Redskins vs Vikings Defensive Review: Is First Down the Worst Down?

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 28: Brett Favre  of the Minnesota Vikings is hit by Washington Redskins linebacker Andre Carter  at FedExField November 28, 2010 in Landover, Maryland. The Vikings won the game 17-13. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There were a couple of issues in this game that hadn’t surfaced to date with the defensive unit.  A banged up Carlos Rogers allowed three consecutive completions for first downs before he left the game with a hamstring injury.  London Fletcher read more than one running play wrong, and not just when Adrian Peterson was the running back.  Phillip Daniels might have had his best game of the year.  The pass rush returned, to a degree, after a three week absence with 8 hits/hurries and 2 sacks.  Lorenzo Alexander made a number of bad reads on bootlegs by Brett Favre, none more costly than the very last play before the two minute warning.

Mostly though, the problems with the defense in this game were entirely predictable based on the rest of the season to this point.  This was true of the Redskins strengths as well.  They got off the field on third down short yardage runs using the same formula as always: Albert Haynesworth penetrates decisively and immediately, then someone else makes the hit at the line for no gain.  London Fletcher still shut down the opposing tight end, Visanthe Shiancoe.  The Redskins got a high number of three and outs in the second half.  In five consecutive drives, the Vikings had one first down play, and that drive lasted just four plays before the punt.  

The story of the game was two-fold: way too much first and second down success for the Vikings which didn’t only keep them out of third and long, but out of third altogether, and Brett Favre held the ball when he could have forced it in all pressure situations but one, and that ended remarkably harmlessly.  Favre didn’t do anything to beat the Redskins in this game, but likely even one mistake would have given the Redskins their window of opportunity.  In hindsight, the missed opportunities for the Redskins came on the offensive and special teams ends.  The defense did alright, but the word of the day would seem to be disappointment: 17 points against isn’t too bad, but both TD drives were long ones, and while the defensive stand after the McNabb INT was big, the Vikings were able to add the third long drive that they needed to in order to win the game, this time to close it out at the end.

Adrian Peterson continued to be a stud in the first quarter of this game, but on the first play of the second quarter, he became the next casulty on the long list of players the Redskins defense have knocked from the game, and did not return.  Toby Gerhart was mildly effective as his replacement, on no play more so than a 3rd and 1 middle dive where he got the first and scored behind strong blocking.  The Redskins had no answers for screens or bootlegs.  Favre was not effective the two times he booted to his left, so they merely needed to keep contain to the right side to bottle up this part of the passing game.  For whatever reason, Lorenzo Alexander kept buying the run fakes when his number one responsibility is Favre.  Then on the last play of the game, he followed the tight end Shiancoe when Reed Doughty had already taken that responsibility, and Favre got his longest run in three years.

Screen defense continues to be a problem for this group.  The Vikings threw two screens to their backs.  The second one was sniffed out well by the Redskins.  The first one went for 34 yards to Peterson because no one in the pass rush sensed it was coming, and the Vikings executed the blocking perfectly.  If you went to the three long, crushing Vikings drives, you could probably pin the first one primarily on Kedric Golston and Rocky McIntosh, the second on Lorenzo Alexander and Carlos Rogers, and the third on Philip Buchanon and Alexander.  I wouldn’t say that is an exhaustive list of everyone who made a mistake on the Redskins defense, but it’s a mix of repeat offenders (Golston, McIntosh), and guys you’d normally expect more from (Alexander, Rogers, Buchanon).

The other big deal in this game was that the safeties were used fairly interchangeably with LaRon Landry on the mend, and Kareem Moore probably did more strong safety “stuff” and less free safety “stuff” than Reed Doughty did.  Moore was primarily responsible for the Sidney Rice reception in the third quarter, reading run and heading to his gap on a run action pass, then trailing Rice on the play in coverage.  For once, however, the safeties weren’t the major problem.  This game was all about the front seven: when it played well as a unit, the Vikings went on a streak of five consecutive offensive drives.  When it didn’t play well, they couldn’t get off the field.

From a defensive perspective, this game is only remarkable in the way that it all went according to plan.  Both teams looked bad on offense in terms of the number of procedure penalties they took, and neither line protected the quarterback.  Both quarterbacks protected the football pretty darn well.  Minnesota was able to generate some semblance of a running game, although if the Redskins had played more disciplined and took away the easy passes, it wouldn’t have resulted in points.  This game didn’t feature a lot of great throws by the two legendary quarterbacks.  It was a game where tackling meant a lot, both teams had some success with the blitz, and the game was decided in the second half by the relative merits of the passing game.  Pass defense has been the overall weakness of the Redskins this year, more than any other facet of football.  Pass offensive has been the overall weakness of the Vikings this year.  We can just look at those numbers and get a good picture of which team was able to win this game on the margin.

Brett Favre was 15/23 for 172 and 0 turnovers, about 7.5 yards per attempt with better than 65% completion.  That’s not quite 2009 Favre re-incarnated but it’s average in a limited capacity.  The Redskins were going to have to either make Favre a non-factor, or make him and his struggles the story.  The disappointment is that, even though they were able to limit the points against them, the Redskins did neither with Favre.  No matter what has already been written about this game, this was not a different Vikings team.  It was not a different Redskins team.  Its not a bend but don’t break defense.  It was a unit that kept the Vikings under control, but not out of the end zone.

The Redskins remain a defense-first team.  In this season, when you ignore the critical field position game that has been such a variant this year, a single interesting stat emerges.  The Redskins are 5-0 this year when the defense allows one touchdown drive.  They are 0-6 when the defense allows at least second touchdown drive.  Turnovers have helped the Redskins allow fewer touchdowns, but nothing has correlated to wins and losses for this team quite like touchdown drives against.  The Redskins were likely a single play away from winning this game, a play which was obviously not made.

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