December 23, 2008

WAS 10, PHI 3 (A Defensive Parting Gift)

Tempting as it is to weigh in on the big picture—the front office, the quarterback position, Jim Zorn’s pass offense, part two of Breaking Down the Lines, etc.—the cold reality is there is only one game left in the Washington Redskins 2008 season.

Don’t know about you, but I’m feeling that.

So, for at least one more week I’m sticking with the immediate. Which works out well, because there is one particular stone I don’t want to leave unturned.

I have been trying to recall the last time a Redskins defense has worked harder, surprised me more or, when all is said done, made me prouder than Greg Blache’s undermanned unit has this season. And Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, they drove the point home in a way I believe will burn the the '08 defense in memory.

Yes the Eagles dropped some passes. So did the Redskins—it happens. Yes, Donovan McNabb may have beheaded a handful of worms. Given the way Redskins defenders swarmed to the ball and pounded green people all day, however, perhaps that wasn’t all just happenstance.

Lest we forget, the Eagles came in hot. All week long, this was a team the talking heads were solemnly pronouncing “the one team no one wants to face in the playoffs.”

Philadelphia had won three straight. They had just hung 30 on the Cleveland Browns, and dominated the defending champion Giants in New York the week before. In that game, against one of the best defenses in football, long-time Redskins-killer Brian Westbrook had rushed for 131 yards and caught a 40-yard TD pass from a resurgent Donovan McNabb.

It is easy to discount all that in retrospect, but heading into the game, I suspect most Redskins fans, and just about all neutral observers, expected something pretty similar. I’ll admit it—I did.

The Eagles were playing for everything. The Redskins (having somnambulated through most of their own for-everything game the week before in Cincinnati), were playing for next year. Nobody—nobody—expected the Redskins defense to turn in the kind of performance it did Sunday afternoon.

For fans who allow themselves to enjoy moments of excellence within the context of a season—even a disappointing one—what Greg Blache, London Fletcher, Cornelius Griffin and the entire back seven did on Sunday, playing not for the playoffs but for pride and professionalism, was an early Christmas present. One that will help ease the transition into what could well turn into another long, eventful offseason.

Know how many NFL games have been won this season by teams scoring 10 points or less? Out of 240 games played to date ... four. Besides the Redskins 10-3 win over Philadelphia, the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers both shut down the crushingly disappointing Cleveland Browns 10-6, and San Francisco throttled Buffalo 10-3 two weeks ago.

It is worth noting that the Cleveland offense (for lack of a better term) is tied with the Oakland Raiders for 30th in the league in scoring at 15.5 ppg., and the Bills are 19th at 22.4. The Eagles are 10th, at 24.8.

24.8. These days that’s more than the Redskins offense scores in two.

And it's not like the Redskins offense was much help in this game. Truth is, it gave the defense almost no support at all. In eleven possessions, the offense managed yards 249 yards and 10 points. Seven of those points came courtesy of a short field (18 yards) provided by the defense; Jason Taylor’s strip-sack of McNabb. The other three came in the Redskins only drive of the day that netted more than 26 yards—a 16-play, 72-yard second quarter affair that ended in a 33-yard Shaun Suisham field goal.

The last three Redskins possessions of the day—starting at the Eagles 44, their own 46 and the Eagles 45, courtesy of stellar punting by embattled Ryan Plackemeier and stifling defense that forced four consecutive Eagles three-and-outs—resulted in 16 total yards, no first downs and, of course, zero points.

What that did, of course, was set up the highlight-reel, last-play-of-the-game, mid-air goal-line stop on Eagles wide receiver Reggie Brown by Fred Smoot and LaRon Landry. A play that put the exclamation point on a memorable game-long defensive effort and will, perhaps, stand up over the course of time.

The image of Brown, high above the frozen FedEx turf, being turned back inches from paydirt may not live on in Redskins lore quite like Ken Houston stoning the Cowboys’ Walt Garrison in 1972, or Darrell Green breaking up Wade Wilson’s pass to Darrin Nelson at the goal line to seal the 1987 NFC Championship, or even former replacement-player Dennis Woodberry’s one-on-one, open-field stop of the Giants’ Tony Galbreath to preserve a key win earlier that year (that’s for my Friend, Tom) … but still. It was big.

And I for one don’t think I’ll forget it any time soon.

So I thought I’d take a look at when a Redskins defense last held an opponent to three points or less … and once I got into it, ended up going back ten years (don’t ask).

Before Sunday, the last time was in week four of last season, in that hide-the-women-and-children, 34-3 beat-down of the Detroit Lions. In that game they held Detroit to 144 total yards, had six sacks, recorded a safety and forced two turnovers (including a pick-six interception return by Carlos Rogers to ice the cake late in the game—yes, really). The defense didn’t stand alone that day, however; the Redskins offense ran up 366 yards of their own, scored three touchdowns and held the ball for 34:35.

You have to go back to 2002 to find the next one. They held the Seattle Seahawks to three points in week eight, but gave up 324 yards (264 passing) to Matt Hasselbeck along the way. Considering Washington’s quarterback that day, one Shane Matthews, went 10-for-27 for 114 yards (2 TD, 1 INT), at first blush that looks pretty impressive. Fortunately, the running back tandem of Kenny Watson (110 yards) and Ladell Betts (37) allowed the Redskins to escape Seattle with the win despite losing the time of possession battle 35:58 to 25:02.

I’ll be honest though—I have zero recollection of that day. Do you?

