Results, Not Ranks: Why The Washington Redskins Defense Is Better Than You Think

KC ClyburnCorrespondent IIOctober 24, 2010

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 10:  Linebackers London Fletcher #59 and Lorenzo Alexander #97 of the Washington Redskins sack quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers in the fourth quarter against at FedExField on October 10, 2010 in Landover, Maryland. The Redskins won the game in overtime 16-13.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I know. I know.

I hear the arguments all the time. For all the Redskins' relative successes over the course of this season, there is one thing that is driving fans of the burgundy and gold absolutely batty.

The 3-4 defense.

The switch was met by a lot of hemming and hawing during the offseason. After all, the Redskins have played in a 4-3 defense since...well, forever. They've never played in a 3-4. And through season after season after mediocre season, the one bright spot that the Redskins could look forward to was the defense.

Well, maybe not. After all, the defense may have been ranked high, but truly elite defenses help teams win games when the offense is struggling. That hasn't been the case, at least not for the past five years. While the defense has been consistently ranked in the top 10, that's about all it was good for—pointing to a number on and saying "Sure, the offense sucks, but we're ranked 10th in defense!"

While the 10 spot always looked pretty, the reality is that truly great, elite defenses can win football games for their teams. The Jets, Steelers and Ravens all have defenses that are not to be scoffed at. If the quarterbacks are having a hard day, the defenses can step up, make plays and win football games.

While Trent Dilfer gets a lot of undue crap for being "the worst quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl," no one is ever going to confuse him with Joe Montana. When it came to the Super Bowl, though, all the offense had to do was score a touchdown or two, manage the game and then unleash the defense on the opposition. (Yes, I realize they had a 4-3 defense at the time, but the point remains the same; the defense helped win them that championship).

Just this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers started the season without the talents of their franchise quarterback. The team went through three backup QBs and ended up going 3-1 on their backs of their defense.

And dealing with a struggling rookie quarterback, the New York Jets somehow managed to not only make the playoffs, but make it all the way to the AFC Championship game, losing to Indianapolis. In the Super Bowl, Indy lost to the New Orleans Saints, who had the 25th-ranked offense.

Saints, Steelers, Jets and Ravens. What do these four very successful teams have in common?

They all run 3-4 defenses.

Try to ignore the stats for a while and think about this season. Yes, the defense is currently ranked dead last in the NFL statistically. But already, the defense has forced more turnovers than it did over the past two seasons.

To hear Redskins' fans tell the story, this was less a case of wanting to help the Redskins win and more some odd product of his own ego desperately wanting to fit a square peg into a round hole. There is nothing in Mike Shanahan's character that would suggest that's the truth. Just today, I heard NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes say that Mike Shanahan needed to accept blame for the teams "defensive woes" (even though teams are only gaining 20 points a game on the Redskins), since he took what was a good thing and ruined it.

Why? Because the defense was ranked higher than number 10.

The 10th rank defense on a 4-12 team doesn't mean a lot.

Mike Shanahan doesn't strike me as the kind of coach who does anything without giving it a great deal of thought first, and nothing about him suggests that he didn't think about what he was doing before he switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. He had to have known that the 'Skins didn't have all the right pieces, but a few key pieces here or there were perfect.

As a head coach coming into a new place, you can't resign yourself to doing all the same things that the regime (or regimes, as it were) before you did. You also can't be swayed by the rankings and the statistics and the people who rely on them—New Orleans not only made it to a Super Bowl, but won a Super Bowl while being ranked 25th in total offense.

Coach Shanahan saw the success that 3-4 defenses were having and naturally gravitated towards them. He sought on Jim Haslett, who had experience running 3-4 defenses in the past.

And yet people are still attached to the number. That ranking, the one lone bright spot, is gone. The Redskins and their fans hear it every week—they're giving up tons of yards, the secondary is weak, they can't stop anyone.

If they'd actually watched the game instead of simply looking at the stats (and why would anyone analyzing football games for a living actually bother watching the games), they'd notice that it's not often that the Washington Redskins give up the big play. That while the 3-4 has had its fair share of growing pains, it's actually performing a lot better than it looks on paper.

DeAngelo Hall and Carlos Rogers are a great cornerback tandem, free safety Kareem Moore is playing well in coverage, and LaRon Landry...well, at least they gave Landry props once.

