Halfway through the 2016 season, the Washington Redskins defense has had it’s share of ups and downs. In the team’s four victories, the defense has made key stops or forced turnovers at the right time. In the three losses and one tie, the defense has failed to hold a late lead or simply been outplayed from the start. While the unit hasn’t exactly been the ’85 Bears or the ’00 Ravens, there have been several things that have worked well.
Trent Murphy – When Junior Galette arrived in free agency last season and the team drafted Preston Smith to go with Ryan Kerrigan, it seemed like Murphy would be the odd man out. Even with Galette’s injury, Murphy never made much of an impact. This year, however, has been a different story. Moved to defensive end and then back to outside linebacker, Murphy has found new life and he is second on the team with six sacks and four tackles for a loss.
Josh Norman – Signed to a 5-year, $60 million contract after his surprise release by the Panthers (he was a restricted free agent with the franchise tag) Norman has been as good as advertised. Obviously the move came with a heavy dose of excitement and praise but also lots of expectations, and opinions. He’s been the Redskins best defender and has shown an ability to stand toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best receivers. He has also been a strong leader, often playing through pain, to ensure he’s on the field.
Preston Smith – During limited action in his rookie season, Smith tallied eight sacks, forced four fumbles, deflected four passes and even recorded a safety in the Redskins playoff loss to the Packers. Big things were expected of him coming into the season, especially with another season ending injury to Galette. While the sack numbers haven’t been there, Smith has found other ways to be disruptive on defense, creating opportunities for other players to make the big play. Despite the lack of sacks, he does lead the team in tackles for a loss with five.
Ability to Overcome Injuries in the Secondary – When the season started, the Redskins felt good about their secondary with Norman and Bashaud Breeland at corner and DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton, Jr. at safety. They also felt like they had the depth they lacked last season. With Hall and Bruton on season-ending IR and Breeland missing time due to an ankle injury, that depth has been tested and they have responded well. One key player in this area has been rookie Su’a Cravens. Drafted in the second round as a “playmaker” he has spent time covering tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. His interception of Eli Manning sealed the Redskins first win and he may soon get more time at safety to show what he can do.
Improved Tackling and Third Down Defense – When the team started the year 0-2, tackling was terrible and the Redskins couldn’t get off the field on third downs. Then, they seemingly flipped a switch and that changed. It started against the Ravens where the defense was vastly improved in both areas and it has continued from there. The ability to limit yards after first contact and get key stops when needed (they have struggled with the latter in the past two games) will be key to a strong second half of the season.