I do remember Marty Schottenheimer’s Redskins going into Philadelphia and stoning the Eagles, 13-3, in 2001, to win their fifth consecutive game after starting the year 0-5. Given that the Redskins offense was led that day by QB Tony Banks (12-for-18, 96 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT), saw RB Stephen Davis held mostly in check (22 carries, 79 yards) and featured a receiving corps led by Rod Gardner (4 catches, 33 yards) and Michael “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That” Westbrook (3 catches, 22 yards), perhaps the defensive gem turned in by Redskins DC Kurt Schottenheimer’s crew (186 total yards against the eternal, infernal D. McNabb and company) that day deserves a place in Redskins lore.

Who knows, if Schottenheimer's Redskins hadn’t subsequently folded their tent down the stretch that year, once the games actually meant something, recent Redskins history would have played out very different. Perhaps Coach Marty would still be here, the Redskins would be strong in the trenches and we would be fully expecting to lose again in the playoffs this year.

But that's another story.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Norv Turner’s last Redskins team—for those of you either too young or too numb to remember, those were the Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Terry Robiskie and Dan Turk (RIP) Redskins—actually held two opponents to three points. In a slugfest at FedEx, they beat the Baltimore Ravens 10-3 to bring their record to 5-2, then shut down a hapless Arizona Cardinals team 20-3 in a meaningless finale to salvage 8-8.

Hmm ... 6-2 start, 8-8 finish. Maybe we shouldn’t go there.

A year earlier, Turner’s NFC East title and lone playoff Redskins again laid the lumber, 28-3, to the hapless Cardinals (I should put that in a macro).

And finally, in 1998, the Redskins turned in a three-point, 28-3 woodshed job over the Eagles.

Why the long litany? My own curiosity, mostly, once I started looking. In 159 games over ten years, the Redskins have put together seven three-point-or-less defensive efforts (you have to go back to 1991 to find their last shutout). And because, for whatever reason, I cannot recall any single defensive game that caught my attention as much as this last one.

[Incidentally, over the same ten-year period, the two standards for defense in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, have turned in 21 (including nine shutouts) and 15 (six shutouts) respectively.]

I am not suggesting that only three-point-or-less defensive games are worthy of note, by the way. For instance ...

The Redskins held the Cowboys to six points and 147 total yards (including what at first blush looks like a typo—one yard rushing on 16 carries) in last years' season-ending 27-6 romp at FedEx. But the context of that game—Dallas having already clinched the top playoff seed and mentally if not physically already sunning in Cancun—has to be considered. Plus the Redskins offense more than held its own, putting up 27 points, racking up 354 yards and owning time of possession, 37:08 to 22:52.

And there was that ugly 9-7 win over the Bears to open the 2005 season, when the defense held Chicago to 166 total yards and hung on despite the Redskins offense turning the ball over three times. Even then, the box score shows the Redskins offense contributed 323 yards that day; 164 rushing, and 175 passing from the two-headed QB tandem of Patrick Ramsey and Mark Brunell.

And who can forget the 35-7 whooping the Redskins laid on Bill Parcells’ Cowboys in December ‘05 (I know we're not going to let them forget), sacking Drew Bledsoe seven times, limiting him to 153 passing yards and picking him off three times. Again, though, the defense was hardly on its own that day. The offense spotted them a 28-0 halftime lead, allowing them to spend the second pawing dirt, flaring nostrils and hunting quarterback.

In 2004, Greg Williams’ first year, the Redskins shut down the NY Giants to the tune of 145 total yards in a 31-7 shellacking at FedEx Field. They had help that day as well, though, as the Redskins offense showed up big time, Clinton Portis rambling for 148 and Patrick Ramsey throwing three TD passes.

The point of this longish stroll down memory lane? Simply to pause and give due credit to Greg Blache and his 2008 defense.

Like many, I have been hard on them for their inability to pressure the quarterback. I've fumed at their inability to stand their ground on several crucial game-ending drives down the stretch, and I have ragged on them for letting more balls slip through their fingers than an arthritic Chicken Ranch trainee.

But when the bile has finally settled this offseason, and the immediacy of watching a 6-2 team fail to close the deal no longer clouds my objectivity, I believe I am going to remember the 2008 Washington Redskins defense rather fondly.

It is easy to celebrate a defense studded with Pro Bowl talent and a nasty, disruptive reputation in the trenches that forces opposing offenses to proceed with cautioun. It’s another thing entriely to recognize a defense that has arguably done more with less up front than any top five defense in memory.

I don’t think they give out Defensive Coordinator of the Year hardware, but if they did, says here in 2008 it goes hands down to Greg Blache. In a year that started with such promise, and is ending with such bittersweet “what ifs,” the Redskins defense has left precious little on the field and carried the burgundy and gold banner proud.

I hope we are not all so focused on the Lombardi destination that we cannot appreciate, and even enjoy, the inner successes and happy surprises along the journey.


Anonymous said...

Michael “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That” Westbrook,

more balls slip through their fingers than an arthritic Chicken Ranch trainee

Very Funny....whers's the tip jar?

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Much grass.



Anonymous said...

For a team that gets almost no pressure, hardly blitzes and hopes the opposing QB can't find anyone open, this defense has done a mostly good job.

What do you think were the problems the last two games before the Eagles game (Ravens, Bengals), when the opposing offense drove the field to ice the game? Those offenses had done very little the rest of the game.

For me, the only thing I can put it up to is just that they were tired. Been on the field too long.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Found myself wondering the same thing, Sean. I suspect it was a combination of factors.

They apparently had missed Marcus Washington's presence on the strong side more than anyone had figured, and having Shawn Springs back and frisky definitely elevates the back seven. Personnel, personnel, personnel.

Add to that Blache inspired them with "Pick Up the Pieces" (!), and maybe they were sick and tired enough of the criticism in a year they have pretty much carried the Redskins water all year, and they simply turned up the intensity level another notch.

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