How The Redskins Defense Got Its Swag Back

By | October 8, 2017
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Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Like with so many things in the NFL, the stats don’t always tell the story.

Being ranked 11th in total yards allowed per game isn’t too shabby. Neither is the #11 ranking in rushing yards allowed (88.8 yards per game). The #17 ranking in passing yards per game isn’t really worth writing home about, as isn’t the #18 ranking in points allowed per game (22.3).

But the box score-watching NFL fans outside of the Washington, DC. area — or fans who don’t root for any team the Redskins have played this season — will miss out on what the rest of the tuned-in NFL fans witnessed on Monday night:

You don’t want to mess with the Redskins defense.

Rewind things back to one year ago. Through four games last season, the team was allowing 28 points per game, and every member of that unit — along with every single Redskins fan — spent most of the game hoping that the offense would do something to bail them out. Joe Barry was the most hated in man in Washington (that didn’t work for the Federal Government, anyway). It wasn’t so much about the result — which, mind you, were pretty terrible — but the fact that there was absolutely no identity to his defense.

Barry talked about wanting to be aggressive, but played some of the most basic, “vanilla” Cover 3 schemes you’d see anywhere. His defense couldn’t stop the run, couldn’t stop the pass, couldn’t stop the opposing team from scoring touchdowns during redzone opportunities, and couldn’t do anything to stop the opponents from imposing their will on the Redskins defense in general.

I’ll openly state that I thought the hiring of Greg Manusky was the result of a haphazard and contrived search for Barry’s replacement (which, coincidentally, describes the process which brought Barry here in the first place). I thought Mike Pettine would’ve been a great hire, but the Redskins decided they weren’t interested. Just like in 2015, when the Redskins were really hoping Vic Fangio would accept the defensive coordinator job here, and settled for Barry only because he was the only candidate remaining, I was pretty convinced that the Redskins really wanted to hire Gus Bradley, and settled only for the in-house option in Manusky after Bradley passed on the job here too.

But if he’s accomplished nothing else through one quarter of the 2017 season, he’s done at least one thing: getting this Redskins defense to play with a level of nastiness that swagger that we probably haven’t see in over a decade (if not more). Manusky is on record as saying something to the effect of “I don’t care if we win or we lose a game, as long as we hit people throughout the course of the game,” and it shows.

But what might be getting overlooked in that is how he’s done the exact opposite of what Barry did last year: he’s taken the players he has, utilized their strengths, and created a group that plays better than the sum of the individual parts.

You want proof?

* Zach Brown was a Pro Bowl linebacker that basically every team in the NFL had no interest in signing, because they felt he was just as much of a liability as he was an asset. And yet, through the conclusion of Week 4, Brown led the NFL in tackles, and might be the fastest Redskins linebacker i’ve ever seen (and i’ve been watching this team since Jay Schroeder was the quarterback).

* Jonathan Allen is already showing flashes of what his NFL destiny: a guy who might not necessarily rack up big numbers or change the way defenses play, but someone who’s always going to be around the play and will consistently do things to make the offense do things away from his side of the football.

* Matt Ionnidis apparently spent the offseason attending the “Calais Campbell school for Defensive Tackles Who Want To Collapse Pockets Good,” and went from “a guy we’re not 100% sure will make the team” to “a guy who’s ranked ahead of J.J. Watt as a pass-rushing interior defensive lineman.”

* Preston Smith has moments where he completely blacks out in the middle of the game, and instantly wakes back up thinking he’s Terrell Suggs in his prime.

* Ryan Kerrigan has spent the first four weeks of the season smashing quarterbacks’ faces into car windshields, and then taking their mothers out for a nice seafood dinner, and then never calling them again. He also has more touchdowns than Rob Kelley, so there’s that, too.

* DJ Swearinger is destroying anyone in his way like a surface-to-air missile, and spending time in between hits pretending like he’s the third member of The Bushwhackers.

Of course, we can’t mention Manusky without mentioning his top lieutenants, who might as responsible — if not moreso, in some cases — for this defensive turnaround as Manusky himself. Jim Tomsula has come in and done for the defensive line what Bill Callahan did for the offensive line: make it a formidable unit that plays hard, smart, and with an edge.

Torian Gray has gotten through to the secondary in ways that Perry Fewell clearly struggled to do. The former is clearly doing a passable job of being the “Bashaud Breeland whisperer,” which we thought we’d miss with the departure of assistant DB’s coach Aubrey Pleasant. Josh Norman was playing as well as any cornerback in football, before he got hurt. Kendall Fuller went from “why do we keep trying to make this guy the nickel cornerback? to “let’s focus on other issues since it looks like we have a good young option at nickel corner.” Hell, even rookie fourth round pick Montae Nicholson is flying around out there like a baby Eric Berry.

But while all this stuff is the result of the eyeball test, the advanced metrics do justify how good the Redskins defense has played. Heading into Week 5, the Redskins defense is ranked 6th in the NFL in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). That ranks them ahead of the Broncos, Seahawks, Jaguars, Rams, Panthers, and/or any team in the NFC East.

Read that list of teams again, and try to wrap your head around that.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. Having played a slate of games in which 1) none of the four teams presently have a losing record, and 2) at least three of those four teams will be in the postseason race later this year, the Redskins actually got through the worst part of their schedule, and have one of the easiest remaining slates of any team in the NFL.

In other words, having faced the early “battle tests” this year, as this group gets to play together longer, they have a chance to get even better. If they continue to do their part, combined with an offense that, at worst, is an above average group themselves, we could be looking at one of the most complete teams in the NFC, and one of the most complete Redskins teams we’ve seen in years.

And for those people who still don’t yet buy into this defense, Tomsula nicely sums up the thoughts of all Redskins fans…

Week 5 NFL Picks

New England (-5.5) at Tampa Baypick made on Thursday evening
LA Chargers at NY Giants (-3.5)
Buffalo at Cincinnati (-3)
NY Jets at Cleveland (Even)
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (-8.5)
Tennessee (-3) at Miami
San Francisco at Indianapolis (-1.5)
Arizona at Philadelphia (-6.5)
Carolina at Detroit (-2.5)
Seattle at LA Rams (-1.5)
Baltimore at Oakland (-2.5)
Green Bay at Dallas (-2.5)
Kansas City (-1) at Houston
Minnesota (-2.5) at Chicago

Last Week: 6-7 (not as terrible)
Season To Date: 24-36 (still plenty terrible)

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