Nothing has changed in terms of first down defense: the Redskins are still a dreadful first down defensive team, when they are primarily a 3-4 team. All we found out this week is that fixing the nose tackle position doesn't change the fact that the Redskins can't stop teams in normal downs and distances.
The Redskins' first successful defensive play on a 1st and 10 came from a four man front on the Cowboys first drive. Andre Carter hurried Jon Kitna's pass, who bounced one at the feet of a well covered Miles Austin. The next successful stop of a first down play came three drives later, when Anthony Bryant got some push up the middle, allowing Reed Doughty to make a stop behind the line. One drive later, another incompletion on first down, some more pressure up the middle by Bryant, and well, Jason Witten flat dropped a pass.
Things got a little bit better on first down later in the game. This is a good third down defense that Jim Haslett has drawn up. Very typically, when the Redskins get to 3rd down, they get off the field. The first third down conversion by the Cowboys on a play that wasn't in some way given by the officials messing up (a missed hold on Leonard Davis on the first, a ridiculously generous spot on the second, a roughing-the-something call on the third) occurred on the sixth drive of the game. That's when DeAngelo Hall was beaten by Jason Witten on the out-pattern, then by Sam Hurd on a smoke screen the next drive. The Cowboys would convert just one third down in the second half.
This is one of the best third down defenses the Redskins have had. It's just SO bad on first and second down that the opponent is hardly ever in third down. This is why the Redskins have given up more yards than any other team in football this year: when you can just alternate first and second downs all the way down the field, the fact that the Redskins aren't giving up big plays is completely relative. All the drives are long, even the ones truncated by turnover.
Pass pressure came from all angles in this game, and the Redskins easily won the game at the line of scrimmage. Jon Kitna remained poised for the most part, and though his reads were pretty simple, he was able to execute some accurate throws against various coverages. Kitna has earned my respect this year: he has played exceptionally well in relief of Tony Romo. It's been a long time -- 7 years, perhaps -- since Kitna played this well in a season. His favorite receiver in this game, Jason Witten, played the role of leading receiver out of injury necessity, but was no worse at it then he was back in the days where he was the Cowboys' most targeted receiver. The Redskins clearly did not plan for him to be the focal point of the offense, otherwise, London Fletcher would have been covering him more. It might not have mattered: Witten gets on the edge as a receiver quicker than any player I have seen.
I charted the Redskins with 21 hits and hurries in this game, plus two holdings. By my system of sack shares, that amount of pressure suggests a four-plus sack day. Unfortunately, despite all the pressure, the Redskins sacked Kitna just twice, which really has been the story of the year. The last two weeks, the pressure has kicked back up again (it had been non-existent for the five games prior) with more overload blitz concepts used, but without Orakpo for the second half of this game -- and likely the rest of the season -- it's hard to turn the QB hits into sacks.
Anthony Bryant might be the best run defender the Redskins have played on the defensive line this year, and while I haven't seen enough of him to discern whether or not he's a pass rushing upgrade to Ma'ake Kemoeatu, I think he's an overall upgrade. In a best-case scenario, he's our Antonio Garay, a nose tackle who the Chargers found near the end of last season who played for a member of the coaching staff or front office at another destination. The 2009 Chargers were just dreadful on the defensive side of the football last year, not at all dissimilar to the current Redskins. Then they found Garay, and he's been the most important contributor on their top-five defense this year. Nose tackle performance has gone up considerably since he's gotten into the lineup.
I can't yet make the same conclusion about Jeremy Jarmon at right defensive end yet. Jarmon is exactly the kind of player we need in that role, highly drafted, very good at interior pass rushing, and prototypical size, but all players in the 3-4 front need to be stout against the run, and Jarmon hasn't played in enough rushing situations for me to make an evaluation on his viability as the starting RDE in next year's 3-4. It's either him, or an offseason acquisition starting in that position, but I'm completely comfortable playing Bryant and Carriker as the other two defensive linemen. It's now safe to say that injuries to Bryant and Jarmon really hurt this defense, preventing the problem from being solved.
Rocky McIntosh showed up on film in a good way for the first time in weeks. It's performances like this from Rocky that will tantalize you thinking you have a playmaking LB, when you really do not. I have a theory, and this is pure conjecture, that Rocky, who is from South Carolina and went to college at The U, is simply uncomfortable playing in any sort of weather conditions (cold, wind, rain, snow, etc). The amount of mental lapses he will make in a game is usually numerous: in this game, it was none, or at least none that I caught. His reads appeared far more decisive, and he usually hit runners and lead blockers with forward momentum instead of reaching out with his arms at the last second while out of position. This guess would also explain why he starts strong every season only to fade and become a liability later on. For other examples of this phenomenon, see: Orton, Kyle.
DeAngelo Hall had a game to forget, including more ridiculous third down gambles when making a tackle forces a field goal. What stood out most is that Hall never really came close to forcing a turnover, but that's what his game has devolved into: desperate attempts at forcing a turnover since the Giants loss. Carlos Rogers was really good in this game, allowing just one completion on a slant to Miles Austin. Reed Doughty played very well again, then got injured and was replaced at safety by Kevin Barnes, who did as well as could be reasonably expected. Kareem Moore was dreadful again. Moore, like every other safety on our roster, is far more comfortable in the box than anywhere else. He might have the most deep range among any of our safeties, but he's so bad at reading plays that he's never in position to make plays. For all the grief I give Hall, and rightfully so, his instincts tend to lead him to the ball more often than the average player. This is not the case for Kareem Moore, no matter how far the opponent stretches the field, Moore never seems to get closer to making a play. I don't see any developmental value in him either. He does the same things well that Reed Doughty and Chris Horton do, only, not nearly as well as they do them. This team completely lacks a coverage safety, although Barnes did that job intriguingly well for a half.
The defense gave up a lot of empty yards in this one: 32 on a gadget play, 22 because Doughty fell down, a lot of meaningless gains on third and longs. Their problems in this game was that they couldn't cover Jason Witten (even with their best players), and couldn't force the Cowboys to keep him in for blocking. Most of the critical plays came against DeAngelo Hall; no one else on the defense really had a bad day (except maybe Moore...but he may just be a bad player). Lorenzo Alexander has struggled on defense in the second half of this season, and there were a lot of gashing runs allowed when, and only when, Ma'ake Kemoeatu was playing the nose in his rotation with Bryant.
The Cowboys also had great success dictating the match-ups in coverage, using formation diversity while rotating in only new running backs. They were in 2 WR, 2 TE most of the game. Kareem Moore was a marked man, and they did their film study, not running any players into London Fletcher's zone unless it was deeper down the field. Even there, their success was mixed.
I end this year's defensive reviews with just one important tidbit of knowledge that you absolutely did not need me to have. I don't know if I've said it enough for it to be appreciated, but here it goes: London Fletcher is good at football.