The Redskins were 26th in the league in overall rushing defense in 2015, allowing an averaged of 122.6 yards per game and 31st in terms of average, giving up 4.8 yards per carry. As one might imagine, one of the team’s big goals this offseason is to try to figure out how to do better stopping the run.
One of them is obvious; they need to tackle better. “In this league, if you look around the league, teams that play really, really good defense, especially good run defense, they tackle,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said recently on Inside the Locker Room on ESPN 980.
According to Pro Football Focus the Redskins missed 136 tackles in 2015, up from 116 the year before. By comparison, the Seahawks, the league’s best rushing defense, missed just 101 tackles (it should be noted that PFFs missed tackle stats include both rushing and passing plays but it’s still a valid comparison).
Missed tackles lead to big plays or, as Barry calls them, explosion plays.
“I think, nothing’s more frustrating to a coach than when you get done with a game and you have 30 runs and 27 of them you play really well,” said Barry. “And three of them you give up a 30-yard run, you give up a 40-yard run, you give up a 50-yard run . . . What limits explosion plays is tackling, bottom line.”
A look at the numbers reveals that the Redskins were more in the middle of the pack than awful in terms of explosive runs allowed. They gave up 11 runs of 20 yards or longer, which was more than 17 other teams gave up, making more middle of the pack than awful in that category.
And giving up that many big plays does not automatically lead to having a poor rushing defense. The Bengals also gave up 11 explosive rushing plays and they ranked seventh in rushing defense.
The Redskins gave up 21 percent of their rushing yards on explosive plays. The league’s defenses as a whole gave up 19 percent of rushing yards on such plays. Going back to the Seahawks comparison, they gave up 11 percent of their total rushing yards on big plays.
There’s no question that limiting explosive plays would help the Redskins’ rushing defense. But there is more to be done than that. Smaller plays, the death by a thousand paper cuts, also hurt them. Only four teams gave up more runs of five yards or longer. Success on shorter runs gives the opposition incentive to keep on handing it off and eventually a worn down defense will give up an explosive run. If they turn six- and seven-yard runs into two- and three-yard gains, the opposition eventually will abandon the run.
The Redskins did not do much to bolster their defensive line during the offseason, adding lower-level free agent Kendall Reyes and drafting Matt Ioannidis in the fifth round. Perhaps a year in Barry’s defense will help the holdovers perform better but skepticism that the rushing defense will improve significantly is warranted until we see the defense in action.