Fourth-and-Short: Hail to the Redskins Defense
Last year, Washington’s clean sweep of the Giants was a curiosity lost amid New York’s run to a second Super Bowl in five years. It was some sort of anomaly that Giants fans wrote off in their heads as irrelevant, a bad dream with Rex Grossman impossibly slicing through the same defense that brought the Packers and Patriots to their knees. This year, though, Washington’s excellent work against their northern neighbors has produced a close loss and a hugely important narrow win.
That victory last night moves Washington into a playoff chase with surprisingly good opportunities available. As I covered yesterday, Washington’s win last night gives them a likely tiebreaker advantage over the Giants in terms of in-division record, and if the Giants slip up once more over their difficult final four games, the Redskins would have a chance to control their own destiny with a win over the Cowboys in Week 17. Washington also holds tie-breaking victories over the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Saints, and Vikings, each of which could come in handy in terms of a possible wild-card berth.
Robert Griffin has rightly attracted plenty of attention for his brilliant play this year, but if you take a look at what’s changed for Washington from their 3-6 start to their three-game winning streak, it’s not the offense that’s made a huge leap forward:
While the devastating Washington offense has continued to chug along at an impressive rate, it’s the much-maligned Redskins defense that’s stepped up its game and contributed mightily to this three-game winning streak.
It’s not a case where the numbers are lying, either. 31 of the 53 points the Redskins have allowed over their past three games came in the Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys, a game where the defense forced three turnovers in staking Washington to a 28-6 third quarter lead before giving up garbage-time points and creating a final score that was far closer than the game played. Before that, the Redskins allowed six points to Nick Foles in his first career start with the Eagles. While they were perhaps lucky to get Foles in his debut, it’s also worth noting that the Philadelphia offense has produced a total of 48 points in Foles’s two subsequent starts. Washington clearly did at least some impressive work on defense to make Foles look worse than he has in the ensuing games.
But the most impressive feat was how the Redskins were able to slow the Giants’ offense down on Monday night and hold Eli Manning to just 16 points on eight drives. Crucially, while the Giants were able to pick up 21 first downs and 390 yards of offense, the Redskins were able to hold on their own side of the field and force the Giants to settle for four field goal attempts. Lawrence Tynes was only able to make three of those kicks, and the points that the Washington defense produced with the stops in those key situations were enough to manufacture a win, despite a 17-point day from the offense.
Washington also created a subtle advantage throughout the game by dominating the field position battle. While both teams were able to move the ball on each drive and combined for just one three-and-out (by the Giants in the fourth quarter), the Redskins consistently had an easier time of it than their opposition did, especially in the second half. Three of New York’s four second-half possessions started inside of their own nine-yard line, helping produce a rather pronounced difference in average starting field position: While the average Washington drive began on its own 26-yard line, the Giants took over, on average, from their own 14-yard line. That’s like getting a free first down to start every drive for the Redskins, a luxury they were also afforded against the Eagles in that first Foles start. Part of that is the defense, but credit should also go to a Redskins offense that’s gone three-and-out on only six of their 30 possessions since the bye week.
It’s possible the Redskins just have a weird pull over the Giants. Washington has a 3-1 record against them the past two years is and 8-16 versus everybody else. The Giants, meanwhile, are 1-3 versus the Redskins and 19-9 against the rest of the world. With an easy schedule ahead for Washington and a brutal slate for the Giants coming up, it might not matter who the Redskins played by the time Week 17 rolls around. Their defense has seen fit to rise up and play like a playoff-caliber unit.
The Eagles were supposed to find a name power back to complement LeSean McCoy’s work in the early rounds of the draft or in free agency. They needed somebody who could run in short-yardage, serve as a goal-line back, and shoulder the workload if Shady went down with an injury. Chicago, a team in similar straits, went out and signed Michael Bush. The Eagles looked to their scouting reports and came up with Bryce Brown, who the organization took in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft, despite the fact that he’d only touched the ball four times in two years, thanks to various transfers and ineligibility issues at school. What they scrounged up is a rare treat for Philly fans this year: a player who’ll end up being a part of the next Eagles playoff team.
Since he took over for a concussed McCoy in that loss to the Redskins, Brown has been wildly effective. He’s produced 382 rushing yards on 48 carries as the primary running back, yielding a gaudy average of nearly eight yards a carry. That staggering production is enough to overcome the fact that he’s fumbled three times in his two most recent starts, losing all three to the opposition in the process.
When you consider the circumstances of Brown’s entrance, his performance looks even better. McCoy was in the middle of a down season, which was popularly attributed to the absence of Michael Vick (with whom McCoy’s rushing average is notably higher) and an injury-riddled offensive line. Well, Vick is on the bench and the offensive line is now even less healthy, but that hasn’t slowed Brown down at all. In fact, he’s been so good, it makes you wonder whether McCoy’s abilities as a runner were worth the contract extension the Eagles gave him. In his 48 carries over nine quarters, Brown’s often looked like the best player on the field.
His emergence should pose happier questions for the Eagles in 2013. If the 225-pound Brown can stay healthy, he’ll combine with McCoy to give whoever ends up being Philly’s quarterback a solid 1-2 punch at running back. The last time Philadelphia had that was in Week 1 of the 2010 season, and it lasted all of one carry before Leonard Weaver suffered a catastrophic, career-ending knee injury. With the Eagles already investing serious money in McCoy, getting Brown on board for close to the veteran’s minimum should offer them more flexibility in rebuilding their team this offseason.
And in the long run, this is where healthy franchises go out and develop their own talent for a very specific role. You don’t hit free agency and sign Bush or Mike Tolbert because they’re known quantities; instead, you trust your scouts and find the next Bush (an undervalued player coming out of school because of a broken leg) or Tolbert (an undrafted free agent out of Coastal Carolina) and develop him into a useful player without a notable signing bonus. That’s exactly what the Eagles have done with Brown, and as they retool over the next several months, it’s a path they hope to take with other players on the roster, too.