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?
"We've lost some people, of course, that knew the system and played well like Ryan and [cornerback] Walt [Harris]," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "But those people aren't here any more. We can't dwell on that. We have to go with the people that were brought in."
Said linebacker Marcus Washington: "I don't think that's the problem. The last two years, when guys went down, somebody else would step up and play just as well if not better."
Washington's point is well taken. In the 2004 preseason, middle linebacker Mike Barrow was injured, and Pierce led the team with 112 tackles in his place. In the fifth game of that season, safety Matt Bowen was lost for the season, and Clark made 81 tackles (fourth on the team).
The last two Redskins teams had defensive depth. But the players acquired to fill out this year's depth chart haven't been as productive.
The secondary plays without starting cornerback Shawn Springs, who expects to return soon, and Pierson Prioleau, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Springs would have helped Rogers' development and limited the pressure applied to newcomers Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph. Prioleau similarly would have aided Archuleta.
Gibbs doesn't believe the Redskins' performance should suffer without a player of Springs' caliber.
"I wouldn't say that at all," Gibbs said. "We'd certainly love to have Shawn, but teams all the time go without players for weeks, and that's why you work so hard as an organization to have depth. We miss Shawn, but I don't think that's any excuse for anything that's happened to our defense."
The past two seasons: The Redskins in 2004 allowed 38 drives that lasted eight or more plays and 36 last season. In 2004, they allowed 31 drives that measured 60 or more yards and 29 last season. Their third-down success rate was 69 percent (second in the NFL) in 2004 and 64.5 percent (11th) last year.
This season: The Redskins already have allowed 17 drives of eight or more plays and eight drives of 60 or more yards. They rank 24th on third down (58 percent).
The most maddening part for the Redskins is their inability to get stops on third down. Opponents have more success on third-and-9 (6-for-7) than they have on third-and-4 (4-for-10). Teams have converted 16 third downs when they needed to gain 6 or more yards.
"I'm concerned because the first two years, we had a defense that flew around, made plays, didn't give up big yardage — runs or passes — downfield," Daniels said.
When they built a 10-0, first-quarter lead in Week 2, the Cowboys converted three third downs with plays that totaled 55 yards. Last week, the Giants had third-down plays of 44, 10, 8 and 21 yards on scoring drives.
"We have to make sure we finish better," Wynn said. "We can't allow the big plays that change the momentum of the game."
The offense has had 47 fewer snaps than the Redskins' opponents in their three losses.
"We have to make sure we play our technique and fundamentals, and it goes back to the basics that the coaches teach us and the positions they put us in," Wynn said. "From there, we have to make sure we make plays."
The past two seasons: In 2004, the Redskins allowed 34 pass plays of 20-plus yards, the third fewest in the NFL. Last year, they ranked 22nd with 44 allowed.
This season: The pass defense, minus Springs, has struggled badly. The Redskins already have allowed 21 pass plays of 20 or more yards and six passes of 40 or more yards. They rank second to last in the NFL in both categories.
The Redskins ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, in pass defense the last two seasons. But the 236.6 yards they have allowed this season places them 28th.
"It's a concern because we're not playing how we should be," Rogers said. "That goes for the line, the linebackers and the secondary. I mean, we have two interceptions. That's it. We're not getting turnovers, we're not stopping teams on third down and we're giving up big plays."
The cornerbacks — Rogers, Wright and Rumph — clearly have struggled. But they haven't been helped by a pass rush that has only seven sacks or by a safety duo — Sean Taylor and Archuleta — that occasionally seems lost downfield.
"It's 11 of us out there working together," Rogers said. "If the quarterback has time to stand back there, pat the ball and make those plays ..."
More pressure on the passer is needed from the defensive line and rushing linebackers (the Redskins have seven sacks). More pass break-ups and interceptions (only one by the secondary) are required. Maybe then, the quality of defense played the last two years will make a triumphant return.
"We know we have to get things going, and we don't have a lot of time to do it," Washington said.