- - Wednesday, September 6, 2017

One side of the ball must be considered the weak link, the group that deceases your odds of victory each week. It’s a natural law of football. Even teams with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense are perceived to have one that’s worse than the other.

There was no confusion in Washington last season. The unit with the NFL’s sixth-best quarterback (ESPN rating), two 1,000-yard receivers and a Pro Bowl-tight end wasn’t the side that opponents preferred facing.

Makes sense. Foes would much rather confront a defense that was ranked 28th overall and allowed a league-worst third-down conversion rate (46.6). Third-and-short, third-and-long, third-and-forever … it didn’t matter. Move the chains!

Washington’s defenders really, really loved to play football; they didn’t want to get off the field.

The scales haven’t shifted entering this season. Quarterback Kirk Cousins & Co. are expected to do the heavy lifting again. Their success or lack thereof will go a long way in determining the team’s fortune.

The offense doesn’t have to go wild like the St. Louis “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams of 1999-2001. But the unit can’t afford to mirror the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, either. They won the Super Bowl but ranked 18th in points and 24th in yards.

If Cousins’s teammates on offense produce at a similar subpar rate, we’re in for a long season and low win total.

I worked in Florida in the 2000s and covered the Bucs’ championship run. They had an all-time great defense — featuring Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks and future HOFer Ronde Barber — that introduced a revolutionary scheme called “Tampa 2.”

Led by Washington coach Jay Gruden’s brother, the Bucs held nine regular-season opponents and two playoff opponents to 10 points or less. They also set a record with five interceptions in the Super Bowl, returning three for touchdowns.

The Bucs’ D isn’t running out of the home team tunnel Sunday at FedEx Field. Neither is Jon Gruden.

But the defenders clad in burgundy-and-gold should be an improvement over last year. It stands to reason because they literally can’t be much worse.

Between a new defensive coordinator, a first-round pick on the defensive line, new (or returning from injury) talent at linebacker and several fresh faces in the secondary, Washington is poised to take a big step forward.

Like all the way to middling.

That doesn’t sound like much but such a leap would be fantastic. Washington should be better and deeper at each level of the defense. New coordinator Greg Manusky should be an upgrade over Joe Barry. Manusky promises to employ a more aggressive style that takes advantage of his players strengths.

They’ll have to do without whatever Su’a Cravens was supposed to bring to the table. The second-year safety made national headlines this week when he tried to retire at age 22. Washington put him on the exempt/left squad list, giving him a month to think about it.

Losing your projected starting strong safety — be it to sudden retirement, injury, drug test or whatever — is no way to begin the season. But the truth is no one knew what to expect anyway, considering Cravens played linebacker as a rookie and missed most of the preseason this year after suffering a knee injury in the opener against Baltimore. His absence should be viewed as permanent, creating a great opportunity for Deshazor Everett.

“I think the more reps he gets with the first group, I think the more detailed oriented he is going to be in the film room and studying,” coach Jay Gruden told reporters recently. “He is a very passionate guy about the game. I think he will do a good job. It’s just a matter of lining up correctly, getting the calls, communicating with (free safety D.J. Swearinger) and making plays. I know the one thing he can do, he can tackle. He is not afraid. He has got good ball skills. So, that’s a good combination for a safety.”

Still, Everett counts as a question mark until he proves otherwise.

He’s not alone. Others are dotted along the front seven (rookie lineman Johnathan Allen and third-year linebacker Preston Smith) and in the secondary (corner Bashaud Breeland). Youth is being served on defense and all that energy and enthusiasm can come at a price.

Given a choice, I’d rather have younger, more-talented players making mistakes opposed to older players with little upside. When your defense is a long way from being good, it’s better to have pieces who can grow into the designation.

One day, perhaps, Washington’s D will be as strong as the O. It’s unlikely to happen this year.

But a stride or two would be reasonable. And greatly appreciated.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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