Run Defense Will Get Test Against Raiders
A task that was the among the Redskins’ defensive strengths last season has become a liability, and the run-first Raiders will provide a fair evaluation of where the team stands.
BY ZAC BOYER
ASHBURN – The first two games of the season were a nightmare for the Redskins’ defense.
It wasn’t just that opponents combined for 1,023 yards of offense – the most one team had allowed in two games since the AFL-NFL merger 43 years ago. It was that they also realized large gains in the run game, which would have been unfathomable as recently as last season.
“We’ve been good at stopping the run since I’ve been here,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “I think that’s what the defense is built for. We got away from it the first two games.”
An adequate performance last week against the Lions taught the Redskins that while cracks are apparent, their foundation remained strong.
It’ll get another test today on the road against the Raiders – the first run-oriented team the Redskins will face this season.
“When you’ve got a team that can run and pass on you, on defense, you’re kind of on your heels,” inside linebacker Perry Riley said. “You don’t know what they’re gonna give you. But if you can take away one part of the game and make them do the other, you … hopefully try to stop both of them.”
The Redskins’ run defense has steadily improved under Haslett’s watch, becoming a top-five unit for the first time last year when it allowed only 95.8 yards a game. Yet in the opener, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy gashed the Redskins for 184 rushing yards, and Packers running back James Starks, a backup, gained a career-high 132 yards.
The Redskins got a break last week when Reggie Bush, the Lions’ top running back, was unable to play because of a bruised left knee. That thrust Joique Bell into action, and after gaining 38 yards on seven carries in the first quarter, he ran for just 25 yards on 13 carries over the next three.
Shutting down Bell didn’t halt the Lions, who, truthfully, didn’t need the threat of a run game to succeed. Matthew Stafford, who fell just shy of passing for 5,000 yards last season, threw for 385 yards in an eventual 27-20 victory.
That’s where the Raiders differ: As running back Darren McFadden goes, so does the offense. The former first-round pick, now entering his sixth season, was held to just nine yards on 12 carries in a loss to the Broncos on Monday, but his value was on display the week before when he gained 129 yards in a victory over the Jaguars.
McFadden isn’t the only running threat. If quarterback Terrelle Pryor is able to return after sustaining a concussion on Monday, which is still uncertain, the Raiders will be able to utilize the zone-read option – a play that bugged the Redskins in the opener against the Eagles.
Pryor has been effective in the zone read, running the play 11 times in the Raiders’ first two games for 75 yards.
“When he’s running, he’s like a running back with the ball,” said outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who faced Pryor in college. “He’s got a great stiff-arm, and he’s so long that he’s able to keep defenders off of him.”
If the Redskins can stop McFadden, they’ll also eliminate the other threats the run game provides – the play-action pass and, subsequently, the zone read.
Merely stopping the run, of course, won’t give the Redskins a golden ticket through the remainder of the season. But, as they enter the bye week, it would give them a solid chance of obtaining their first victory – something that would cushion spirits as they enter the bye week.
“If we can come out and do it again this week, I think we’ll feel a lot better about that part of our game,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “Hopefully, we can use that to carry us through the rest of the season.”
➤ A version of this story appears in Sunday’s edition of The Free Lance-Star.