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The 5 O'Clock Club: Tackling the Redskins defensive woes from 2016

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere...

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Among the many failings of the Redskins defense last year, one of the most frustrating for me was the number of missed tackles. I understand that players might get fooled in a scheme, or that coverage might break down; I’m less understanding of professional defensive players who can’t get their shoulder against a ball carrier, wrap arms around him, and stop his forward progress. It seems basic.

Many, many years ago, when I was still living in the U.S., I had a tee shirt — at the time it was my favorite... a beautiful thick white cotton job that fit me perfectly — that said, “It's just throwing and catching and hitting and running. What's simpler than that?” It was a quote from Paul Richards, former manager of the Orioles. He was making the point that baseball is really a simple game.

NFL football isn’t always simple, but tackling should be. Sure — some runners can go all ‘beastmode’ on you and make tackling tough, but I’m talking about routine plays against normal players. Last year the Redskin defense was generally horrible at tackling.

Here are excerpts from a news report that followed the Week 4 win at home against the Browns:

“You can’t just be happy about the win and try to neglect what the hell happened out there,” added Compton, the Redskins’ defensive co-captain who led all players with 11 tackles.

Through four games, the Redskins are giving up 133.0 rushing yards per game, which ranks 30th.

Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said Monday that he counted 11 missed tackles upon reviewing the game, far too many.

“Our tackling was poor,” said Gruden, who was also disturbed by the defense’s performance on third downs (Cleveland converted 8 of 12, or 67 percent) and in red-zone defense.

“We’ve had some plays that we should make, quite frankly, and for whatever reason we’re missing tackles. That’s something we have to fix, something we have to clean up. You’re responsible for a gap and you’re sitting right there, and the guy makes you miss — it’s going to be a long run.”

“[Crowell] earned every yard today,” said Blackmon, 31, who has faced dozens of backs in his 10-year NFL career. “But we can help ourselves by just wrapping up [tackles.]”

Blackmon faulted himself for not finishing tackles.

“A lot of times I didn’t run my feet — meaning, when I hit a guy, I’ve still got to run my feet,” Blackmon explained. “I would just dive instead. Therefore, I have no power in my legs, which makes it easy on the running back.

Just four weeks ago, in his final news conference before the Sept. 12 season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Barry was asked what made him believe the Redskins’ run defense would be better in 2016 than it was in 2015.

Without hesitation, Barry said: “It’s always going to start with tackling. That’s always the number one thing.”

Barry acknowledged that missed tackles were “a glaring issue” in 2015, particularly in the season’s early going. He went on to explain that he pored over film to identify the root of the problem and found that in 90 percent of carries that gained 15 yards or more (what he calls “explosion plays”), a missed tackle was involved.

“That’s on the player, not the coach,” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois said. “The coaches can go till they’re blue in the face. When it’s time to get on the field, that coach ain’t going to be out there to help you. We didn’t tackle. You can’t make an arm tackle on a guy that’s coming downhill and [weighs] 235 pounds. That ain’t never going to work! Not in the NFL, it won’t.”

Unfortunately, the Redskins continued to struggle with tackling throughout 2016, and finished near the bottom of the league in most defensive measures.

I’m tempted to say that poor tackling may have been the most consistent issue of the season, ultimately preventing the Redskins from returning to the playoffs.

Jay Gruden talked about tackling in a training camp press conference at the end of July. He talked about the fact that he doesn’t like to do a lot of live tackling in practice, saying that he would ‘never forgive himself’ if the team lost a player during a tackling drill. He mentioned that he, himself, had injured a hand in a college tackling drill, saying that his fingers were “still messed up”. Is Jay’s personal history hurting his team here?

Jay Gruden also said in his July press conference that by the time a player reaches the NFL, he should know how to tackle. Perhaps he’s taking too much for granted. Torrian Gray is being widely praised for teaching the fundamentals to the defensive backs. Jim Tomsula is being lauded for his work on hand placement and execution. Should the coaching staff be doing more to improve the team’s tackling?

It’s possible that a lot of fresh faces may be all that’s needed to fix this basic problem. The tackling in the game against the Ravens last week showed signs that it might be improved from last year, but there's only so much you can learn from the first preseason game. The fact is, a lot has been done personnel-wise by the Redskins front office to address the defensive failings of a year ago.

The Redskins fired Joe Barry, Rob Akey and Perry Fewell, promoted Greg Manusky, hired Jim Tomsula and Torrian Gray, drafted Jonathan Allen & Ryan Anderson, signed the McTwins, re-positioned Ziggy Hood, added Zach Brown, and re-loaded the Safety position with hard hitting D.J. Swearinger and athletic Su’a Cravens, while letting Ricky Jean Francois and Chris Baker sign elsewhere. Speed, skill and tackling seem to be some of the constants in the player moves, and a focus on skills development and fundamental football seems to be a common theme in the coaching hires.

Joey Mbu built some early Mason-Brennan hype, along with Matt Ioannidis, who’s also getting good reports in camp. This week’s Mason-Brennan voting was, the last time I looked, being dominated by Nico Marley, who is building his hype by displaying hustle and tackling ability. Jay Gruden, in the same press conference where he handled the question on live tackling in practice, praised Marley, a UDFA defensive player out of Tulane, whom Jay described as ‘making every tackle’.

Maybe all of this will lead to better tackling in the upcoming season, but we’ll have to wait and see.

It’s a new-look defense for the Redskins, but this is all just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic if the players don’t execute the basics — and for a defensive player, nothing is more basic than tackling.

So, my questions today are:

  1. Will the 2017 Redskins defense tackle better than the 2016 version?
  2. Why do you believe that they will (or won’t)?
  3. Who will be the leading tackler for the Redskins in 2017?

Poll

Where will the Redskins rank in overall defense in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Top 10
    (14 votes)
  • 39%
    11-16 (still in the top half of the league)
    (112 votes)
  • 50%
    17 - 25 (a bit below average)
    (142 votes)
  • 4%
    26 - 32 (among the worst in the NFL)
    (14 votes)
282 votes total Vote Now