It's hard to find a way to logically blame a defense for where on the field the opponent takes over against it. You can blame a team's offense or it's special teams unit, but blaming the defense for where drives against a defense start isn't logically sound in most cases. For the Redskins in this game, giving up 31 offensive points to the Lions is probably not a great effort for a team that has done so well in limiting points this year relative to the opportunities an offense has had to score points. Still 31 points to the Lions?
The most prominent reason for Detroit's offensive explosion, outside of the fact that Detroit is averaging 26 PPG this year, best in the NFC, is that every one of the Lions 5 scoring drives started on the Redskins' end of the 50. That's it right there. The field position game was actually more in favor of the Lions that even that makes it sound, but the Redskins defense created two more big turnovers to stem the tide a little bit.
The culprits here were the normally reliable Redskins coverage teams (Anthony Armstrong had one really bad coverage breakdown), as well as the consistently unreliable offense. Those units combined to give the Lions 7 different drives that began on the Detroit 48 or closer to the end zone. Matthew Stafford may have thrown four TDs in this game, but some of those were really thrown by the return units.
So with their backs against the wall all day, the Redskins defense performed pretty darn well. Ultimately, in the fourth quarter, when the Redskins made a man-coverage adjustment and started putting Matthew Stafford on the spot, they just didn't have a solution to cover the normally unreliable Calvin Johnson. Johnson took over this game to finish with 9 catches for 101 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. Johnson was targeted 17 times, with two of those targets (both completions) called back by holds. If we ignore that Stafford got those throws off due to illegal activity in the backfield, Johnson caught 11 of 17 passes for 139 yards, which falls into "gamebreaker" status.
Johnson drew DeAngelo Hall 12 times, LaRon Landry 4 times, and Carlos Rogers once. Landry and Rogers combined for 2 of the 6 incompletions, with Hall getting the other four, one of which was an interception. Hall was the only one to draw Johnson in a man coverage assignment (Kareem Moore drew him once on a man switch, and Haslett's gamble paid off -- Stafford never diagnosed it). In the first half, Hall won decisively (3 of 6 completions, but just 45 receiving yards and 1 TD for those efforts, plus Hall picked Stafford). In the second half, Johnson dominated this match-up, adding another TD to go with a 5 for 6 half for 51 yards. 7 of the 8 completions went for first downs.
In the course of the game, Hall didn't beat Johnson nor did Johnson beat Hall. However, when Johnson was winning in the second half, Stafford was clearly more comfortable leading the offense. What Stafford was not on this day was accurate, not even in the slightest. Stafford completed 58% of his passes in this game, but threw underneath 10 yards most of the time. While Stafford missed his targets by multiple feet even standing 10 yards away from him, the Redskins played a style of aggressive zone and man coverage that I had not seen from them on film prior to this game. This makes me excited for the second half of the season. The Redskins defensed Stafford's short throws, rather than letting him dink and dunk to the outside uncontested as we've seen from them in the past.
The route the Redskins still can not defend is the dig (square in) route against cover two and cover three, mostly because the safeties just aren't good enough in coverage to break on that route and make the play. The corner's keep outside leverage as they are taught, and it's not their pass to defend. DeAngelo Hall gives way too much space on deeper out routes still. I can excuse the completions against him on the dig routes because he has outside leverage on the receiver and needs help from the safeties. On the out routes, his help is the sideline which he simply does not use. Carlos Rogers and particularly Phillip Buchanon do not display this problem on out routes, as it seems to be exclusive to Hall. None of our safeties show any ability to get to the dig route in time to defense it, though Landry might get there once in a while. I expect teams to keep running it against us to get between 12 and 20 yards without it being too contested.
Sunday's Defensive Scheme
If Jim Haslett had it to do over again, I suspect he would have sent Brian Orakpo after the quarterback more than he did. Orakpo did not rush much in the first three quarters, as the Redskins tried to match up against three receivers by splitting the distance with underneath players like Landry and Alexander, but Orakpo as well. This allowed him to give Matt Stafford fits with the blitz, and the blitz worked well when the Redskins timed it well. When it wasn't timed up well, Stafford beat it.
Color commentator Tim Ryan gave LT Jeff Backus some love for slowing down Orakpo in this one, but he probably came in prepared to face Orakpo a lot more than he actually saw him. Orakpo's first pressure came on the go-ahead TD drive for the Lions in the fourth quarter. Haslett was right to believe that Stafford's accuracy issues would allow him to be judicious with his pressure schemes and basically pace the first half by playing conservatively and trying to give Stafford as many looks as possible. He won that gamble and things worked out well, but what we saw when push came to shove after the McNabb INT is that, contrary to the gameplan coming in, he turned Orakpo loose after Stafford on every play.
