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Elfin: A Long Way Up From Years On The Bottom Of The Division

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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To those who thought that having Robert Griffin III at quarterback was going to change everything for the Redskins, sorry.

Just three weeks into the RGIII era, Washington finds itself in all too familiar territory: alone in the NFC East cellar where it finished the previous four years. At 1-2, the Redskins trail Dallas, the New York Giants and Philadelphia, all 2-1.

And while Week 1 victim New Orleans and yesterday’s conqueror, Cincinnati, were both playoff teams in 2011, this is supposed to be the easy half of Washington’s schedule considering the final seven games include five in the division and another against formidable Baltimore.

That’s why it was critical for the Redskins to get off to a good start. Not that a 3-1 beginning in 2011 or a 3-2 opening in 2010 helped coach Mike Shanahan’s teams come close to postseason since they went a combined 5-18 the rest of the way. The same goes for the 6-2 start under predecessor Jim Zorn in 2008. In fact, Washington’s only playoff berths during the past 12 seasons came thanks to finishing kicks of 5-0 (after a 5-6 beginning) in 2005 and 4-0 (after a 5-7 beginning) in 2007.

To be fair, the Redskins have done a 180 with Griffin at quarterback. They’ve scored at least 28 points in all three of their games, equaling their total during Shanahan’s previous two seasons combined.

In fact, Washington’s 99 points the last three Sundays are its most since the final three games of 2005. The difference is that the Redskins won those three contests and were just 1-2 the past three weeks.

They’ve gone from a team that couldn’t score – 30th in the NFL with 18.4 points per game over the past two seasons – to one that can’t stop anybody.  Only Tennessee has allowed more points than Washington’s 102. The Redskins hadn’t surrendered at least 30 points in three straight games since the first three contests of 2001. Until now.

“It’s disappointing,” Shanahan admitted after yesterday’s 38-31 loss to the Bengals, Washington’s seventh straight defeat at home. “I thought the defense was going to be the strength of our football team.”

The coach quickly noted that injuries have depleted a defense that soared from 31st in yards allowed in 2010 to 13th in 2011, but said that the losses of two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and solid end Adam Carriker for the season and the absence thus far of strong safety Brandon Meriweather “are no excuses.”

Opponents have gashed coordinator Jim Haslett’s defense time and time again. The Bengals produced touchdowns of 48, 59 and 73 yards (the latter on an option pass from one receiver to another on the first snap) and four more completions that went for at least 22. The Rams had four passes for at least 25 yards and runs of 20 and 53 last Sunday. The Saints connected on six passes of at least 20 yards in the opener.

That’s 19 gains of at least 20 yards in three weeks. Projected over a season, that would be 100 big plays compared to the 72 Washington allowed in 2011, a 39 percent increase.

“In the years past if our offense gave us 24 points, that was almost like a win for us,” said former starting linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, one of just five players left from Washington’s last playoff team in 2007. “Now they’re giving us 31, 32 points a game so the defense really needs to tighten up and make some plays. If we want to win in this league, we can’t continue to give up big plays.”

Of course, the defense has already made two huge plays. Cornerback Josh Wilson scored the game’s first touchdown in St. Louis on a fumble that was forced by inside linebacker Perry Riley. Yesterday, Ryan Kerrigan forced an errant throw that fellow outside linebacker Rob Jackson intercepted in the end zone for Washington’s first touchdown.

I pointed that out to Wilson, who jokingly suggested that the defense — which only reached the end zone once all last season — needs to stop scoring. Too bad it’s no joke when receivers are running through Washington’s pass defense like horses galloping around the final turn in a Triple Crown race.

Meanwhile, Griffin and Co. have to be praying that left tackle Trent Williams, who was due for an MRI last night on the right knee that sidelined him for most of yesterday’s game, won’t miss any time. Despite his superb mobility, Griffin, who was sacked four times in the two-plus games with Williams guarding his blind side, went down five times when his best lineman was unavailable against the Bengals.

Well, at least the special teams took a step forward yesterday. After having a punt blocked in each of the first two games, Sav Rocca had a strong game as did the coverage units. Kicker Billy Cundiff improved to 5-for-5 on field goal tries under 62 yards and Brandon Banks doubled his previous longest return by taking a kickoff back 55 yards.

Now it’s on to Tampa Bay where the Redskins are 0-6 in the regular season since 1993. The Bucs are also just 1-2, but they beat Carolina at home before playing the Giants and Cowboys tough on the road.

Just 15 days after that amazing upset in the Superdome, Washington’s hopes for a better 2012 are already looking as shaky as its defense.

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

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