- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

In the midst of their bye week, the Washington Redskins find themselves, halfway through the 2016 season, sitting at 4-3-1 — good enough for sole possession of last place in the NFC East.

Early on in the season, a defense riddled with injuries to key players could not seem to get it together. But there have been glimpses of hope that the Redskins may be on the verge of turning things around.

Here are three questions defensive coordinator Joe Barry and his unit have to answer if the Redskins are going to make a run for a playoff spot

1. What can the defense do against the run?

In the first five games, the Redskins allowed 650 total yards rushing, an average of 130 yards rushing per game.

The gouging has slowed a bit over the last three weeks to a more reasonable 113 yards per game.

But Washington’s 123.8 rushing yards allowed ranks 26th in the NFL. And of the opponents the Redskins have played, only the Dallas Cowboys (1st), Cincinnati Bengals (6th) and Cleveland Browns (10th) rank in the top 10 among NFL rushing teams.

Why are they struggling? Part of the reason is individual missed tackles.

Against the Browns, who put up 163 yards rushing against Washington, coach Jay Gruden counted 11 missed tackles. And, according to Football Outsiders, Washington ranks 26th in the NFL at stuffing runs at the line of scrimmage, doing so on just 14 percent of the runs they face. Even worse, the Redskins struggle tackling backs when they break the line of scrimmage into the five-yard territory, ranking 31st in second-level run yards allowed.

Linebacker Will Compton said the team focused a bit more on fine-tuning their tackles and making sure guys were in the right position and shooting the right gaps earlier this season.

But Compton also said the team started to communicate with one another a bit better.

“We got better routines about it,” Compton said. “We talked about what issues we were having at times. We got on a better page and a better process of it all.”

There’s no doubt the run defense has improved — the Redskins held their opponents under 100 yards in two of their last three games. But with dates remaining against ground-based attacks in Arizona, Carolina and league-leading Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, the Redskins‘ front line will be tested.

2. Can the Redskins‘ patchwork secondary hold?

Outside of Josh Norman, who has been as good as advertised, the Redskins‘ secondary has been a bit shaky, especially at the safety position.

Both original starters, DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton, were placed on the injured reserve list with a torn ACL and a concussion, respectively. Will Blackmon was converted to safety, but he underwent surgery for a broken thumb and is questionable following the bye week.

That leaves Washington with two safeties, Donte Witner Sr. and Duke Ihenacho, with larger roles than the Redskins initially anticipated.

But the question mark doesn’t just lie with the safety position. Opposite of Norman is Bashaud Breeland, who had a fantastic season last year, but has been struggling a bit. Breeland has one interception this season, but he’s defended just four passes on the year. At times, he’s been overmatched in coverage, something that was never more evident than when he found himself a step behind all day against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown in the season opener. Breeland’s dealt with two separate ankle injuries over the last few weeks. Can Breeland return to his true form and be a playmaking corner opposite of Norman?

Rookie Kendall Fuller has stepped in in the absence of Dashaun Phillips, who has nursed a hamstring injury since Week 3, and has performed well in the nickel role. Barry has been satisfied with Fuller’s work, saying so prior to the Detroit Lions game.

“You know, the biggest thing, playing any position, but especially playing DB and specifically the nickel corner, you’ve got to have a plan every week on how you attack the guy that you play based on what type of player that is, and usually young guys don’t get that,” Barry said of Fuller. “Usually young guys say, ‘Oh, I get the call, I’ve got to play the call.’ You know, ‘I’ve got to play my leverage, I’ve got to do my job.’ But you learn as you’re in this league, you’ve got to approach every single wide receiver different. And it’s cool that Kendall already understands that. He already really gets it and that’s why I talk about his awareness, his savviness, his instincts, whatever you want to call it. He has that and it’s really neat.”

The Redskins can’t afford to lose anymore members of the secondary, and the ones that are healthy need to continue to improve.

3. Can anyone outside of Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy get to the quarterback?

It’s a nitpick, because the Redskins are already tied for third in the NFL with 22 sacks, but it could be even better.

Linebackers Ryan Kerrigan, with seven sacks, and Trent Murphy, with six, have been dominant. But the rest of the defensive line is having a tough time breaking through — defensive end Chris Baker has just two sacks. Last season, Baker recorded six. Ricky Jean Francois hasn’t gotten to the quarterback often in his career, but he sits at just 1.5 sacks. Ziggy Hood is far removed from his days as a nose tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but has just one sack.

The biggest mystery is linebacker Preston Smith. Smith recorded eight sacks in his rookie year last season and was hyped up by Gruden as someone who could be a “heck of a pass rusher for us here for a long time.” Smith is going through a bit of a sophomore slump, with just 1.5 sacks on the year so far.

If the Redskins can find a way to activate Smith along with Kerrigan and Murphy and have some other members of the defensive line chip in a bit more, the Redskins could have one of the scariest pass rushing units in the NFL.

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