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Balancing Act: Redskins Defense Must Step Up In 2013

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The Washington Redskins defense is pivotal to their success in 2013. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
The Washington Redskins defense is pivotal to their success in 2013. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

The Washington Redskins were the NFL’s biggest surprise during the 2012 season. Okay, maybe in the NFC (I gotcha, Indy). No one saw the Redskins progressing from a 6-10 team in 2011 with one of the worst quarterback depth charts in the league and a general lack of talent to a 10-6 record and a division title a year later. The far more popular preseason prediction had the Redskins, despite the addition of Robert Griffin III, landing in a familiar place at the end of the 2012 season: fourth in the NFC East. Instead, the upstarts flipped the script and crashed the NFC East party.

The elephant in the room for any team making such a significant, single-season leap forward is determining whether the progression will prove to be a trend or an anomaly. In examining the Redskins, it would be easy to assume that another year with RGIII and Alfred Morris leading the offense, and the medical Gods blessing Brian Orakpo and Pierre Garcon with better health would yield, a the very least, a similar result. Prognosticating the brutal NFL is far from such a simplistic and linear exercise, and includes incalculable variables personified by the disjointed bouncing of, well, a football. 

And that describes normal conditions concerning a team’s prospects for an upcoming NFL season. The Redskins have the added extenuating factors of RGIII’s recovery from knee surgery, the lack of meaningful free agent acquisitions and the absence of a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. The variables could, despite all of the 2012 “feel good”, easily result in another sub-.500 record and a return to the depths of the NFC East. In fact, there may be no other team with a greater delta between its reasonable win ceiling and its win floor.   

The most significant component of that wide disparity of plausible outcomes is unquestionably RGIII’s health. However, the Redskins defense is a consequential secondary influence on the team’s outlook. Yes, after RGIII’s health, the Redskins defense will contribute the most to the team’s further growth or regression in 2013.

Last season the offense flipped from moribund to dynamic, and turned the ball over only 14 times. That number, the best in the NFL, is even more amazing considering the rookies — RGIII, Morris and Kirk Cousins — threw over 400 passes and had over 450 carries. Do you think that’s going to happen again? Do you think RGIII, in spite of his “superhuman” abilities, will really make a huge leap in his sophomore year even though he’ll miss most of the reps this summer and won’t be in 2012 physical form until midseason (at least)? Do you think the offensive line’s remarkable health will be repeated in 2013? And do you think that Alfred Morris, a guy who plays crash test dummy (a.k.a. NFL running back) every week will last for 16 games again? Well, do you?

Feeling bearish on the Redskins offense? Good. You should. That’s why D.C.’s best chance — beyond Superman’s ACL — of celebrating another NFC East championship and enjoying a better end to next season resides with the defense’s ability to rebound from an injury-plagued and underwhelming 2012 campaign.

In 2011, the ‘Skins defense ranked 13th overall and figured — with a healthy Orakpo, fellow LB Ryan Kerrigan in his second season, DE Jarvis Jenkins returning from knee surgery and free agent safeties Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson signed to fill the void left by LaRon Landry — to improve and carry the team last season. Instead, virtually nothing went according to plan, outside of the exception to nearly every NFL rule (London Fletcher). DE Adam Carriker and Orakpo got hurt in Week 2. Jenkins seemed to labor all year while wearing a bulky knee brace (I guess he’s not superhuman). Kerrigan, while he had his moments, clearly struggled with Orakpo absent on the other side of the ball. And the safeties — Jackson  was suspended) and Meriweather was injured — were literally non-entities. As a result, the defense struggled all season and routinely rescued nail-biting finishes from the pesky jaws of comfortable wins. The final statistics speak for themselves: 20th in sacks, dead last in third-down conversion percentage and 28th in overall defense.  

That line isn’t going to support a spot in the 2013 playoffs. The overall defensive ranking certainly needs to improve, but the league has proven it’s more important to field a disruptive, ball-hawking defensive squad than a stingy yards-against —  the statistic commonly used to determine overall defensive rankings — stalwart. The ‘Skins defense, due to injuries to the front seven and a dearth of talent in the secondary, was more "bend but don't break", and played on its heels too much in 2012.

That needs to change next season. And considering the secondary won’t, in all likelihood, have any significant upgrades, the task falls to a talented group of defensive linemen and linebackers. Orakpo and Kerrigan need to exceed 20 combined sacks. Fletcher needs to be Fletcher (one…more…time). Jarvis Jenkins needs to be a consistent — not an occasional — force. Defensive ends Stephen Bowen and Carriker should contribute a fist full of sacks each. And LB Perry Riley needs to be less a Fletcher protégée and more of a Fletcher peer. In other words, the front seven needs to be in 2013 what they could’ve and should’ve been in 2012. If they pull it off, the ‘Skins might actually piece together an elusive team accomplishment: back-to-back winning seasons.