Giving up big plays often this season, the Washington Redskins' secondary has been a popular punching bag. Often, that criticism is deserved.
But for the Redskins to have a top-five NFL defense like many players boasted before the season, it will take a stronger performance from the linemen, specifically against the pass.
Through four games, the Redskins have seven sacks but none from their down linemen. Getting less production from those positions in a 3-4 defense is common, but linemen are determined to make more of a tangible impact.
"I believe that the sacks will come," Kedric Golston said. "There's really no excuses, whether it's max protection or quick throws. It's our job to get the quarterback down on the ground."
It's not like the defensive line has been invisible by any stretch of the imagination, even though the unit has combined for just 12 tackles. To begin with, the line has been instrumental in the Redskins' run defense, which is allowing opponents just 89 yards a game.
"I think we've succeeded at stopping the run, trying to make teams one-dimensional," defensive end Stephen Bowen said. "[We're] playing with a lot of leverage up front. We're recognizing blocks easier because it's another year for us in this scheme. We're just more comfortable with what we're doing."
As Golston pointed out, the 3-4 defense is hard to run against, thanks to this group's "mentality" and the angles this scheme employs. But that has a downside.
"It's a give-or-take because it puts you behind the 8-ball in the pass game just because of the techniques that you play," he said. "But yet still, we take a lot of pride in getting at the quarterback. That's why we brought the guys in that add depth on the defensive line to be able to convert."
Not getting to the quarterback enough, an issue team-wide after linebacker Brian Orakpo was knocked out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, has contributed to the Redskins' 29th-ranked pass defense. With Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons in town Sunday, there's a need to improve quickly.
"I don't think we're panicking, but we just understand the sense of urgency to continue to get better week in and week out," Golston said. "People want a lot of sacks and we want sacks, too. But if they throw the ball 40 times and we get five sacks, everybody will be like, 'Wow, but what about the other 35 times? What happened?' So it's our responsibility to make sure we get bodies around the quarterback and get hands in his face so he's not out there throwing in a clear field."
The film reveals definite progress, even without sacks. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, nose tackle Barry Cofield played a major role in DeAngelo Hall's interception. Cofield employed a spin move to beat the center and hit Josh Freeman's throwing hand as he let go of the ball.
That's one way to make an impact without driving a quarterback to the ground. Another is batting balls down at the line of scrimmage, something Bowen takes a lot of pride in.
"That kind of thing frustrates quarterbacks and causes them to try to make mistakes," he said.
The defensive linemen must guard against frustration, too, especially when they're blocked so well that they can't get into the backfield. Linebacker Rob Jackson praised his teammates for getting a lot of pressure in the first three weeks. The Buccaneers were able to adjust.
"I feel that people have shown us a lot of respect up front. Me personally I feel like last game I was being double-teamed a lot," Bowen said. "That comes with the territory. You get pressure some games, they'll try to do something to neutralize you. We've just got to keep rolling."
And adjusting themselves. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett noted that after the Redskins saw the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees take a lot of seven-step drops in the season-opener, other offenses have used quick throws to cut down on the time defenders have to rush.
"I think last year coming in here, people didn't really know how talented we were up front. They know what we have the ability to do," Bowen said. "Sometimes you hear people talking about we're not getting enough pass rush. They're getting the ball out quick. I know our guys are talented up front. If we get the opportunity to rush the passer, we'll get there."
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