The Redskins slipped from 6-10 in 2010 to 5-11 in 2011, but it wasn’t the defense’s fault. That side of the ball soared from 31st in yards allowed in its first year in coordinator Jim Haslett’s 3-4 scheme to 12th last season while remaining 21st in points allowed.
The additions of right end Stephen Bowen and nose tackle Barry Cofield, free agent signees from NFC East rivals Dallas and the New York Giants, respectively, and the choice of outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan in the first round of the draft vastly improved Washington’s front seven.
Replacing departed cornerback Carlos Rogers and releasing safety Kareem Moore with free agent pickups Josh Wilson and Oshiomogho Atogwe, respectively, didn’t work out nearly as well, but there was argument that the Redskins improved defensively.
And with left end Adam Carriker, who’s coming off his best season, and Pro Bowl inside linebacker London Fletcher, who just keeps rolling at 37, having re-signed, the front seven is back intact.
So here are the major questions for Washington’s defense as training camp opens tomorrow.
1. Will Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes, who finished 2011 as regulars, remain the starting safeties or lose out to newcomers Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams or Tanard Jackson?
Doughty, a backup for most of his previous five years in Washington, and rookie Gomes were pressed into duty when LaRon Landry’s Achilles wouldn’t heal and Atgowe was a disappointment, but neither is really considered starter material for a first-rate defense.
Hence the signings of the trio of veteran safeties each of whom has serious issues.
Two-time Pro Bowl selection Meriweather was cut by New England and not re-signed by Chicago during the past year because he’s too undisciplined (as also shown off the field by his DUI in April).
Williams slipped to backup status last year in San Francisco after seven years as a starter in Cincinnati and Minnesota and might no longer be worthy of being a regular.
Jackson was a starter the last five seasons in Tampa Bay but was also suspended for 20 games for failed drug tests and is coming off knee and shoulder injuries that limited him this spring. That new defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, his coach with the Bucs, was guarded when asked about Jackson wasn’t a good sign.
My educated guess is that Meriweather will open the season at strong safety and Williams at free safety ahead of Jackson, but that those spots will be far from set in stone.
2. Is Jarvis Jenkins going to send Carriker or Bowen to the bench?
Haslett and coach Mike Shanahan have been excited about Jenkins since they drafted him in the second round in 2011. The Clemson product was probably pushing to start as a rookie when he tore his right ACL in the third preseason game and was lost for the season. While the plan, for now, is for Jenkins to rotate at both end positions, don’t be surprised if he makes one of the veterans, probably Carriker, a backup sooner rather than later because of his explosiveness.
3. Can the Redskins thrive without a renaissance from DeAngelo Hall?
The talented and emotional Hall is one of the few live wires in Washington’s locker room. However, the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback’s risk-taking which produced six interceptions, two game-winning touchdowns and a Pro Bowl MVP in 2010 went the other way last season. Hall was beaten by Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant for a 30-yard grab on third-and-21 and a 26-yarder on third-and-15 in the critical plays that cost the Redskins two victories last year, personally turning a 7-9 season into a 5-11 finish.
Hall, whose three interceptions in 2011 were his fewest since his rookie season seven years earlier, is still just 28 and easily capable of bouncing back from a sub-campaign. But as the biggest mouth in the Washington locker room knows all too well, talking about achieving something and doing it are far from the same. He was happy to be traded from Atlanta to Oakland in 2008, but he hasn’t played for a winner since while the Falcons have reached the postseason three times. The Redskins hope that Morris’ arrival will help Hall gain consistency while not losing the spark that makes him a special player.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin