How Can the Redskins Get Better? Scheme, Schedule & Philosophy
by Chris Russell
Jul 15, 2014 -- 10:00am
ESPN 980

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Our Redskins summer series continues with another look at a critical element on the defense. We focused on the defense and  my belief and expectation that they can  obtain 50 sacks this year if all goes as expected.

Of course, that is a high expectation and I should know better, but it makes sense.

If you missed our first entry on the Redskins offense  and a huge focus on special teams , just click on the link and you can get extended breakdowns.

If the pass rush is as good as the Redskins believe it will be and I of course think it can be, it should stand to reason that the secondary and overall pass defense should be a lot better than it has been in 2012 and 2013.

When I wrote the profile on the 50 sacks, my friend John Keim of ESPN.com and ESPN 980 had some fun with my premise, but also pointed out a key fact and trend.

Yards per pass attempt. The Redskins need to improve dramatically in this area. There is no doubt about that.

As John points out, last year's Super Bowl Champion Seahawks only had 44 sacks, but were first in yards per pass attempt (YPPA) at 5.82.

Washington was terrible in this area. They were 31st last year, allowing 8.04 YPPA (514 attempts, 4,134 yards). When you take their net passing yards figure (3,896), the number goes down to 7.57 YPPA. The Redskins had 36 sacks in 2013.

In the division championship year of 2012, the Redskins were at 7.42 YPPA (636 attempts, 4,720 gross yards) with an adjusted net figure of 7.09 YPPA (4,511 net passing yards allowed). The Redskins had 31 sacks in 2012. 

In 2011, the Redskins had their best defense overall, but not their best  YPPA mark under Jim Haslett and Mike Shanahan (3,804 gross yards, 509 attempts) at 7.47. Their adjusted net figure (3,553 net passing yards allowed)  would be 6.98 YPPA. The Redskins had 41 sacks during this year, their highest total in recent years.

Last year, the Carolina Panthers had 60 sacks and they allowed 6.84 YPPA (3,853 gross yards, 563 attempts). The Arizona  Cardinals had 47 sacks and they were better than Carolina with a 6.50 YPPA (4,065 gross yards, 625 attempts).   

As John points out, "since 2009, the Redskins’ best finish in this area came in ’09 when they were 18th at 6.96.

A couple of things come to mind with that. The more passing attempts against you, can either hurt or help you but generally your average comes down with the larger sample size. Also, while Arizona's YPPA was better than Carolina's - the Panthers allowed less gross passing yards AND had 13 more sacks.

The point is that while a lower YPPA certainly helps you, it is not the primary or only factor in determining a team's success. It is one of the factors. It also depends on who you play.

For instance, Arizona played San Francisco and Seattle twice each in the division. Two of the best teams in football, but to be fair, they do not exactly have loaded passing attacks. Both have a run first mentality. Arizona also played high powered passing attacks like Detroit, New Orleans, and Indianapolis

Carolina played Drew Brees and the Saints twice, along with Matt Ryan and the Falcons who were banged up but love to sling the ball around. Carolina played Seattle as well in the first week of the season and lost in Arizona in early October. They also played New England and the Giants. The schedules in terms of tough passing attacks to defend were about even, with possibly a slight difficulty edge to Arizona.

The Redskins went against three pretty good passing teams in their own division plus took on Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago, Denver and San Diego. As I said many times last year, the schedule was relentless in the first half in terms of premier passing quarterbacks like Rodgers, Stafford, Cutler, Manning and Rivers.

Let's look at some trends a little more closely, as we go "Inside the Numbers."

The Redskins defense which was considered "historically bad" by some,  finished the season ranked 18th (NFL) in yards per game at 354.1, a spot that was tenth in the NFC. Not good but not as terrible as the picture was painted to be. The unit allowed 243.5 passing yards per game which ranked 20th in the NFL and tenth in the NFC, but were last in the NFL in passing yards per play at 7.58, a different metric than YPPA.

Jim Haslett's guys had a 7.00% sacks per pass attempt ratio, which ranked 13th in the NFL and 7th in the NFC. One key area where the unit was really good (on a pass heavy down) was 3rd Down percentage. The Redskins finished at 34.02% to finish fourth in the NFL and 2nd in the NFC in this hugely critical area.

Washington's defense went from worst in the NFL in yards per game allowed in Week five to 18th by the time the season ended. After an initial rise, the defense dipped back to 30th in the league in Week nine only to jump 12 spots in eight games.

On third down the Redskins went from a season worst 22nd in the NFL after two weeks on a steady climb to fourth overall.

Their red zone percentage was 28th in the NFL and 15th in the NFC and the number that everybody looks at (points per game) never was better than 24th overall, and finished 30th in the NFL and tied for 14th in the NFC. Of course, those that don't understand how the sport works blamed this woeful statistic all on the defense which could not be further from the truth.

Some other accomplishments for the Redskins defense, courtesy of Redskins PR were:

- Finished second in the NFL in least third down conversions allowed (66)
- Finished tied for third in the NFL in rushes stuffed (50)
- Finished tied for fourth in the NFL in most stuffed yards (124)
- Finished fifth in the NFC and sixth in the NFL in rushes stuffed efficiency (11.3%)
- Finished tied for second in the NFC and tied for third in the NFL in interception return touchdowns (4)

The Redskins scored five defensive touchdowns last year, the highest total since 1994. They had four interception returns for touchdowns (DeAngelo Hall - Detroit & Denver, David Amerson - Oakland, Brian Orakpo -Chicago). Hall had the lone fumble return for a touchdown in the season opener.

So a defense that was so brutal, so awful, such an abomination (as many pundits labeled it) did something no Redskins defense had done in nearly 20 years.

Looking further, the Redskins defense yielded on average 309.3 net yards per game in the second half (final eight games) of their season. The total net yards allowed was 2,475 yards over eight games.

Of that total, 1,639 net yards were via the pass or an average of 204.8 net passing yards allowed per game. This was on a total 225 attempts, which meant the adjusted YPPA was 7.28. The unadjusted figures are 1,742 yards over 225 attempts for a YPPA of 7.74.

The first half Redskins adjusted YPPA was 2,257 yards with 289 passing attempts, for a YPPA of 7.81. The first half unadjusted figure was 8.27.  

It wasn't a monstrous decrease, but it was a 0.53 drop in YPPA from the first eight games to the final eight. When that is measured at a total of 514 passes, that number becomes more magnified.

The bottom line is that the first half of the season saw the Redskins defense allow 618 more net passing yards than they did in the second half in the same amount of games, or an average of 77.25 more per game allowed in the first half as opposed to the second half.  

An interesting number to note is that the Redskins defense only had 15 sacks in the second half of the season, compared to 21 in the first half. Of course, seven of those came against a brutal Oakland offensive line so the numbers were probably more equal if we are factoring in opponents.

In the first half of the Redskins season, they faced the # 1 (Aaron Rodgers), # 2 (Philip Rivers), # 3-Tie (Tony Romo), # 5 (Peyton Manning) and # 9-Tie (Jay Cutler) quarterbacks that are the active yards per pass attempt leaders.

In essence, sacks are not directly tied to YPPA, and that was completely understood when I did the column. I was trying to say that the Redskins had bolstered their pass rush enough that I felt that specific number was absolutely in reach.

There are a lot of factors that go into a good secondary and therefore good pass statistics. Tackling might be the most important, but scheme and pass rush  pressure are major factors.

Pro Football Focus judged the Redskins to have missed 143 tackles on the season, with DeAngelo Hall leading the way with 18 missed tackles per the website. Tampa had 146 to lead the NFL according to PFF.  The Rams had  145,  the Vikings were at 143, the  Bears were scored at 137, the Raiders were  at 135  and the Cowboys were at  130. On the low side, the Colts  were at 95. The Patriots were at 84, while the Saints finished at a league best 77 missed tackles according to PFF numbers.

Seattle had 78.  Obviously, very close to the top of the league and when you combine their league best YPPA at 5.82 - you start to see a trend.

This chart which measures the adjusted YPPA as far as I can tell, has St. Louis at 29, Oakland at 30, Dallas at 27, Chicago at 26, Tampa at 20 and Minnesota at 23. This seems to be the most glaring connection that leads to a higher YPPA. Missed tackles.  The higher the amount of missed tackles is clearly going to mean a higher YPPA.

So it would seem easy to say - just tackle better - and that would solve all of the issues right? Well....

Here's where I am at and how the Redskins can get better. Sacks are just one metric, pass rush pressure is much more important in a lot of ways. Tackling is clearly an area that the Redskins have to improve but I believe that they will be better than their judged total of last year.

There's no doubt that increasing the sack total should help, but not if the Redskins can't clean up the damage on 2nd or 3rd down depending on when sacks occur.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that if the Redskins can have better sustained pass rush pressure, that will make things harder on opposing quarterbacks and offensive units. They have to get rid of the ball quicker, coverages do not break down as much and more mistakes are generally made as harassment is increased.

Here's another thing that will help. The Redskins defense will have a much more aggressive mentality this year. Under Mike Shanahan, the Redskins wanted to stop the run and make opponents one dimensional. Now, they are going for broke.

From their defensive line philosophy to their pass rush philosophy and I believe that extends to how the secondary will improve their own unit and the defense overall.

The Seahawks have redefined how to play fast, physical and aggressive defense. Mike Shanahan normally preferred to play a more conservative type of coverages. The Redskins defensive staff wanted to do more. At the bye week in 2012, the Redskins were (3-6) and sinking quick.  The defense decided to put their own stamp on things and became much more aggressive. Remember? One of the key philosophy changes was playing more man coverage and blitzing from the secondary.  The inside linebackers were free to attack the line of scrimmage. It  worked.  That's Jim Haslett's mentality.  He is far from conservative in his thought process, unless he's forced to be.

Clearly, Washington is nowhere near that level but a constant complaint that I've heard from Redskins fans over the course of the last five years is why the defense often employs corners lined up a considerable yardage off of the receiver.

Far be it from me to know all of the nuances of schemed defense, but there are many reasons for it. Clearly, it is a much more cautious approach and the thought would be to give your corners room to operate and see routes develop.

The Seahawks play a mix of coverages, like anybody does, but almost always - their corners are lined up on the line of scrimmage and ready to jam and contest the receivers route.

I believe the Redskins will employ this philosophy as much if not more than they ever this year. I believe their skill set at corner matches this and I can't imagine that DeAngelo Hall, David Amerson or Bashaud Breeland do not want to be mano a mano and in a receivers grill. I don't see that being EJ Biggers' strength but Chase Minnifield has that mentality and feisty mindset.

Thankfully for the Redskins, Josh Wilson is no longer around. That's addition by subtraction and I would have to imagine that Tracy Porter could not possibly be anymore of a liability. Wilson allowed 372 yards-after-the-catch, 5th worst in the NFL. Porter wasn't much better, but Wilson allowed more receptions and more yards than Porter did, even though Porter was thrown at more times.

Porter played 1,016 snaps with Oakland last year (RCB, Slot CB) and Pro Football Focus gave him a cumulative minus 11.6 grade. He really fell off in the late part of the season, and that could be a combination of many factors.

Porter, according to PFF (ProFootballFocus.com) statistics was thrown at 94 times with 62 completions against his coverage.  He was judged to have allowed 707 yards into his coverage and 363 yards-after-the-catch (YAC). So quarterbacks throwing against Porter's coverage were  (62 -94, 66 %,  4 TD, 2 INT).

David Amerson's rookie season was judged better than I thought by PFF, as quarterbacks were  (45-77, 58.4, 684 yards, TD, 2 INT)  with 246 YAC.  DeAngelo Hall (60-94, 63.8 %, 726, 4 TD, 4 INT) with 301 YAC. Amerson gave up more big plays than Hall did, but there is reason for optimism.

This is your starting three. Others will contribute like Breeland and possibly Minnifield, and both of those guys fit the mold. As does Richard Crawford. Who knows what Crawford will be like (if anything at all) this year, but I would love to see what he could be late in the year. He was very much improved before tearing up his knee before the regular season last year.

Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark will struggle at times in coverage, but Meriweather was much better in the second half of the season last year as he finally was healthy and was able to just focus on football instead of the tackling issues. Clark was better in the second half than he was in the first according to PFF, but still, he can't possibly be expected to hold up for a thousand high impact snaps. I would NOT rule out Tanard Jackson in any way, despite everything you hear.

Here's the bottom line. The Redskins secondary and pass coverage will be a LOT better because of an emphasis on getting after the quarterback, better athletes and a more aggressive style. That I can realistically feel confident in. I have to believe they will be better tacklers, but I can't say I am really confident there.

YPPA is a by-product of a few things. If the Redskins are better in several areas than they were last year, the number will be much more reasonable. It also helps that they will be playing quite a few quarterbacks with inconsistent careers like Ryan Fitzpatrick (Houston), Eli Manning (Giants), Jake Locker (Titans) and other teams that have huge questions at the position.

The only truly elite quarterback they face all year is Andrew Luck. That's it. Sorry, Russell Wilson doesn't count yet because his success is largely because of a punishing running game and elite defense.

Something the Redskins hope to give their quarterback this year.

Chris Russell - SFTheRooster@Yahoo.com - www.twitter.com/russellmania980



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