Earlier in the 2000s, back in the days of Gregg Williams’ 4-3 scheme, LaVar Arrington, Antonio Pierce and Marcus Washington, the front seven of the Washington Redskins was undoubtedly the team’s strength.
That era is gone, and now it’s London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan of Jim Haslett’s 3-4 scheme. We’ve seen glimpses of dominance from the new regime, but injuries and poor play all over the rest of the roster have dulled the front seven’s impact.
The biggest leap Washington can make as a team this year, aside from Robert Griffin III maintaining his health, is if the front seven can breakout and become a dominant force. Not only would this be the perfect masking agent for the team’s weak secondary, but also it would give Washington a steady balance between offense and defense that was missing last year.
Washington’s defense last year would too often allow opposing teams to mount comebacks late in games after Griffin and the offense put up plenty of points. This was due to the banged-up front seven being unable to pressure opposing quarterbacks and the weak secondary being unable to stay with receivers for extended periods of time.
Contending teams sink in the choke and shut down any hope of a comeback once they’ve seized the lead, and that is what Washington is going to have to do if they wish to remain competitive, especially given their tougher schedule. Since the secondary remains a work in progress, the lion’s share of the work is going to be on the front seven to get to quarterbacks.
So far this preseason, we’ve seen a fantastically aggressive defensive front from Washington. Orakpo is healthy, Kerrigan is evolving, and the combination of the two of them should be scary in itself. But they’ve got reinforcements.
Former Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Darryl Tapp is now an outside linebacker for Washington, and he’s no slouch at his new position. He brings a ton of strength to Washington’s pass rush, and he should allow Haslett to employ a healthy rotation of rushers.
The other reinforcement is Brandon Jenkins, Washington’s draft pick out of Florida State. While Jenkins has a lot to learn to become a complete linebacker, his raw speed-rushing skills can bring a lot to Washington’s pass rush in short spurts.
And then there’s the defensive line. Recently-converted nose tackle Barry Cofield is making great strides at the position. Since coming to Washington two seasons ago and converting from a 4-3 defensive tackle to a 3-4 nose tackle, Cofield has not been a liability. Blessed with plenty of football smarts, Cofield has been finding his way while dealing with endless double-teams. He now is a veteran at the position, and with the help around him, he’s becoming a beast of a nose tackle.
The suspension of defensive end Jarvis Jenkins for the first four games will hurt Washington’s depth, but Stephen Bowen and Kedric Golston are making strides as well, and should be able to shoulder the load in the meantime.
The NFL is a quarterback’s league, so if Griffin stays healthy and improves on his explosive rookie season, he will be the story and backbone of this team. There is no substitute for having a quarterback that can do it all.
However, if he struggles to stay on the field, the strength of this team will easily become the front seven. Health, as is always the case in football, is the only thing that can derail it.