I don't necessarily disagree that it's good to have a game where Orakpo plays some coverage assignments and Adam Carriker and Andre Carter get to set the edges in a defensive package that plays four defensive lineman (Haynesworth, Carriker, Carter/Alexander, Golston/Holliday) in passing downs. The four linemen came at the expense of a nickel package, as Buchanon stayed on the bench for a lot of the 3 WR sets (this was new this game), and the Redskins used Orakpo to split the difference with the slot receivers when Alexander was on the bench.
Ultimately, I don't think Haslett believes this to be the optimal use of his personnel because Orakpo is the fifth rusher instead of the "X" backer in the pressure schemes. When Orakpo rushes from the 5 man pressure scheme, he has to stay outside, and that limits his effectiveness. The Redskins hit Stafford plenty in this game out of these schemes, but the holds and the sacks came out of the rush packages the Redskins have been using all year: Orakpo and Haynesworth on the same side, Carter on the backside wreaking havoc. That's our best pass rushing unit, though it's nice to see we're trying other things to see what we can do.
Individuals in the Front Seven
There's a number of guys I want to talk about here. Brian Orakpo did not play well in this game. He's not an aware player in coverage, and he doesn't set the edge well against the run when you put a body (of any size) on him. Orakpo is a pure pass rusher, not yet a complete football player. That was exposed this week when Orakpo was asked to do other things than go after the passer. He's better at most things, however, than Rocky McIntosh, who is really just a disappointing player at this point in his career. He's a big weakness right in the middle of the defense. Rocky usually makes a bunch of fundamental errors in gap discipline and play diagnosis, and he's undisciplined trying to make plays in space. There are far too many good LBs on this team (Orakpo, Alexander, Carter, Fletcher, Blades, and possibly Riley) to continue putting McIntosh out there. With him, it's not just a 3-4 issue, it's an issue of being a linebacker at the professional level. He simply hasn't developed, and at age 28 now, I can't imagine he'll be back in the future.
On the other hand, we've had a pleasant surprise at the nose tackle position of all places on the defense. The last two weeks, vs. Chicago and Detroit, Ma'ake Kemoeatu has flashed at times and dominated at others on the interior. Remember, that he's coming off that Achilies tear from last season, and he had played straight from the OTA's through the preseason and into the regular season while never sitting. Albert Haynesworth's emergence and playing three consecutive teams with base three receiver offenses has put us in the nickel and dime formations most of the time. That means with some down time in the games, Kemoeatu hasn't really had to play a large role since back in Week 3 in St. Louis, when he still looked hurt and unable to anchor at the point of attack. The Kemo who has played against the Bears (limited snaps) and against the Lions is a completely different player, and the one who we thought we had when we signed him. He made his impact known -- mostly in the opponents backfield.
It's time that we switch the roles of Vonnie Holliday and Kedric Golston. Right now, an ineffective Golston is backed up in the 3-4 by an ineffective Phillip Daniels. Last year, Vonnie Holliday was one of the best 3-4 linemen in the league last year for the Denver Broncos, and he's the best option to start at RDE in the 3-4. Golston plays well on the interior in that 4 man front Haslett uses in the nickel, and he plays the same role Holliday does, spelling him in that package when we're in it for a bunch of snaps in a role. I don't think Golston is better than Holliday in that role, but I know Holliday would be better than Golston playing the DL in the 3-4. That would make Carriker-Kemoeatu-Holliday our best option on the DL in the 3-4 front, with Haynesworth and Golston on the interior in a four man front.
I think this is a good defense. I really do. I think it's played like a good defense and is improving every week. This was not a weak offensive unit we played, and I thought the Redskins defense exceeded expecations in this game as a whole, with only a few exceptions on the individual level.
I hadn't seen the speed in the reads that a majority of the players on this defense played with in this game. Guys like Fletcher, and Buchanon, and Landry, and Kareem Moore, and DHall flew around and made plays while the Lions specifically avoided targeting Carlos Rogers in the slot until the very last 4th down play. That the coverage guys stepped up the level of play was impressive.
I think I may have overrated the pass rush ability of this unit. Even on plays where Orakpo is allowed to get after the quarterback, the consistency in the rush varies greatly from drive to drive. I charted the Redskins with four pressures in the first three quarters. While Stafford went to the ground on all of those plays, and couldn't get completely comfortable, the Redskins ended up waiting until Stafford was comfortable to try to pressure him into a mistake. The four man pass rush doesn't always get there, and taking Brian Orakpo out of it makes it a below average rush. That's one of many reasons the Redskins' sack rate has declined so much from last year, even as forced mistakes by our opponents are at an all-time high.
The Redskins have 10 interceptions and forced just as many fumbles. That's one fewer interception than sacks by the Redskins team not credited to Brian Orakpo. 7 sacks for Orakpo could be so much more at the rate he's being held, but Albert Haynesworth now ranks second on the team in sacks with 2.0. He has been inactive for 3/7 of the season. Ended drives by turnovers has worked fantastic, but ending drives by third down sack is something that the Redskins have the personnel for, and absolutely can improve on in their games after the bye.