For the second straight week, Jay Gruden stood at the podium with an anguished look on his face and discussed his defense’s talent. All summer, the Redskins, led by Gruden, were openly confident the unit had the right mix of youth and ability to win — even dominate — this season.
But in the NFL, talent only goes so far. And after the Redskins’ 31-21 loss Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys, Gruden had no explanation for why the defense that was supposed to be the team’s strength continues to look like a liability.
“Really, we should be better than this,” the coach said.
The reality of “this” is the Redskins have allowed at least 30 points in each of their losses to two of their NFC East rivals. They’ve given up an average of 455 yards across two games. And on third down, opponents are converting 64.2% of their opportunities.
In Sunday’s home opener at FedEx Field, the Redskins gave the crowd a lot to cheer about. Unfortunately for Washington, it was the invasion of Dallas fans who were making the noise. At one point, the Cowboys rattled off 21 unanswered, which created enough distance that Washington was unable to overcome.
No matter what the Redskins tried on defense, the Cowboys had an answer.
A week after he finished with a perfect passer rating, quarterback Dak Prescott threw for 260 yards and three touchdowns — with only four of his 30 attempts not resulting in a completion.
Against the run, the Redskins were no better. Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott ran for 111 yards on 23 carries — as a team, Dallas chewed up 213 yards on 34 rushing attempts.
The Redskins spent the week leading up to the Cowboys game talking about cleaning up Week 1 mistakes like the coverage miscommunication that led to DeSean Jackson’s 51-yard Eagles touchdown in the season opener.
But defensive calls were a problem again, linebacker Jon Bostic said. The Cowboys were able to pounce on defensive miscues, like when receiver Devin Smith burned cornerback Josh Norman on a post route for a 51-yard score in the second quarter to tie the game at seven.
Norman looked like he was expecting safety help over the top.
Asked about the play, Norman said he didn’t want to throw any of his teammates under the bus.
“I look at that as (taking) it on the chin,” Norman said. “I take everything else on the chin, so why not? I’ve got to hold my head up high and keep going forward.”
In the locker room, the Redskins remain optimistic.
Running back Adrian Peterson said the start of seasons aren’t indicative of the way a year can unfold, pointing to Washington’s 6-3 start in 2018 as an example. (The Redskins, in case you forgot, finished 7-9.)
But Washington’s defensive problems are particularly baffling because there are moments when the Redskins look like a formidable unit.
Washington, for example, forced Prescott into his first interception of the year when defensive tackle Daron Payne applied pressure up the middle, causing the quarterback to scramble and toss an errant throw to receiver Randall Cobb. Prescott’s pass bounced off Cobb’s hands and right to safety Montae Nicholson.
After the turnover, Peterson capped off the 38-yard drive by bulldozing his way to the end zone for a 1-yard score and a 7-0 Redskins lead.
But as the game wore on, the Redskins defense wilted. There were too many long drives and too many mistakes. In the second quarter, the Cowboys strung together drives of 97 and 83 yards.
The latter included a 42-yard quarterback keeper from Prescott and a pivotal defensive holding call on Jimmy Moreland in the end zone that kept a Dallas drive alive. On the next play, Prescott hit tight end Jason Witten for a touchdown and the Cowboys took a 14-7 lead into halftime.
Washington’s offense has mostly done its job. Quarterback Case Keenum was again solid with 221 yards and through two games, the Redskins are averaging 24 points per game.
But that’s not good enough with the team’s porous defense.
Gruden suggested the coaching staff wasn’t reaching players — though he stopped short of suggesting changes need to be made.
The Redskins, who next face the Chicago Bears in a Monday nighter at FedEx, should benefit — in theory — from the return of several injured defensive contributors. End Jonathan Allen (knee) and cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar (knee) and Fabian Moreau (ankle) all missed Sunday’s game with injuries.
“For us, it shows us that we’ve still got a ways to go,” Bostic said. “Regardless of who’s in there or how long they’ve been here, none of that stuff matters. … It’s various things. You can’t really pinpoint saying it’s one thing.”
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