For all the grief that the Washington Redskins (rightfully) get about how poorly their organization can be run at times, they’ve actually acquired some decent talent on their roster. They have some decent pieces on offense including a fairly deep running back rotation. But it’s their defense where things really look good, at least on paper.
Washington has a lot of talent, particularly in their front seven. Along the defensive line they have two Alabama products in nose tackle Da’ron Payne and defensive end Jonathan Allen, both of whom were disruptive all of last year, alongside pass rushing defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, who put up 7.5 sacks last year. Coming off the edge is Ryan Kerrigan, one of the more overlooked pass rushers in the NFL despite having double-digit sacks the past three years.
Kerrigan is flanked by what is, for now, a rotation of three young edge rushers in Ryan Anderson, Cassanova McKinzy, and rookie Montez Sweat. Anderson, another Alabama alum, recorded two sacks last season in limited snaps, while McKinzy recorded his first career sack last week against the Eagles. Sweat got the most action out of these three, though, compiling five total tackles and a tackle for loss. His pass rushing skills make him more than just a stout run defender. The front seven is completed by Shaun Dion-Hamilton and fifth-round rookie Cole Holcomb, who began his NFL career with a team-high nine tackles and two tackles for loss against Philadelphia.
The secondary sees a drop off in talent. Josh Norman is still the featured cornerback, for better or worse, but he gave up six catches on eight targets last week per Pro Football Focus. Norman’s counterpart, Quinton Dunbar, didn’t fare any better as he was targeted nine times and allowed six catches. The ‘Skins’ slot corner, newly signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, was only thrown at once and didn’t allow a completion, but it’s telling that Carson Wentz and the Eagles targeted the top two corners of this defense more than DRC.
At safety, Washington has one of the better tandems in the league after giving all the money to Landon Collins in free agency. He pairs with the underrated Montae Nicholson to give the defense two hard-hitting safeties in the backfield that can hurt you in the passing game if you underestimate them.
With all this talent, there’s no reason why the Redskins shouldn’t boast a top tier defense, and through one half last week they looked the part. But when Allen, arguably their best player, went down with an injury, things fell apart. Allen will miss Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, which won’t be great for Washington. With not much depth along the defensive line, it’ll be up to Ioannidis and Payne to step up.
But the real challenge for this defense is at the coaching level. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has been with the team since 2016, and the offseason buzz was that owner Dan Snyder was actively interviewing candidates to replace Manusky before the coordinator had even been fired. But the season is here and so is Manusky. He brings with him an aggressive 3-4 scheme that features a heavy dose of blitzes.
But where Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s scheme uses exotic blitzes and disguised coverage schemes in unique ways, Manusky’s scheme is less secretive. He tends to throw the kitchen sink at an offense and rely on his talented roster to execute. It works more often than not, but when an offense like, say, the Eagles starts using a lot of RPO plays to slow down the defense, Manusky has a tough time adapting his gameplan.
He’s also been known to misuse his players, with Kerrigan being asked to drop into coverage more than he ever should and corners playing soft coverage on third and short. This weakness was part of the reason the Redskins brought in two new defensive position coaches. Defensive backs coach Ray Horton, a former defensive coordinator himself who played for the Cowboys once, is known for employing more press man techniques. Coaching the linebackers is none other than Rob Ryan, former Cowboys defensive coordinator. His downfall as a play caller was using blitzes that were so complex his own players couldn’t figure them out, so the hope is that he balances out Manusky’s blandness.
Either way, this defense has great potential. They flashed that potential in the first half of their season opener, but the momentum dissipated. They were solid against the run, with a respectable -11.4% DVOA but their secondary posted a downright dismal +47.7% DVOA (for comparison, the Giants’ pass defense has a +124.1% DVOA based on last week’s game against Dallas).
Manusky and the rest of his staff will need to come up with a good gameplan to defend against Kellen Moore’s smoke-and-mirrors routine on offense, but there should be no doubt that he has the talent to do so, even without Allen, but the question will revolve around execution and the ability to make changes on the fly.