The cliché is that offense gains the headlines and defense wins championships. And within the context of a 3-4 defense, the linemen rarely even receive the accolades and attention that come to the guys with sacks, interceptions or boatloads of tackles. The main job of the guys up front is to occupy blockers so that the linebackers can be free to make plays.
That has definitely been the case in Washington during recent football seasons.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, running back Alfred Morris and receiver Pierre Garcon, each of whom set league and/or franchise records during one of the past two seasons, got most of the glory for the Redskins the past two years. Pass-rushing linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan and playmaking cornerback DeAngelo Hall generated most of the defense’s flash.
But it’s not a huge stretch to say that as the run defense went, so went the Redskins during the just-concluded Mike Shanahan era. In 2010, 2011 and 2013, Washington averaged just five victories while ranking, on average, 20th against the run. During its 2012 NFC East championship season, Washington finished 10-6 while ranking fifth against the run.
The odd part of that gaping discrepancy is that the front seven’s personnel has remained quite stable since top draft choice Kerrigan, right end Stephen Bowen and nose tackle Barry Cofield, both veteran free agent pickups, arrived in 2011.
Cofield, Kerrigan and retiring inside linebacker London Fletcher started every game during the past three seasons. Inside linebacker Perry Riley Jr. hasn’t come out of the lineup since becoming a starter midway through 2011. Bowen started 42 consecutive games before missing the final six games of 2013 with a major knee injury. Orakpo started 33 games, missing the last 14 of 2012 with a torn pec and the 2013 finale with a groin injury.
The only spot where there wasn’t much consistency was left end. Jarvis Jenkins started the final 14 games of 2012 after 2010-11 regular Adam Carriker suffered a career-threatening torn quadriceps. However, Jenkins was suspended for the first four games of 2013 and Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett went with third cornerback David Amerson in six games, backup end Kedric Golston in five and Jenkins in five.
Still, from midseason 2011 through Week 11 of 2013, five members of the front seven started every game while Orakpo started 20 of 34 and Jenkins started 15. And yet, the Redskins ranked 18th and 17th against the run during two of those three seasons.
Chris Baker, who started the final three games of 2013 in Bowen’s place at right end, is unsigned for 2014, but Cofield, Golston, Bowen, Carriker and reserve nose tackle Chris Neild are all under contract.
To be sure, Bowen, who’ll be 30 in March, and Carriker, who’ll hit the same milestone in May, aren’t sure to play next season, if ever again, so general manager Bruce Allen needs to provide some reinforcements for Haslett and defensive line coach Jacob Burney, who were both retained by new coach Jay Gruden despite the defense’s struggles in three of the past four seasons.
By the end of last season, three surgeries hadn’t restored Carriker’s right quadriceps to health. Bowen’s effectiveness as a pass rusher plunged once Carriker was hurt and he’s not due back until June from surgery to repair a microfracture injury to his right knee.
While Cofield is a solid performer and a locker room leader, Jenkins hasn’t fulfilled the potential he showed before tearing his right ACL in preseason of his rookie year of 2011. Baker, a chunky former nose tackle, made enough plays – while also committing too many penalties — to deserve to be brought back. Golston, whose eight seasons in Washington are the most by any Redskin under contract, is reliable and a work ethic type like Neild, who returned after missing 2012 with a torn left ACL.
Cofield, Neild and Baker (if he re-signs) give the Redskins enough depth at nose tackle to necessitate an addition there.
The top available free agent 3-4 ends could include: Kansas City’s Tyson Jackson, who played well against Washington last December; Baltimore’s Arthur Jones; Pittsburgh’s Ziggy Hood; Houston’s Antonio Smith, who’ll be 33 next season; Green Bay’s Ryan Pickett, who’ll be 35; and Pittsburgh’s Brett Keisel, who’ll be 36.
Three of those ends are well on in years as compared to Carriker, who was 26 when he came to Washington in a 2010 trade with St. Louis, and Bowen, who was 27 when he arrived from Dallas. However, Carriker had only been a starter for two years and was coming off one on the shelf following shoulder surgery while Bowen had only been a starter for the last of his five seasons with the Cowboys. Pickett (11), Smith (nine) and Keisel (eight) have plenty of experience as starters.
But if Allen, Gruden and Haslett see the Redskins as a long-term project as Shanahan did, then they should rebuild the defense with youth and pursue Jackson, Jones and Hood, each of whom will be 27 this year, to compete with Jenkins while also using a draft pick on a lineman for the first time in three years.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.