The Redskins defense clicked earlier this season when the team seemed playoff-bound. This same group with scant personnel changes then started getting clocked starting with a Week 9 loss against the Falcons.
Everyone began wondering why.
The most notable switch, HaHa Clinton-Dix replacing Montae Nicholson at safety, received additional scrutiny in the loss against the Giants on Sunday.
Through seven games, Washington won five of seven games and allowed 322 yards per game. The Redskins have since lost five of six including four in a row while surrendering an average of 426 yards. The primary struggles exist on the ground, though the Redskins allowed seven touchdown passes over the last three games.
The start of the current six-game stretch coincided with the addition of Clinton-Dix. Washington traded a 2019 fourth-round pick to Green Bay on Oct. 30 for the one-time Pro Bowl safety. Clinton-Dix, 25, played 100 percent of the defensive snaps over the last five games. Despite the heavy workload, an adjustment period remains.
"I think he's finding his way, really,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said this week of Clinton-Dix.
His arrival sent Nicholson to the bench. Last May Gruden praised the 2017 fourth-round selection turned starter during his rookie season. “Montae I think is really an important piece,” Gruden said at the NFL Combine. “Very similar to the way Jordan Reed is on [offense], Montae is on defense.”
After playing all but 440 of 445 defensive snaps during the initial seven games this season, the second-year safety played on 26 snaps after Clinton-Dix’s arrival. He hasn’t taken the field defensively for the last three games.
NBC Sports Washington sought an explanation for the safety swap from NFL analytics website Pro Football Focus.
“HaHa has actually been a reliable tackler when he actually makes contact,” PFF analyst Trey Cunningham said via email. “He's saved several [touchdowns] with tackles where others were beat. Of course, the most notable gaffes for him have come when he's taken bad angles as the last line of defense and not even been able to attempt a tackle."
Cunningham cited both Amari Cooper's long catch-and-runs touchdowns in the Cowboys Week 12 win over the Redskins and Giants running back Saquon Barkley's 78 yard TD run last week as examples. Clinton-Dix was blocked during two touchdowns against Atlanta and knocked down on Darren Sproles’ touchdown run in Week 13 against the Eagles, according to Cunningham.
Tackling concerns and "average" speed were considered issues during Clinton-Dix's time with the Packers, though PFF rated him among the top safeties in coverage at the time of the trade.
Yet Cunningham noted Clinton-Dix provided pop with a forced fumble against Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins. He also reasons why the Redskins may have felt compelled to seek safety help in the first place.
“Aside from health concerns with Montae Nicholson, his biggest flaw when he was starting was missed tackles - nine in the first four games including an astonishing five in the (win over the) Packers,” Cunningham said. “His primary coverage numbers weren't great either. Allowed 13 of 17 targets to be complete for 192 yards and a TD.”
Nicholson’s struggles continued after Clinton-Dix’s arrival. Cunningham recalled the safety taking a bad angle as the last line of defense on Falcons’ receiver Calvin Ridley's long catch-and-run touchdown in Week 9 among his errors.
While Clinton-Dix hasn’t wowed, perhaps the Redskins appreciate him limiting the mistakes.
“I would personally say Clinton-Dix has been an upgrade on Nicholson,” Cunningham said, “but that upgrade didn't come with any game-changing plays.”
Gruden hinted this week at a possible Nicholson return especially as the regular season winds down. Clinton-Dix enters free agency in 2019.
"Yeah, we have to look at Montae again,” Gruden said. “I think nobody gave up on Montae, we traded for a good player, a Pro-Bowl type player in HaHa and we wanted to give him every opportunity to come in and play. It wasn’t that we were down on Montae at all, we just needed depth at that position, got him in here and we liked what we saw, so we put him out there early.
“But, Montae does have a chance to play in the next three weeks quite a bit if we choose to that route because he is a good player with great speed."
The Redskins have perhaps three more weeks to determine how good Nicholson is or enter the offseason wondering if a new safety plan must emerge.
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