While the offense is still adjusting and struggling, the defense alone has been the thing that's kept us in games.

It's easy to look at the numbers and say what a failure the defense is. But when you look at it—honestly examine it—it's not nearly as bad as anyone thinks.

Think back to that first, crazy Dallas game. How many long passes did Tony Romo attempt? How many deep passes did Miles Austin or Roy Williams or Dez Bryant get?

Not a whole lot, yeah? Most everything Tony Romo threw was a short-to-intermediate pass. They threw for a lot of yardage, but it wasn't as though the Redskins gave up tons of big plays.

Against the Texans, a few big plays completely changed the course of the game. With the Texans behind by 17 and the offense catching a few unfortunate snags (I still blame Larry Johnson for running backwards on a play), the defense was kept on the field for too long. Some unfortunate matchups and Andre Johnson returning to the game hurt the team, as they were tired towards the end of the game, with the offense unable to ice the game or stay on the field to finish the game out.

The Rams game...was just odd. The less said about the Rams game, the better.

The Redskins' defense actually did a decent job of containing Michael Vick while he was in the game, up until Michael Vick almost broke for a touchdown and got smushed between two defenders. Vick went out, Kolb came in. His statistics may have looked better than Donovan's, but the leading receiver in that game was LeSean McCoy...the running back.

The high-powered offense of the Green Bay Packers again didn't seem to have the same "power" as usual. Occasionally the defense broke, but the Green Bay Packers only managed one touchdown and two field goals.

And the Colts...Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning. Once he almost got intercepted three times, it's likely that he found out what the scheme was all about. And even then, by the end of the game, the defense had a way of keeping us in it, aside from the occasional gash.

Through six games, the Redskins have given up a lot of yards, but not many points—opposing teams have only scored an average of 18 points a game.

Brian Orakpo had 11 sacks in his whole rookie season. He already has five this season. And he sacked Peyton Manning, AND forced a fumble. When is the last time a second-year guy ever did that to him?

The defense as a whole is tied with the New York Jets at 13 sacks. When offensive linemen decide to stop putting Rak in chokeholds to stop him, I expect that number to go up significantly.

Last year, the defense forced 17 fumbles and recovered six. This year they've forced 10 fumbles and recovered seven.

Last year, the D had 11 interceptions—they have four this year. They'd probably have more if they kept count of the ones that Carlos Rogers always drops at crucial moments that could ice the game (and eventually he has to learn how to catch if they keep landing in his hands, right?). Even Albert Haynesworth has started to create pressure.

The team gives up a lot of yards, and it's true that the team has to work on that. But you're fooling yourself if you think the defense is as bad as that 32 rank indicates.

Any defense who has an offense that can't seem to stay on the field is going to give up yards.

You can't get caught up in the big overall number. In every measurable category other than yards, this defense is better than the defense from last year. And it's not even halfway through the season. There's a bye week coming up where the defense can get healthy from their various ailments. The offense is slowly but surely coming along and starting to find its identity, and the sooner the offense can sustain drives and seal games before a team has a chance to get back in them, the sooner the defense's numbers will start to go up.

The New Orleans Saints won a Super Bowl with a brilliant quarterback who was underrated by his former team, a coach trying to turn around a struggling franchise, a big play offense that could put up big time points, and the 25th-ranked defense. Some would call that more luck than anything else...but doesn't luck always play a part in winning a Super Bowl?

Shanahan had to have seen the success of the defensive powerhouses in the league and thought "I want my team to have that."

Things will only get better with time, folks. Don't get caught up in the hype, or in the people talking about how "great" our defense was over the past two seasons. The defense hasn't been great since Gregg Williams was unceremoniously fired (and then went to the Saints and won a Super Bowl with a 3-4 defense).

Jim Haslett shouldn't be fired. We shouldn't abandon the 3-4. It's been proven to work for other teams, and it's proving to work this year.

Games are won by how many points you have, not how many yards given up.

Don't panic yet. The story has just started being written when it comes to the 3-4.

And I'd really hate it if Mike Shanahan bought into this bogus bad press and fired Jim Haslett. Trust me on this, folks; we're better off with him (and the 3-4) than we are without him.