When the Washington Redskins' offense needed field position or the team needed a touchdown late last season, the defense would deliver. There were five takeaways, including a touchdown, in a playoff-clinching win at Philadelphia, followed by two turnovers and another touchdown in the wild-card win at Tampa Bay.
The opportunities would come on a tipped pass or a botched handoff or a strip of the running back, and the Redskins would be right there to pounce and switch the momentum.
But this year? The defense that finished 2005 so strong has turned into a unit whose inability to create takeaways has reached record-setting proportions.
The Redskins (4-9) have only 10 takeaways this season, putting them on pace to set an NFL record for the fewest in a 16-game season. Should the Redskins fail to force another turnover this season, they would break the overall record of 11 set by the winless Baltimore Colts during the nine-game, strike-shortened season of 1982.
"Tough to explain," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said yesterday at Redskin Park. "It's something we always work on in practice, and it's the one thing that's different from last year to this year."
Be it bad hands, bad luck or bad positioning, the Redskins haven't been able to turn games around with key takeaways like they did last season. The Redskins finished 4-3 in games decided by three or fewer points last season. They are 1-4 in those games this year, including Sunday's 21-19 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that officially eliminated the Redskins (4-9) from playoff contention.
"We had a lot of close games last year, and I felt turnovers were the key to a lot of our wins," Wynn said. "Whether it was a takeaway that we returned for a score or a takeaway that put the offense in great field position, we did our part on defense and won games. We've lost those games this year, and that's definitely a big stake in why."
The Philadelphia game was a microcosm of the problem. Rogers dropped what should have been interception on the opening play, and linebacker Marcus Washington bobbled, then dropped the ball on what should have been another pick in the third quarter.
"It was unfortunate, and that's been our story this year," assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. "We got two, three opportunities where we got our hands on the ball, and we don't want to slip those chances by."
The Eagles, meanwhile, capitalized on those chances. They intercepted Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell twice, turning those takeaways into 14 points.
"Those were certainly factors in the game that allowed them to gain momentum, and unfortunately those came back to haunt us," defensive end Andre Carter said.
The lack of ball-hawking defensive players represents another problem the Redskins need to fix in the offseason, via the draft and free agency.
But coach Joe Gibbs said, "We've got to find a way to get them with who we have here. It's a matter of making the plays when we get the chances."
A year after producing 28 takeaways on defense and special teams, the Redskins have been wretched this season:
Including those by the special teams, the Redskins have 10 takeaways. They are in danger of setting an NFL record for the fewest in a 16-game season. The Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams share the current mark of 15 set by both in 2004. The Redskins are almost assured of setting a franchise low. The current mark is 21 in 1998.
The Redskins have intercepted only five passes this season, tying them with the 2005 Oakland Raiders for fewest in a 16-game campaign. The franchise low for a 16-game season is 13 in 1998.
The most telling statistic, however, is this: The Redskins are averaging a defensive turnover once every 99.3 snaps. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the next worst (one every 62.3 plays) but still are far ahead of the Redskins. The Chicago Bears rank first (one every 20.9 snaps entering last night's game at St. Louis), and the NFL average is one defensive turnover every 37.2 snaps.
"We work on it all the time and monitor it every day," Williams said. "We keep track of how many times we touch the ball in practice and how many times we come up with it. We work on our hand skills, and it's just one of those things."
Eight times in 13 games the defense has failed to post a turnover. The Redskins are 2-1 in games in which they force two turnovers.
"It seems like the ball is messing with us a little bit," Washington said. "It gets to you. But you have to keep hustling, and those plays will come to you. It's almost like basketball. If you're shot isn't falling, you keep shooting, keep fighting and it will come."
But if it hasn't arrived after 13 games, what are the chances it will ever show up?
"I don't know when it's going to come," Washington said. "I wish we could call up Miss Cleo, but I don't have her number."
Because the offense has 14 giveaways, the Redskins are only minus-4 in turnover ratio (tied for 23rd). But part of the reason the Redskins rank 25th in scoring is the offense often has poor field position. Only 10 drives have started in opposition territory, including just three times when a takeaway has allowed the offense to start on the right side of the 50-yard line.
"Every game we have a goal of trying to create turnovers, and it comes with playing with a high level of intensity," Carter said. "But sometimes it's based on skill, and sometimes it's based on being in the right place at the right times.
"It just hasn't been there for us."