Playoff lesson: Washington must fix defense to return to postseason

Injuries kept Chris Culliver from having the impact the Redskins were hoping for this season. Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

ASHBURN, Va. -- The focus will be on Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins' next contract -- and subsequent improvement. Both matter. But if the Redskins look at the teams playing in Sunday’s championship games, they will see another common thread besides quarterback: defense.

Though it’s clear having a top quarterback gives you a better chance, it’s also evident that defense remains a focal point of any championship team. And that’s an area the Redskins absolutely must improve next season or it will be another year flirting with .500.

The four remaining defenses all rank in the top 10 in scoring defense, yards per play and yards per game -- and all are in the top 11 in yards per carry. The truth is, the Redskins' offense is far closer to the level needed to advance in the postseason than the defense.

Here’s how the Redskins stacked up in those categories: 28th in yards; 28th in yards per play, 31st in yards per carry, 17th in points. Considering where they started, and some of the players they lost, the Redskins’ defense helped down the stretch. They mostly played smart and with energy; there’s a base, but it needs more (getting younger up front for starters; linebacker Junior Galette, if healthy, will provide a boost for the pass rush).

Two key offseason signings, cornerback Chris Culliver and nose tackle Terrance Knighton, did not have the hoped-for impact -- Culliver because of injury. Knighton played better late, but if he returns the Redskins would like him to do so in better shape to help at season’s start. Their secondary was in flux all season -- and still needs repair.

I would definitely add more on offense (running back, perhaps a guard/center and a good young receiver who could possibly start in his second year would be nice).

But they must focus hard on defense. Cousins had a strong second half of the season, but he hasn’t proven he can win a game where his best targets are out (few can). Therefore, you must strengthen the roster as much as possible. Heck, even if Cousins was a perennial Pro Bowler, the same thing would be said.

Look at Carolina. The reason the Panthers squeaked into the playoffs last season was their defense. It provided a base for this season and then, paired with quarterback Cam Newton, it elevated them to Super Bowl contenders.

The Panthers’ defense has a nice mix that the Redskins need to achieve: playmakers in every area. They have a stud interior lineman (Kawann Short; love him), a solid pass-rusher (Charles Johnson), one of the game’s best inside linebackers (Luke Kuechly) and a top cornerback (Josh Norman). That group allowed a journeyman safety such as Kurt Coleman to have his best season.

New England adapts to its talent (and developing the same) as well as any team in the NFL. The Patriots have a strong young core: linebackers Chandler Jones (25), Jamie Collins (26) and Dont'a Hightower (25) and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (25) and Logan Ryan (24). Physical corners and excellent rushers (along with playing from ahead quite a bit) led to 49 sacks during the regular season.

And Denver, too, has been excellent all season defensively and is a primary reason the Broncos are one win from the Super Bowl. The Broncos ranked in the top three in eight major defensive categories this season (including first in six of them). Coordinator Wade Phillips inherited a terrific defense and has helped it maintain that level.

Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer played poorly against Green Bay, but the Cardinals advanced because of their defense. The last time Washington ranked in the top-10 in yards per game and points per game? 2008. Since then, the Redskins have finished 17th or worse every year in points per game and 18th or worse in yards per game five times. They were eighth in forced turnovers this season, but they had five games in which they caused at least two turnovers and still surrendered 23 or more points (2-3 record).

There is so much emphasis on the quarterback -- and having a good one is a must. But if the Redskins want to advance they must improve defensively. Otherwise, at this time next year we’ll be repeating this discussion for the sixth straight offseason.