Washington Redskins Must Orchestrate Total Defensive Rebuild This Offseason

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2013

July 26, 2012; Ashburn, VA, USA;  Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett (l) talks with Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan (r) on the field during the first day of Redskins 2012 training camp at Redskins Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When you're 3-7, you have more than one problem. But the Washington Redskins have to make fixing their woeful defense the priority once the dust settles on the 2013 NFL season.

The teams needs to orchestrate a total rebuild of that side of the ball. That level of overhaul is needed after another defensive performance mired by failures at the schematic and playing level.

Washington's defense was thoroughly dominated in the first half of its 24-16 loss Week 11 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Redskins yielded 17 points from three lightning-fast Philly drives and had no answer for head coach Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense.

The fact that the Redskins only surrendered a further seven points after the break was more testament to Philadelphia's nerves as the Eagles neared a first home win of the season.

Another failure to cope with Kelly's quick-paced system is particularly worrying. The Redskins gave up 33 points against the Eagles in Week 1 and were consistently baffled by pace and scheming.

That is a major issue in a modern NFL where offenses are increasingly defined by their ability to line up and execute at speed. Today's passing and rushing attacks thrive from spread sets and and a no-huddle pace.

Again, failing to counter this approach shows how Washington's defense is out of touch with the modern game. That is one more major indictment of coordinator Jim Haslett.

He was appointed by head coach Mike Shanahan in 2010 to install a Pittsburgh Steelers-style 3-4, zone-blitz system. It was supposed to produce more turnovers and better equip the Redskins to match the sophistication of today's offenses.

The Redskins have tried to emulate the Pittsburgh Steelers without success.
The Redskins have tried to emulate the Pittsburgh Steelers without success.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

But in four seasons, Haslett has failed to develop a top-10 unit. His current defense ranks 31st in points allowed.

Many statistics are overrated, but that is not one of them. It reveals a defense that consistently struggles to make plays when it counts.

Indeed, Haslett is not seeing staple playmakers like outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan come up big in clutch situations. But he is also not putting them in the best positions to thrive.

The great virtue of the 3-4 is supposed to be the front's ability to challenge offenses to identify where pressure is coming from and how coverage is set.

That is the advantage of having more mobile players on the field. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees highlighted that as a reason why the 3-4 presents problems, in an interview with Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune from earlier this year:

Just my experience playing against it is the teams that really do it well, the 3-4 allows you to do some more things with those rushers. You really have at least five rushers on the field at all times instead of four, with the ability to bring a lot of pressures where you've got all these hybrid guys on the field that, "Hey are they gonna rush the passer? You don't really want your running back blocking them. Are they dropping in coverage?" So they can be more multiple, I'd say, which can be more problematic for an offense.

But Haslett has rarely taken advantage of the inherent strengths of a 3-4. Players are not moved around anywhere near enough.

Against the Eagles, Orakpo was quiet on the edge but got a sack when Haslett moved him into the middle as a blitzer. This defense needs more of that creativity.

Too often teams facing Washington know that Orakpo will rush over the left tackle, and Kerrigan will rush over the right tackle. Offensive play-callers are manipulating predictable fronts to create damaging matchups, just as Kelly and the Eagles did, highlighted by The Washington Post's Mike Jones:

The Eagles had little trouble moving the ball, however. Taking advantage of a mismatch in which outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan was in pass coverage on speedy running back LeSean McCoy, quarterback Nick Foles completed a 49-yard pass up the right sideline. Safety Brandon Meriweather made a saving tackle at the 4-yard line. But two plays later, Foles kept the ball on a read-option play and dove in for the touchdown.

To play a largely conservative 3-4 and rely on the players to win physically requires more talented athletes than the Redskins possess. They don't have dominating two-gap defensive ends like San Francisco 49ers pair Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.

They don't have a quartet of linebackers like the 49ers or the league's leaders in defense, the Kansas City Chiefs, boast.

Instead, the Redskins must get more creative with their fronts, and that will require more flexible players. Hybrid playmakers are missing from this defense, especially up front.

Washington does not possess a defensive lineman like Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets. He lets Gang Green switch from three-man to four-man fronts at will.

The same is true of J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans and Dontari Poe of the Chiefs. Today's successful defenses are built on "joker" linemen strong enough to two-gap and still nimble enough to excel as pass-rushers.

They allow coordinators to mix fronts, pressures and coverages over and over during the course of a game to keep offenses guessing.

Coordinators who do that make better use of their personnel. Think of the difference Bob Sutton's more expansive and aggressive schemes have made to the Chiefs defense.

Bob Sutton has transformed Kansas City's defense simply by being more creative.
Bob Sutton has transformed Kansas City's defense simply by being more creative.Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

They were a strict two-gap, 3-4 unit under previous head coach Romeo Crennel. But that read-and-react approach was ditched for a more sophisticated blend of pressure calls and physical coverage.

The result is a dominating defense that leads the NFL in sacks and points allowed. One that produces the kind of big plays the Redskins want from their group.

To reach that level, Washington needs to match by introducing more aggressive schemes with the addition of greater talent.

A case could be made for overhauling the entire secondary. Certainly, the need for two new safeties seems conclusive. That is every bit as important as recruiting a dominant force in the trenches.

Head coach Mike Shanahan has been denied the chance to bolster his options defensively, thanks to the league-imposed, two-year salary cap penalty.

But he has also stubbornly supported a failing coordinator. Haslett has been too predictable, whether he has called a passive game or turned to the blitz.

But few coordinators could succeed with an overall talent level as threadbare as this.

If Shanahan keeps his job beyond this season, he must completely revamp both the defensive talent and playbook in Washington.

The salary cap penalty won't affect the team this offseason, so there is little excuse for not orchestrating a total defensive rebuild.


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