The 4-3-1 Washington Redskins go into their bye at the perfect time — Week 8. Everyone on the team needs to get away from football for a while to heal physically and mentally. This is a good time to look back on the first half of the season and grade the team’s offense, defense and special teams. Today is a look at the defense.
CB: Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland, Quinton Dunbar, Kendall Fuller, Greg Toler, Desean Phillips.
S: Will Blackmon, Duke Ihenacho, Donte Whitner, Su’a Cravens*, Deshazor Everett
DL: Chris Baker, Ricky Jean Francois, Cullen Jenkins, Ziggy Hood, Matt Ioannidis, Anthony Lanier
OLB: Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, Preston Smith, Houston Bates
ILB: Will Compton, Mason Foster, Martrell Spaight, Su’a Cravens*, Terence Garvin
The addition of cornerback Norman in the offseason was a boon for the Redskins.
Tied for third in numbers of passes defended this year (11), the former Carolina Panther has played as advertised. But he and Breeland as a duo haven’t been as impactful as many thought they would be. Breeland hasn’t been assigned to opponent’s top receivers so this has made a difference in how much he is targeted but he also hasn’t played as well as he can.
The safety position was in flux early on but, even with the injuries, has begun to come together.
Whitner, a 10-year veteran signed in the first week of October, has stepped in and played well. It has been a source of discussion that, even though Ihenacho is listed as starter on the team’s depth chart, the newcomer plays more snaps. But the way defensive coordinator Joe Barry rotates guys in and out; Ihenacho will get on the field. Ihenacho has 21 tackles and two passes defended so far. Whitner has 16 tackles.
Blackmon is a guy who has played a lot of football. His transition this season so safety might have taken a while but his experience and leadership will only help the unit once he is completely comfortable.
Cravens, around whom there was much optimism because of his amazing skill set, has been impactful when on the field, especially against the Cincinnati Bengals. This was a game during which the DC called some creative — and effective — blitzes that catered to the rookie’s talents.
Given that general manager Scot McCloughan seemed to ignore the defensive line during the offseason, (when the team thought OLB Junior Galette would be available for the season), the expectation was that the unit would not be very good. While it certainly has had issues stopping the run, it has gotten better since Week 1, going from allowing an average of 133 yards on the ground in the first four weeks to an average of 114 in the last four. This is still too many but the reduction is a sign of improvement
If it does nothing else, the defensive line perseveres, playing hard up until the whistle, whether successful or not. While the players along the line don’t get their name called much, when there’s a push into the backfield or an OLB gets a sack; it’s usually because Baker, Francois or Hood have done their jobs.
The light bulb has gone on for Murphy, who many thought would be “just a guy” when the season started.
It’s hard to know if he has just matured into his position or if adding the weight and muscle he was going to need to play the defensive line before Galette got hurt helped in some way. Regardless of why, he has recorded six sacks so far; two of them against the Dallas Cowboys young star, Dak Prescott in Week 2 (who was actually sacked four times that day).
Kerrigan has recorded seven sacks, getting to his own rookie QB, Carson Wentz, 2.5 times when the Philadelphia Eagles came to town.
The linebacking unit has a lot of guys that the average NFL fan would not know, but who, as a unit, play pretty well together at times. Compton recorded his first INT against the Cincinnati Bengals on a nickel/corner blitz that was called at the perfect time.
Just after the first quarter of the season, there were calls from fans to fire Barry but the defense has shown steady improvement since Week 1. There are two new starters on the squad and nine more that rotate in. This is only his second year running the defense and players say all the time that cohesiveness and communication take time.
Washington’s defense ranks second in number of tackles (496). The unit is tied for seventh in passes defended (39) and tied for 17th in interceptions (five). It is fifth in fumbles (six) and 19th in both points and touchdowns against. The team ranks 25th in team opponent red zone scoring percentage.
The defense has a number of areas in which it needs to improve, no doubt about it. The Redskins need to learn how to stop opponents’ running backs and Breeland needs to regain his confidence and play to his potential.
Tackling has improved but can always be better. Smith needs to get back to last season’s second-half form.
Barry has been heavily criticized but, again, he has dialed up creative, effective blitzes and stunts against opponents at times. Young players, like the rookies Cravens and Fuller, have a lot of potential and show an upward trend for the unit. This squad has a lot of work to do but, as the players continue to work together, the upward movement could continue. Washington’s defense ranks 22nd overall.
Overall grade for defense at the midway point: C+