Because it's the bye week, there's a lot of time for questions. Here are five (by the way, no, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett isn't going anywhere so that's not a question for now):
Have they turned it around? One game against an offense starting a (since-demoted) backup quarterback and losing its top running back does not qualify as a turnaround. But give the Redskins credit for doing what they should: Shut down the Raiders’ offense. The pass rush was good and, more importantly, they recorded six of their seven sacks without needing an extra rusher. That’s huge. It was a good start, but you can’t wipe out three bad games with one good one against the Raiders. Can the coverage hold up against better passing offenses? (Oakland, after watching other teams force this secondary to tackle, opted for slower routes with a less-mobile quarterback behind a weak offensive line. Apparently film isn't available in the Bay Area). This defense doesn’t have to dominate a good team to show they’ve turned it around; that's unlikely. But they must stop the sloppy tackling and big plays allowed. Otherwise, there is no turnaround.
What are reasons for hope with the D? The continued rise of nose tackle Barry Cofield, the continued development of playmaker Ryan Kerrigan and the rust that Brian Orakpo has started to shed. The Redskins’ defense has a shot at improved play in part because of this trio, who happen to play the most important spots in a 3-4. These three are capable of playing at a certain level others on the defense can’t reach. That must continue.
How much will Jarvis Jenkins and Rob Jackson help? Plenty, especially Jenkins. Neither is a difference maker, however. For starters, it must be pointed out that Kedric Golston, who started at left end, has been solid and certainly not the reason the defense struggled. But the Redskins' No. 1 priority is stopping the run and Jenkins was good in that role last season. It’s always good to add an athletic big man, even if he’s shown little as a pass rusher. Jenkins said he worked on taking a longer first step when rushing the passer. Last year he’d stutter-step and it would take him three steps to get to a spot that, for example, took Stephen Bowen two steps. You could see in camp that Jenkins’ first step was better, but that did not result in pressure against starting linemen. Jenkins hasn’t shown any pass-rush moves, other than power, to this point. Jackson adds depth and the ability to be a little more creative with defensive packages.
What’s up with London Fletcher? At 38, Fletcher has conceded to his age by removing himself for parts of the game for Nick Barnett (good insurance policy; not strong versus the pass). Fletcher struggled the first two games, played well in the third and was up-and-down this past week. Keep in mind that he played better in the second half of the season in each of the last two years. What’s clear is that Fletcher is more effective when on the move at the snap, allowing him a better chance to avoid blockers. One NFL coach said last year that a sign of linebackers who have succumbed to age is that when they hit the hole, they’re not able to finish with the same power; or when they're unable to shed blocks the same way. Against the Lions, his big plays came when on the move (blitzing) or when he was aligned only two or three yards off the ball, making it tougher for linemen to reach him. When he has to sit and read, it’s much tougher. He was quiet early in the game Sunday, but had one bad stretch in the third (over two series) in which he missed three tackles and didn’t get to the hole on another. But he also made stops, mostly when on the move at the snap -- and, yes, he avoided blocks on a couple occasions to get there. When you’re not used to him missing tackles, however, those stand out and beg the obvious question. Fletcher isn't leaving the lineup, so he'll get a chance to answer that question. The Redskins need consistency at this spot.
Is there hope for the secondary? Rookie David Amerson’s learns lessons every game; he needs to prove he can apply those lessons consistently. If he can, then the Redskins have a talented big corner. If Brandon Meriweather can stay healthy, then it provides a presence in the defensive backfield. If the Redskins can pressure with four, it will help (though Sunday’s seven sacks were helped by the coverage). If, if, if. And the mix-and-match philosophy at safety is one I thought they’d start the season with instead of Bacarri Rambo (had Meriweather been healthy, then perhaps they would have). But hope? Well... Overall this group can play better by tackling better (the Redskins are tied with San Diego for having allowed 198 yards after contact in the passing game, according to ESPN Stats & Information). If any spot was affected by the salary-cap mess, it’s this one. This isn't about playing one type of coverage (they need to keep mixing it up or they'll be picked apart). It's about limiting mistakes (missed tackles, blown assignments). Once they do that consistently, and mix in a turnover or two, then there's your hope. Both Dallas and Denver rank in the top five in passing, so this secondary will continue to be tested. Quite often.