LANDOVER — Before the Washington Redskins’ NFC East rivalry game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday at Ghost Town Field, a strong, unidentified pungent odor emanated from the Redskins’ tunnel.
It may have been the Redskins’ defensive game plan.
For the second straight week, Washington’s defense, after a brief early game flirtation with success, wound up being the HOV lane for the opponent’s offense, as the Cowboys rolled up 474 yards of offense — 435 of it after the first quarter.
Dallas won 31-21 before a neutral-field crowd (official attendance was 75,128) that was, at best, half Redskins fans.
It wasn’t a carbon copy of last week’s opener in Philadelphia.
Washington (0-2) didn’t bring a 20-7 lead into the locker room with them at halftime, only to lose 32-27. No, the Redskins briefly held a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, scoring on the formerly banished Adrian Peterson’s one-yard run.
That disappeared eight minutes later when Dallas (2-0) quarterback Dak Prescott went at the Spanish bullfighter, Josh Norman, and hit Devin Smith with a 51-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 7-7. Six minutes later, Prescott found unretired tight end Jason Witten on a 2-yarder to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead, a lead they continued to build on.
But here are the similarities — 32 points last week, 31 points Sunday, 436 yards given up last week, 474 yards Sunday. This from a defense that was touted by, among others, Norman, before the start of the season, as “the best” defense since he arrived four years ago, one that could wind up being “all time.”
Time may be running out, though, for this defensive coaching staff — particularly beleaguered coordinator Greg Manusky.
There is the legendary story about owner Dan Snyder, in his first year in 1999, leaving gallons of 31 Flavors ice cream on Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s desk with a note that said, “This is what I like. Not vanilla.”
Manusky may find a different food group on his desk at Redskins Park this week — Swiss cheese. Perhaps that was the smell coming from the field Sunday — a moldy, Swiss-cheese defense that has failed to show any ability to connect the talent with results on the field. Remember, they spent all off-season interviewing defensive coordinator candidates in an unsuccessful effort to replace Manusky.
Coach Jay Gruden was under attack in the postgame press conference for his defensive coaching staff. Asked about making changes, he responded, “You’re talking about playing two very good offensive football teams and two of the best offensive lines in pro football we just played back to back. That’s no excuse whatsoever, but I don’t think we need to hit the panic button yet. We just have to continue to focus on what we can do better to win.”
He cited the absence of injured defensive players, such as tackle Jonathan Allen and cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau. But even when healthy, the same inconsistent defensive lapses have continued one season into the next since Manusky was named coordinator in January 2017.
“We’re in this together,” Gruden said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Coach Manusky already this week and we’re going to work through this thing.”
It was the presence, though, for the second week in a row of one particular defensive player — the highly-paid cornerback Josh Norman, world traveler who spent the off-season running with the bulls in Pamplona — that has caused much of the defensive damage. After getting lit up by DeSean Jackson last week, Norman found himself targeted again, with the same disappointing results.
He had something to say about that.
“I’m not putting anybody under the bus,” Norman said. “I’m not putting my teammates under. Overall, I take it on the chin. I have to hold my head high and keep going forward. I’ve never been in this adverse state before. When adversity strikes, what do you do with it? Two times in two weeks this happened to our secondary and I take full responsibility for it. Who else is going to do it …. we just have to be better in situations like that, and we will. The season is still young. I’m not overall concerned. We got 14 more to go man … our time will come, and when it does, it will break the opponent’s back.”
Last week, Norman seemed to run some tires over Prescott, who finished Sunday completing 26 of 30 passes for 269 yards and one interception. After Prescott completed 25 of 32 passes for 405 yards in a 35-17 win over the New York Giants, Noeman didn’t seem too impressed, telling reporters: “You stand back there in the pocket all day and go through your first, second and third reads and come back to your first one, OK, cool. Anybody can do that. At the end of the day, he’s been playing well. As you can see, he’s evolved. He’s growing in the system. He’s just taking his keys and picking his targets and throwing the ball on time.”
It turns out Norman was angrier Sunday about what he claims was a report taken out of context than his matador defense on the field.
“What was said earlier in the week about what I was saying about the quarterback, that the narrative of the media always take what they wanted and put whatever spin on it to try to get more clout than what it is,” he said. “I think when you look at that whole entire situation, what we say always gets taken out of context. Anybody can sit back in the pocket and do what they want when you have nobody pass rush. When you get people in your face it’s a different story. I’m not taking anything away from anybody, that’s any quarterback, not just one person. To change that narrative, I’m going to take control of it. He’s a great football player, Dak always has been a great football player. They did a great job out here today, and they showed that.
“What I will not do is allow the media or whoever the case may be to change my words into what they want it to be,” he said.
Somewhere in Spain there is one happy bull.
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