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Redskins' opponents had the green light to score in the red zone in 2016

Redskins' opponents had the green light to score in the red zone in 2016

Last week, I took a broad look at the three areas that Jay Gruden said that his team was “terrible” in during the 2016 season, issues that cost the team a chance at the playoffs.

We looked at one of those, red zone offense, earlier.

Today, it’s time to examine the problems the defense in the red zone.  

If the Redskins’ defense was going to survive the 2016 season they had to be a “bend but don’t break” unit.

They were not built to stop teams cold. It would be OK to give up some ground as long as they could force an error, get a takeaway or, at worst, make them settle for field goals more often than not.

That didn’t work out so well for the Redskins.

They were just OK in the turnover department, getting 21 takeaways to ranks 17th in the NFL in that department. Even then they were inconsistent. There were seven games where the defense forced no turnovers and a 10-game stretch where they produced only seven.

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However, it was in the red zone and in goal to go situations where the defense truly had issues. They allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 59.3 percent of their red zone trips, 26th in the league. When they let the other team get a first and goal, they got touchdowns 80 percent of the time.

Goal to go situations are a subset of the red zone so let me just point out one note on that before moving to the bigger group. The Redskins went the entire months of October and November plus a game in December without keeping an opponent from getting a touchdown in goal to go. That was 14 straight times that a first and goal was just as good as a TD.

The breakdown on the red zone numbers looks like this.

Opponents had 54 drives that had at least one play inside the Redskins 20 yard-line. They scored touchdowns on 32 of them.

How do those numbers stack up compared to the rest of the league? The team that led the NFL in red zone defense was the Giants. They faced 43 red zone drives and allowed 17 touchdowns, a 39.5 percent rate.

If the Redskins had the Giants’ red zone rate, opponents would have scored 21 touchdowns instead of the 32 that they actually did. Assuming the other team would have kicked field goals in those situations the Redskins would have allowed 44 fewer points. That difference would have moved them from 20th in the league in points allowed to 12th.

Of course, the points are meaningless without some context so let’s provide some here. The Redskins tied one game and lost three games by three or four points (including the last Giants game, which only became a nine-point loss on a last-play touchdown as the Redskins desperately tried to lateral the ball around).

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—The tie was against the Bengals, who were 4-4 in the red zone. One stop inside the 20 likely would have meant a Redskins win.

—In the first Dallas game the Cowboys were 3-5 and the Redskins lost by four. Good red zone defense could have at least sent that game into overtime.

—The Lions were 2-3 in the red zone and the Redskins lost by three.

—The Giants were 1-3 in the season finale. That’s good enough red zone D on a percentage basis but there’s no rule saying that you can’t shut the other team out in the red zone for a game. The Redskins did that only once in 2016 (Eagles went 0-7 in Week 6).

You can play with those numbers however you’d like. But if one of the losses and the tie had been wins the Redskins could have been the No. 5 seed.

What went wrong in the red zone? Washington’s opponents’ passing stats in the red zone were only slightly worse than the league average in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating. The league allowed 2.5 yards per rush on plays inside the 20 while the Redskins allowed 2.8. That’s significant but not decisive. Although nothing was glaring it added up to a fatal flaw in the Redskins’ defense.

The new defensive coordinator will have to get this figured out. The other issue that cost Joe Barry his job was the team’s problem stopping the opposition on third down. We’ll put those problems under the microscope in the next part of this series. 

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Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page www.Facebook.com/RealRedskins and follow him on Twitter @Rich_TandlerCSN.

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Jay Gruden loves Rob Kelley, but would also love drafting a 'special' RB

Jay Gruden loves Rob Kelley, but would also love drafting a 'special' RB

Redskins coach Jay Gruden has a very high opinion of running back Rob Kelley. He surprised many by making the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie last year and when starter Matt Jones faltered, Kelley took over as the starter for the last nine games.

“Oh, man, I love Rob Kelley,” Gruden told reporters earlier this week at the NFL meetings in Phoenix.

“I thought he played great. You throw a rookie free agent into the fire like that and see him play and compete. Not one time did I feel like it was too big for him. Not once. That’s a hell of a thing to say for a kid out of Tulane who only had a couple of carries his senior year. He came right in, he competes on every play.”

Actually, Kelley had 65 carries as a senior at Tulane, for 232 yards and one touchdown.

But Gruden’s overall point about Kelley being a little-used back in college. In four years with the Green Wave he never had as many as 100 carries in a single season.

