The strong performance of the Washington Redskins' defense Sunday begs one question: Where has that been all season?
The Redskins' defense played its best game of the season in an upset of the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome, but that surprising effort can't mask the chronic problems that have made the defense the most disappointing unit on perhaps the league's most disappointing team.
The Redskins finished two victories short of the Super Bowl last season but this year plummeted to last place in the NFC East. The biggest culprit in their demise? A defense that finished the past two seasons ranked in the league's top 10 but now is 24th.
The Redskins have two games left, but they also must think ahead to next season. Does this season represent just a bad turn off what had been a steady path, or do the Redskins need to overhaul their once-formidable defense?
The Redskins will examine these five areas at the end of the season to find the answer:
Assistant head coach Gregg Williams looked like a genius in his Redskins debut in 2004, when he cobbled together a mix of free agents, former reserves, a No. 1 draft pick and a few holdovers into the NFL's No. 3 defense.
But with the defense now struggling, Williams has received criticism. His tough, often-abrasive style becomes more noticeable when his team is losing.
"That was definitely an issue in Buffalo," said an NFC player personnel executive who has scouted the Redskins extensively this season. "But I don't think Gregg's going to change his coaching style."
While veteran Redskins defenders support their leader, Williams' tough approach can wear thin.
"Sure a coach can lose the players, but usually that happens with a head coach," a former NFL executive said.
Coach Joe Gibbs has been more involved with the defense this year because he no longer calls offensive plays, but Williams clearly remains the man in charge. There is little to suggest that will change.
Gibbs, who hasn't fired an assistant in 15 years as a coach, said Williams will return and that he doesn't expect changes to the staff because he already has "the people" with whom he can win.
Those people include new cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray, who was a successful coordinator with the Buffalo Bills in 2004. He and safeties coach Steve Jackson are both longtime Williams proteges.
Old-school linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, who famously clashed with former linebacker LaVar Arrington, hasn't gotten much from his group this year. The defensive line of the less-gruff Greg Blache has been the defense's best unit this season.
2. The system
Williams' aggressive blitzes and complex coverages wreaked havoc two seasons ago. They also were critical in forcing 17 turnovers during the 5-0 stretch drive last season that put the Redskins back into the playoffs after a five-year postseason drought.
"The Redskins were always flying around," the former executive said. "They played faster than they were, which you don't see that often. Their intensity, their quickness, their speed, their physicality, all of that seems to be down a notch. The players' relative lack of ability has finally caught up to them."
Williams gambled less often this season because top cornerback Shawn Springs was sidelined with injuries for six games. The defense continually has surrendered big pass plays and is on pace to force the fewest turnovers in a 16-game season in NFL history.
"Their blitz package was so good the first couple of years that it covered up some of their deficiencies," the personnel executive said.
3. Young secondary
Adam Archuleta, lured from St. Louis with the richest contract ever for a safety, struggled in coverage early and never improved.
Archuleta, 29, was benched during the bye week in favor of 35-year-old Troy Vincent, who had been out of work. When Vincent injured a hamstring, career backup Vernon Fox, 27, was pressed into duty ahead of Archuleta.
"There's no way he can play there with what they ask their strong safety to do, so they're going to have to cut him," the player personnel executive said.
Cutting Archuleta would require the Redskins to absorb millions of dollars in prorated bonus payments, a significant salary cap complication. But he is not the only problem in a secondary that includes the 31-year-old Springs and young players in cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Sean Taylor.
"Springs isn't the same guy since the injuries," the personnel executive said. "He has lost a step. It's hard to say if that's the injuries or age, but older corners don't get faster. Rogers is going through what a lot of young corners go through. He's much better at man coverage than some of the intricate zones they're asking him to play. It's the same with Sean Taylor. Offenses are flooding the zones and creating confusion for those guys."
4. Run-of-the-mill linebackers
Lemar Marshall surprised the Redskins two seasons ago with his performance on the weak side after Arrington got hurt. He did so again last season, playing in the middle after Antonio Pierce signed with the New York Giants.
But Marshall hasn't been nearly as effective this year after undergoing shoulder and knee surgery in the offseason.
Warrick Holdman has done little in two years as the weak-side starter. Still, Williams kept second-round draft choice Rocky McIntosh, for whom the Redskins traded two picks to draft in April, on the bench.
Marcus Washington reached the Pro Bowl two seasons ago and arguably played better last season. This year, however, he hasn't been the same playmaker.
"The middle linebacker and [weak side] linebacker aren't playing very well," the personnel executive said. "Lemar is definitely beat up. He can't get off blocks. He needs good people around him to play well. A lot of the problems with their run defense come from Marshall and Holdman."
5. Non-fearsome front four
End Andre Carter received a huge contract to leave the San Francisco 49ers and give a lackluster pass rush a boost. Carter has just four sacks this season, though, but it is enough to lead a team that has gotten to the quarterback an NFL-low 17 times. The other linemen — including Phillip Daniels (three), Demetric Evans (two), Cornelius Griffin (one), Anthony Montgomery (½), rookie Kedric Golston (½), Renaldo Wynn and Joe Salave'a — have only 11 combined.
"They do need another pass rusher, but the front four hasn't been a problem since their tackles got back from injuries," the player personnel executive said. "They're good enough against the run, and they give great effort. Golston has helped. Daniels, Wynn and Salave'a contribute. When he's healthy, Griffin is close to a Pro Bowl tackle. Carter has come on."
What to do?
Holdman and Fox are the only starters not under contract for next season.
The Redskins have megamillions invested in Archuleta, Carter, Griffin, Springs, Taylor and Washington. And after selecting near the top of the first round, the Redskins don't have another pick until the fifth round of next April's draft.
"It's not going to be an easy fix because they've got so many salary cap implications with the guys they already have," the former executive said. "There are so few top players out there in free agency that you have to overspend for them. The Redskins will always do that. They could trade the top pick for a couple of lower picks, but that's hard, too, because no one wants to pay the top guys."