Walters: Beaten in 'All Three Phases'
[center][b][u]Beaten in ‘All Three Phases’[/u][/b]
Washington Redskins fans awoke Sunday morning not knowing that while they slept, their football clocks had been turned back a year, and the game they would soon witness would serve as proof of the chronological anomaly. Even though the Redskins had dropped four games on the season coming into Sunday’s match-up with Oakland, they had clearly turned a corner and become a team that was a threat to win every week. However Sunday’s trip back in time to 2004 brought back vivid memories of a season that existed to be forgotten. Maybe the Redskins exercise in time travel was unintended, or perhaps it was a problem with the flux capacitor, but either way, the flashback to 2004 was as unwelcomed as a ride home from Leonard Little.
More accurately, Sunday’s game was nearly a mirror image to the giant egg Washington laid in Week 4 of last season when it lost to a horrible Cleveland team. Think about it for a second. The final score of that game, 17-13, was almost exactly the same as the 16-13 final tally in the Raider game. Clinton Portis inexplicably lost two fumbles to the Browns, just as he did Sunday. And just like last season, the Redskins dropped what should have been a sure win to an AFC team whose coach is most likely in his last days with the team. Each team had former Redskin head coaches on staff, Norville in Oakland and worthless ole Terry Robiskie in Cleveland. It would be spooky if it weren’t so depressingly true.
The game started much differently than it would end, as if to tease the Redskins faithful into falling harder and faster into a state of despair once the final horn sounded. Middle linebacker Lemar Marshall intercepted a pass that he subsequently returned for what would be Washington’s only touchdown of the day, and the defense’s first touchdown of the season. Perhaps even more astounding than the big play itself was the fact that the play was born of actual pressure on the quarterback, with Raider quarterback Kerry Collins forced to throw the ill-advised pass with Redskins linebacker Chris Clemons bearing down. The resulting 7-0 lead that this afforded the Redskins and their monstrous home crowd was eventually expanded to a 13-3 halftime margin on two John Hall field goals. But unfortunately the Redskins would leave all their heart, and most of their running plays, in the locker room when they re-emerged in the second half.
For 27 games, 16 last season and 11 this year, the Redskins’ complex, aggressive defense has been the apple of the collective eye of the organization, and rightfully so. It has disguised the mediocrity of the defensive line, at least when it comes to collapsing the pocket, and has thrown opposing offenses for a loop. In doing so, defensive mastermind Gregg Williams has ascended to an almost Gibbs-like status wherein his genius is never to be brought into question. You’ll certainly not find this phenomenon challenged readily in this space, but there is one clear criticism of the defense that simply cannot go unspoken any longer.
Blitzes and pressure from all angles are wonderful, but the Redskins get virtually zero pressure on the quarterback from their down linemen. Granted, their best defensive lineman, Cornelius Griffin, has missed nearly all of the last four contests, and his absence causes a ripple effect down the line. But even when Griffin was healthy, the line was still average at best at getting after the passer. Even with Griffin, a defensive line that relies on a tackle, no matter how good he may be, to get after the quarterback is not one that is going to dirty the quarterback’s jersey very often.
How much longer can the Redskins continue to compete when the opposing quarterback has upwards of seven seconds to decide where to go with the ball? How many more big plays can the team withstand because the secondary must provide a pass rush and still maintain flawless coverage? The breakdowns in the secondary aren’t due simply to blown coverage or a deficit of talent. It is almost impossible to continuously and effectively cover NFL receivers for seven to 10 seconds at a time over the course of four quarters of football.
On one end, Renaldo Wynn is going to give you solid run support, invaluable leadership, and will be in the lineup every Sunday. His counterpart, Phillip Daniels, provides much of the same, save for the durability. But in pass rushing situations, when most teams send out their pass rushing specialists, Washington either stands pat, or brings in a fresher, younger version of Wynn and Daniels. When they do utilize the “pass rushing specialist”, it is undrafted linebacker Chris Clemons, who admittedly does do a serviceable job given the circumstances, but hardly strikes fear in the hearts of opposing offenses.
The reason why the Redskins don’t utilize a pass rushing threat on obvious passing downs is abundantly clear; they don’t have one. Of the ridiculously low 10 draft picks that Joe Gibbs and his staff have made since the coach’s triumphant return to D.C., none have been spent on defensive linemen. The closest they’ve come would be undrafted free agents Ryan Boschetti and Aki Jones, who made the team by a mix of their own will and determination, coupled with a disturbing lack of depth. This is not meant to be a criticism of the pair, nor of fellow no-names Demetric Evans, Nic Clemons, or Cedric Killings. These players can and do provide solid depth, but the trouble starts when these unproven players are relied upon to make the big plays that the defense so desperately needs.