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Kelley got 168 carries in the NFL last year, gaining 704 yards. He scored six touchdowns, the same number that he scored in 49 games at Tulane.

Gruden was not done singing Kelley’s praises.

“He had some of the greatest two-yard runs I’ve seen,” the coach continued.

“He gets back to the line of scrimmage, he keeps his feet moving, he protects the ball. He’s going to get better in pass protection. Catching the ball, he did a nice job. He dropped a couple here and there but for the most part he catches the ball. I really think the vision he has he’ll be more patient as a runner this year. I think he’s going to be a good back, I really do.

“A lot of people think we need a great running back. I think Rob is a great running back, I really do.”

While that certainly is a ringing endorsement, Gruden wouldn’t shy away upgrading the position in the draft.

“There are some special players in this draft, if they’re available they’d be hard to pass up, quite frankly,” Gruden said moments after lauding Kelley.

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Two of the running back considered “special” who may be available when the Redskins make their pick in the first round are Dalvin Cook of Florida State and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford. In a separate interview with JP Finlay of CSN, Gruden talked about those two backs.

 “That’s the thing about those two guys, they can move around,” said Gruden. “They’re not just lining up in the I formation running the power play. They can line up outside at different spots, play receiver, catch the ball out of the backfield and they can also run it between the tackles. They’re not just one dimensional players, they’re very exciting.”

So to sum up the coach’s thought process here, Gruden thinks that Kelley is a “great” running back but the team would find it tough to pass on “special” and “exciting” alternatives. It doesn’t sound to me like Kelley should get too comfortable with the idea of being the lead dog at running back. And those Redskins fans who have earmarked that first-round draft pick for defense may end up being very disappointed.   

Stay up to date on the Redskins! Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerCSN and follow him on Twitter @Rich_TandlerCSN.

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Need for speed? Jay Gruden confident in Redskins options at safety

Need for speed? Jay Gruden confident in Redskins options at safety

The Redskins struggled at the safety positions in 2016, dealing with position changes and injuries, and the front office moved early in free agency to address the back end of the secondary.

Washington signed D.J. Swearinger away from the Cardinals in the opening days of the 2017 league year.

Swearinger will likely join second-year Redskins player Su'a Cravens in the back of Greg Manusky's defense. Cravens played linebacker as a rookie, but word came out late last season he would play safety in 2017.

Both Swearinger and Cravens are playmakers and big hitters, but the question has emerged if either player contains the speed neccessary to keep up with some of the elite receivers that play in the NFC East. At his USC Pro Day in 2016, Cravens ran a 4.69 40-yard dash. At the NFL Combine in 2013, Swearinger ran a 4.67 40-yard dash.

For Redskins coach Jay Gruden, there isn't much reason to worry.

"Knowing Su’a, I don’t think there’s a lot of things he can’t do so I’m excited to see him back there," Gruden told to reporters during the NFL League Meetings. "I think he’s going to have a lot more range than people give him credit for right now. He didn’t run the greatest 40 time, but he plays fast on the football field and that’s more important."

Gruden allowed that the team has some questions with Cravens simply because he hasn't played safety yet in the NFL. Other Redskins players have voiced plenty of confidence in Cravens' ability in the back end, and much of his work from college would suggest he should be capable.

Swearinger has a stronger track record at safety, though he's also on his fifth NFL team since being drafted in the second round in 2013 by the Texans.

"D.J., when you watch him in his career, he maybe disappointed a little bit early, but last year I think he played as good as any safety in the NFL," Gruden said. "He’s done it in different spots, wasn’t just a box safety, he played in the hole, he played half the field, he played corners, he played everything. Very productive, brings a great energy."

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Beyond Swearinger and Cravens, the 'Skins have options on the roster in Will Blackmon, Deshazor Everett and DeAngelo Hall. 

"That’s the one thing with D-Hall, when you watch him play safety he sticks his face in there. He’s a very physical guy so we have to get him right," Gruden said. "We have Will Blackmon who came a long way last year too and Deshazor. I really liked what he did when he came in the game. We matched him up against tight ends and he had a big interception against Philadelphia. He did some good things. He’s a factor on special teams so he won’t be going anywhere."

Hall's offseason will be interesting to watch. The former Pro Bowl cornerback has dealt with injuries in each of the last three seasons and is still working on his conversion to safety. In the NFL since 2004, Hall acknowledged he might have to re-work his contract to stay with the team, but most signs point to that happening. 

Improved safety play, and just improved tackling from the safety position, could lead to an improved Redskins defense this fall. 

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