For two years, through quarterback controversies, an overhaul at receiver and nearly constant problems with the kicking game, Joe Gibbs always could rely on the Washington Redskins’ defense.
High draft choices and big-money free agents, second-day draft picks and journeymen looking for a chance formed a unit that finished in the top 10 defensively in 2004 and again last season.
But no longer.
A Redskins defense that hung tough with little offensive help two years ago and served as the foundation of a playoff run last season now is an outfit that misses tackles, struggles on third down, fails to create turnovers, rarely gets to the quarterback and constantly is susceptible to the big play.
“Everyone’s pride is wounded because we’re not playing up to our capabilities,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. “It’s a disappointment, but nevertheless we have the type of guys on this team that will definitely get it right and get it turned around.”
They have no choice: The Redskins are 2-3 heading into Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans. In the aftermath of the 19-3 loss to the Giants, Gibbs was forced to confront the first major defensive crisis since his return to the team two years ago.
The Redskins rank 22nd in the league in total yards allowed, 28th in pass defense and 24th in third down defense. They are tied for 28th in interceptions. Only one other team has allowed more passes of at least 20 yards than the Redskins, who have surrendered 21.
“It’s obviously troubling,” Gibbs said. “And the defense would tell you that, too.”
Deciphering the roots of the problem isn’t difficult, but fixing it isn’t as easy.
The past two seasons: Young, undrafted players like linebacker Antonio Pierce and safety Ryan Clark thrived. Former early round draft picks like cornerback Fred Smoot bought into Williams’ system. All three players were allowed to leave in free agency.
This season: Defensive end Andre Carter and safety Adam Archuleta were given above-market-value contracts during the offseason, and both have struggled.
Pierce, Clark and Smoot are all performing well — for the Giants, Vikings and Steelers, respectively. Once identified by Gibbs as “core Redskins,” Pierce and Smoot were given big money by New York and Minnesota. Clark was deemed expendable when the Redskins decided to sign Archuleta.
Their replacements were Lemar Marshall (a better outside linebacker than middle linebacker), Archuleta (who publicly has acknowledged his difficult transition to the Redskins) and Carlos Rogers (still learning on the job at cornerback).
Which forces this question: Are the Redskins struggling because they simply don’t have as many good players?