In free agency, Gibbs’ preferred method of player acquisition, the Redskins did land Griffin before the 2004 campaign, but made virtually no other serious attempt at a bona fide sack threat. The past two off-seasons have seen 2004 NFC sack champion Bertrand Berry, Atlanta tackle Rod Coleman (18.5 sacks in his last 23 games), and the current second and third place sack leaders in the NFL, Derrick Burgess of the Raiders and Tennessee’s Kyle Vanden Bosch, among many others, hit the free agent market. One may be able to make a reasonable argument as to why Washington didn’t more aggressively pursue any of these particular threats, but the bottom line is that they didn’t seriously pursue anyone at all. The lack of pressure isn’t the fault of Williams, nor of the under-credited defensive line coach Greg Blache from a coaching or scheme standpoint, but from the perspective of lobbying to have different players brought in to help the cause, the two must shoulder some of the blame.
It isn’t like the team was content to stand pat with the remaining pieces of last season’s defense, either. The first overall pick, corner Carlos Rogers, is a defensive player, as are linebackers Robert McCune and waste of space Jared Newberry. Neither player was taken early in the draft, so a reasonable argument could be made that there weren’t obvious upgrades available. But instead of wasting a pick on Newberry, for example, why not take a shot at ends Bill Swancutt (Detroit #184), Eric Moore (Giants #186), or Jovan Haye (Carolina #189). None of these rookies have turned the league upside down, nor have any really even made a splash. Maybe they wouldn’t have in D.C. either, but that would have been a miss trying to boost an area of glaring need, as opposed to adding more nondescript depth to a position already bursting at the seams with players.
Of course, the Raiders game also exposed the Redskins’ thin receiving corps as well. Santana Moss, who has deserved every ounce of praise he has been given, is a legitimate threat the likes of which the Redskins have not had in years. The problem arises on the other side of the field, where underachiever David Patten’s knee injury forced a premature end to his maiden Redskins season. His absence left a void that Washington may not be able to fill. If you’ve read this space recently, you’re familiar with my calls for Taylor Jacobs to get his opportunity to shine. After a week in which Jacobs had fewer receiving yards (17) than penalty yards (25), it is apparent that I am an idiot.
In all honesty, a game in which no one really got on track is a poor indicator for what the Redskins can hope to get out of Jacobs. Even if the Florida product develops into a solid second option, the injury to James Thrash has painted Gibbs and company into a corner at receiver. Pre-season sensation Jimmy Farris was resigned and immediately rose to third on the depth chart. Unbelievably, Farris went from unemployed last week, to most likely seeing significant playing time against one of the best teams in the NFL just days later. Farris may have gained some fan support on the heels of his strong pre-season performance, but I seriously doubt Wade Phillips and the Chargers defensive staff ordered in Monday night so that they wouldn’t waste valuable time that could’ve been spent game-planning for Jimmy Farris.
Wednesday morning brought with it the news that former Redskin Antonio Brown has rejoined the team. Brown will presumably fill the kick/punt returner role that he managed to lose in the season’s first game with Chicago. Brown possess world class speed, but has also displayed some of the telltale symptoms of Rodgardneritis, which is a fever that afflicts NFL wide receivers, causing them to drop nearly everything that’s thrown their way. The only cure for this fever is, of course, more cowbell.
The game ball this week goes to middle linebacker Lemar Marshall, whose solid play has gone virtually unnoticed in the wake of Antonio Pierce’s defection to New York. Marshall has been as good this season as anyone could have expected. He trails Marcus Washington by a single stop for the team lead, has picked off a pair of passes, and has been better in coverage (as a former safety) than his predecessor. Marshall is a real Redskin, and he was one of the lone bright lights in an otherwise dark day Sunday.
Contrary to popular belief, this Sunday’s contest against San Diego isn’t necessarily a must-win for the Redskins, though dropping a game below .500 would be psychologically devastating. The Redskins need to win five of the next six games to give themselves good a shot at the post-season. The one thing that Washington still has going for them is an opportunity. They have five conference games remaining, three within the division. Despite their recent failings, Washington still largely controls their own destiny because of their schedule, and because of the teams they’ve beaten thus far.
Obviously, a good start for the home stretch would be to beat San Diego at FedEx on Sunday. The Chargers boast the NFL’s best and most complete player, Ladainian Tomlinson, one of the top tight ends in Antonio Gates, and are led by former Redskins head coach Marty Schottenheimer. In the hotly contested AFC, this game is one the Chargers can ill afford to drop.
The Redskins must try to regain the form they enjoyed early in the season. Someone must consistently get pressure on the quarterback, and somebody is going to have to provide a decent second option at receiver. Mark Brunell must stop handling the ball as if it were buttered, and the coaching staff must remember that intermediate passes and outside runs are still viable offensive options. This is not a game that is out of the Redskins’ grasp, but if the current trends continue, Washington’s gift draft pick to Denver next year will be near the top again.
Check back next week for your weekly Redskins football fix. Hail to the Redskins!
Questions and comments can be sent to Trevor Walters at [email="email@example.com"]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email]
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