Hey, we're not talking about the 1985 Bears here, OK? Only one team in the league gave up more points last year than the Cowboys did. Only one team in the league gave up more yards last year than the Redskins did. (In both cases, it was the Broncos, by the way. You wanna talk about bottoming out?) It's safe to say that both Washington and Dallas had higher defensive expectations in 2010, even though the Redskins were switching to a 3-4 and their highest-paid player didn't want to play.
It's also safe to say that both the Cowboys and the Redskins expect to improve -- and improve a lot -- on defense in 2011. The Cowboys hired Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator, hoping he could get the defense back to its late-2009 performance levels. The Redskins drafted Ryan Kerrigan in the first round to play outside linebacker opposite Brian Orakpo and hopefully offer one of the most fearsome young pass-rush combinations in the league. Washington also signed free-agent safety O.J. Atogwe prior to the lockout, and the safety duo of Atogwe and LaRon Landry looks as if it will be a strength of the Washington defense.
There's work yet to do in both places. The Cowboys need to address safety (and maybe cornerback), and the Redskins need a nose tackle and likely will have to replace Carlos Rogers at cornerback and Rocky McIntosh at inside linebacker. But my debate question for you this Friday is this:
Which defense will have a better 2011 season? The Cowboys' defense or the Redskins' defense?
It's not as crazy a question as you might think. Washington does need the nose tackle, but as of right now I think they're ahead of Dallas in the secondary. And while the mere presence of DeMarcus Ware on the roster gives the Cowboys the edge at linebacker, I'm not sure how far behind the Redskins are at the position overall. Orakpo is an emerging force and London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander are strong, steadying presences. If Anthony Spencer plays the way he did in 2009, this is no contest. But at this point that's a big "if," and the linebacker comparison between these two teams could come down to Kerrigan vs. Spencer. If the rookie has a big year and Spencer disappoints again, we might be sitting here this time next year saying the Redskins have the better linebackers.
Might even be saying the Redskins have the better defense.
I'm going to pick the Cowboys in this debate for now, but I think it's close. I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to Ryan and his ability to rejuvenate the good veteran personnel they have there, and I'm going to assume they upgrade at safety. I think Bradie James and Keith Brooking still have plenty to offer, and I think Spencer and Mike Jenkins will bounce back.
But if I'm wrong on any of that, I'm not going to be surprised if the Redskins end up with the better defense. The second year is a big one, coaches say, for making strides in the 3-4 defense. The Packers, who just won the Super Bowl in Year Two of Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, are the best recent example of that. The Redskins don't have as many star-caliber defensive players as Green Bay has (nor do they have a quarterback), so there's no reason for Redskins fans to get their hopes up too high. But I don't think Washington's defense is too far away from challenging for a spot as the best in the NFC East.