the Redskins have developed an effective blueprint when it comes to limiting the pass.
1. DeAngelo Hall
In two games since the bye, the Redskins have faced two different elite-level receivers. But thanks to DeAngelo Hall and his superb play over the past eight quarters, typical gamebreakers like Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall have been held to a total of just 11 catches for 111 yards and no scores.
The Redskins are set to see more threatening receivers throughout the season, none of which are on the level of Calvin Johnson, Marshall or Bryant (who the Redskins face once more in division play).
Retaining confidence and staying hungry this season combines to make Hall one of the best corners in the league. Not only does he limit an opposing weapon, but he allows for Haslett to get more creative with his play calls.
At one time criticized for his plain and predictable play calling, Haslett has since opened his playbook a bit and become more comfortable experimenting with different looks and getting creative with his packages.
And it's no coincidence the Redskins defense is better as a result.
Against the Bears last week, we saw the Redskins lineup with a handful of linebackers and one defensive lineman on a few blitz packages, as well as weighted blitzes to one side, corner blitzes and safety blitzes, helping to keep the quarterback on his toes and force him into errant throws.
Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are a crucial part of Haslett's creativity and liberty when it comes to the Redskins defense. But guys like Rob Jackson, Barry Cofield and, as of late, Chris Baker also help to give the defensive front some versatility.
The creativity up front leads to pressure on the quarterback, in turn giving the Redskins a better shot at sacks and turnovers.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Redskins' best defensive games have come with positive grades as a pass rushing unit (with the home-opener against the Eagles being the exception, in which Philly chewed up Washington on the ground).
Against the Cowboys in their first game after their bye, the Redskins graded out with a 2.1 overall pass rush rating, including solid performances from Perry Riley, Josh Wilson, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan.
In their first win of the season against Matt Flynn and the Raiders in Week 4, the Redskins graded out with a season-high 6.8 pass rush rating thanks to exceptional games out of Barry Cofield, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.
And in last week's game against the Bears, the usual suspects of Cofield, Kerrigan and Orakpo helped the Redskins earn a 4.4 pass rush grade and a win over a conference opponent.
It's no secret that a solid pass rush leads to better play in the back half of your defense. But for the Redskins and their secondary, consistent pressure is necessary.
In the play above, against the Raiders in Week 4, the Redskins lineup with two down linemen, two outside backers and two inside backers showing blitz. At the snap, the inside backers revert to coverage while the remaining four work to get after Matt Flynn.
Barry Cofield sweeps up and to the quarterback’s left, occupying two blockers while still forcing pressure. Defensive end Stephen Bowen comes from Flynn’s left to flash pressure on the right, and Brian Orakpo gets up field to make an agile move against the left tackle, bringing down Flynn for the sack.
An issue early on this season, the Redskins defense has gotten better at swarming the football, whether it be in the hands of an opposing player or around the hands of an opposing player.
If the opposition pulls in a pass, the Redskins are quick to get to the ball carrier and bring him down, limiting his potential yards after the catch.
And if the Redskins' creativity up front leads to added pressure on the passer, therefore forcing an errant pass, the Redskins put themselves in better position to generate a turnover.
During the second quarter of last week’s game, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sails a pass to Alshon Jeffery who has trouble getting a grip on the ball thanks to a drive from safety Reed Doughty (who originally sprinted from the box at pre-snap to provide help to Josh Wilson in coverage). Wilson is there to help bring down a would be ball carrier, while Brian Orakpo sprints from the box to the receiver in order to help make a tackle.
But more rewarding than making a quick tackle is Orakpo’s first career interception and touchdown as the ball bobbles between defender and receiver, eventually falling into the hands of the nearby linebacker.
The goal is to have the previous four points lead to the fifth. And so far this season, in their better outings as a unit against the Raiders, Cowboys and Bears, the Redskins defense has been rewarded with an interception in each game.
Kansas City and Seattle currently lead the league in defensive turnovers. They also happen to rank as the top-two overall defenses, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus. Again, no accident in the statistical connection.
While defenses don't necessarily need turnovers to be considered an effective unit, the better overall teams have defenses that flip the field and give their offense more opportunities to score.
And in the case of the Washington Redskins, it's the offense everyone relies on to win games. The more Robert Griffin III and the offense have possession, the better chance we see the Redskins make a run at the playoffs.