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Could the Redskins Defense Be Better Than We Think?

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Could the Redskins Defense Be Better Than We Think?
Evan Vucci/Associated Press

We do our best not to overreact to preseason results, but sometimes a unit collectively performs so well or so poorly that it's impossible to ignore. That may be the case with the much-maligned Washington Redskins first-team defense, which ranked 30th in the league with 29.9 points per game allowed last season but has been tearing it up throughout the month of August. 

Now that we know head coach Jay Gruden will be resting his starters Thursday, we have some phenomenal final preseason numbers to report for that first unit. On the 14 series in which mainly starters were on the field against the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, Washington surrendered a total of 13 points (one touchdown and two field goals).

The touchdown came on the very last of those 14 possessions, during a two-minute drill to cap the first half against the Ravens. The first field goal came only after Washington forced a three-and-out following an interception that gave Cleveland the ball in its red zone, and the second came only after a third-down personal foul from Brandon Meriweather kept one of Baltimore's drives alive. 

Seven of the other 10 drives ended after three plays, with the other three dying with either a punt or a turnover on downs. 

Overall, the D has nine sacks in three games and has surrendered only 3.1 yards per carry on the ground. The 285.3 yards per game it's given up ranks sixth in the NFL this preseason. 

That might mean this defense is finally ready to turn a corner. Considering the talent the Redskins have in that front seven and the depth they possess right across the board, I'm beginning to believe this could actually be a respectable season for a unit that hasn't ranked in the top 10 defensively since 2009. 

That defensive front has always been their bread and butter, and that's again been the case this preseason. Edge-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan have been killing it, thanks in part to the boost they've received in run support from Keenan Robinson, Barry Cofield and Jason Hatcher. 

Orakpo and Kerrigan have a combined four sacks and seven pressures on only 119 total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which amounts to about three quarters of football. Throw in top draft pick Trent Murphy, who has six pressures already, and we could be looking at a three-headed monster. 

Here's Kerrigan taking down Joe Flacco without an issue:

Credit: NFL Game Pass

And good penetration from Murphy with some help from the coverage: 

Credit: NFL Game Pass

Robinson, a fourth-round pick in 2012 who has only 69 defensive snaps under his belt, is being counted on to replace the legendary London Fletcher. But while filling Fletcher's shoes in the locker room is an extremely tough task, the reality is the 39-year-old was declining fast at the tail end of his career, and Robinson looks as though he could be a major upgrade at inside linebacker. 

The 25-year-old Texas product had four tackles (two for a loss) Saturday against Baltimore. Here he is flashing his anticipation skills on a big tackle for a loss on a 4th-and-short versus the Ravens:

Credit: NFL Game Pass

What's scary is that the addition of Hatcher, who was a Pro Bowler last year in Dallas before signing a four-year, $27.5 million deal in D.C., has yet to even pay full dividends. Hatcher is still being eased back after undergoing a knee scope in June, but he was a force on only 17 snaps during his first preseason appearance Saturday. 

Double-teams like these free up everyone else up front:

Credit: NFL Game Pass

And he'll only become more effective as he gets healthier in the weeks to come. 

From ESPN.com's John Keim:

Defensive lineman Jason Hatcher clearly makes a difference with the pass rush. He drew extra attention from Baltimore’s front. He moved around, playing over the center, both ends and tackle. The Redskins did a good job getting him inside against guards, much like he did last year in Dallas when he had a strong season. 

"He looked like the same guy that was terrorizing us last year for Dallas," Kerrigan said of Hatcher, per Tom Schad of The Washington Times. "I’m glad he was able to come out there and make some plays, and give Redskins fans a sneak peek at what’s in store for the season."

No play is more indicative of how much this D might have improved than this five-yard loss from Baltimore's first-team offense Saturday. Watch as Hatcher forces Flacco out of the pocket, while the rangy Robinson finishes the play off: 

Credit: NFL Game Pass

The secondary has for years been the key problem, and it'll likely be this team's Achilles' heel again in 2014, but even that group has showed major signs of improvement. 

Not only does physical rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland look like a future starter, but second-year corner David Amerson has given up only four catches for just 37 yards on 70 preseason snaps. He might be ready to take a leap, making life much easier for playmaker DeAngelo Hall on the opposite side of the field. 

Amerson was victimized often last season, but he also had some nice moments. Plays like this indicate he's stepping it up in Year 2:

NFL Game Pass

The secondary could also get a boost from 2013 sixth-round pick Bacarri Rambo, who was a mess as a rookie but has had a superb summer. 

"He’s gotten a hell of a lot better all around," Hall said of Rambo before the third preseason game, according to Keim. "He’s been probably the best player on our team over the first two preseason games. He graded out great. He made plays we’ve asked him to make. He’s come up and tackled. He’s night and day from last year."

With those guys coming along and veterans Ryan Clark and Tracy Porter bringing some experience to the fray, this defensive backfield should at least be better than it was last season, when the 'Skins ranked 31st in the NFL with 8.0 yards allowed per pass attempt.

It helps, though, that the front seven is finally clicking in a variety of ways. Pressure changes everything, and a defense that was already good against the run—it gave up only 4.0 yards per carry last season, despite all of the tumult—should be significantly better with Hatcher on board and Robinson looking like the real deal. 

With Mike Shanahan no longer playing micromanager, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has finally been given a chance to let loose with a variety of unique looks, especially on third down. And it's paying off, partially because he has the right men for the job. 

In a perfect world, Meriweather wouldn't be facing a two-game suspension for that hit that drew a personal foul against the Ravens. And in a perfect world, Porter, Stephen Bowen and Phillip Thomas would be healthier. But injuries and suspensions happen, and none of those guys was relied on by the 'Skins last year. 

What's obvious is that for the first time in years, there's light at the end of the tunnel for this defense. 

 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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