The early-season excitement, the euphoria surrounding Robert Griffin III is gone. The Washington Redskins' fast start and unexpected promise has evaporated. Hope that a change was at hand in Mike Shanahan's third season at the helm has disappeared.
Slowly but slowly, it has dissipated, like air escaping from a tire's slow leak.
Or like a wideout working free against Washington's leaky secondary.
There actually was good news Sunday in the Redskins' latest defeat, 21-13 against the visiting Carolina Panthers. Quarterback Cam Newton passed for just 201 yards, the lowest total that Washington has relinquished all season. It also marked the second consecutive week — and just the second week, period — in which the opponents gained fewer than 290 yards through the air.
However, the Redskins continued their trend of being gouged for long pass plays, this time early in the fourth quarter (as opposed to late in the fourth quarter, like the 77-yarder a couple of weeks ago against the New York Giants).
On first-and-10 from his 9-yard line, Newton connected for 82 yards to Armanti Edwards, who was wide open down the left sideline. Two plays later, Newton scored on a 1-yard run, giving Carolina a 21-6 lead.
"It looks like a busted coverage," said Shanahan. "Basically, at the end of the day, it is. It was a pretty good design. It's something we work on but, unfortunately, they out-executed us on that play."
At this point in the season, with the Redskins yielding an NFL-worst average of 314 passing yards per game (entering Sunday), and a league-high 19 touchdown passes, maybe "execution" isn't the secondary's problem (and, no wisecracks about execution being the solution, either). It appears that the Redskins' beleaguered defensive backs are doing the best they can with the ability they have.
That doesn't bode well for the remainder of the year. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett can make all the tweaks and adjustments imaginable, but if his players' skills, instincts and reactions are suspect, there isn't much room for improvement.
Washington was credited with just two passes defensed against Carolina (compared to the Panthers' six). Receiver Steve Smith was targeted seven times and had only three receptions. But he caught his first touchdown of the season and drew a pair of pass interference penalties — all against cornerback Josh Wilson.
"We were man-up all day, mano a mano," Wilson said. "I felt like we held up out there."
Technically, he's correct. Giving up 21 points isn't a terrible day's work. In fact, that's the lowest output against the Redskins this season. Washington had scored more than 21 points in six of its eight games, and had multiple chances to perhaps tie Carolina and force overtime.
But there's no escaping the sense of fear and dread when Wilson and fellow corner DeAngelo Hall line up in press, man-to-man coverage. They don't instill confidence when they're sitting back in zone, either. Neither do Reed Doughty and Madieu Williams, the safeties assigned to assist them.
Each opposing wideout probably reminds his quarterback as the huddle breaks: "I'm open."
"They're doing the best they can," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said, "but it's not all on them. We need to get better pressure up front so quarterbacks don't have as much time to throw."
He has a point, as the Redskins managed no sacks and just two hits on Newton. Washington was tied for 20th in sacks entering the game, and the secondary simply isn't good enough to cover receivers very long.
But a lack of pressure doesn't explain all of the long passing plays that have plagued the Redskins this season. Defensive backs haven't been within shouting distance on many of them, including Sunday's bomb to Edwards.
"We can't have mental breakdowns like that," Alexander said. "Obviously, we're not a good enough defense. We can't give up those plays if we want to win."
Painful as it might be to admit, Washington likely will have to win despite giving up big plays. Because after nine games and weeks of analysis and so-called corrections, the secondary is porous as ever with no signs of improvement.
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