Sacks not biggest key for Redskins' D

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
2:00
PM ET
The Redskins need to improve their pass rush, something that was evident the past two seasons. And it became a priority in the offseason, one that I felt should be the case, in the way of new coaches, free agents and a draft pick. It should be improved, but there are other places where they must do better.

I started thinking about this after my guy Chris Russell from ESPN980 fell, hit his head on something and predicted the Redskins would record 50 sacks. OK, he didn’t fall and, last I know, nothing fell on his head. Know this about Russell: he works hard and doesn't just fling numbers haphazardly. And his story prompted me to do some digging to see the impact of sacks on reaching the postseason.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
AP Photo/Nick WassBrian Orakpo can help Washington's pass defense improve by generating a consistent pass rush.
Fifty sacks is an optimistic, best-case scenario situation. If everything falls into place could it happen? Well, only nine teams combined in the past five years have reached this number. Are the Redskins really at that point?

So much enters into play with this number and a few players, especially outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, must have their best seasons. Jason Hatcher needs to stay healthy; Trent Murphy has to prove he can rush in the NFL as a rookie. Etc. But game situations and the quarterbacks they’re facing also matter. They’re not facing the same caliber of passers that they did a year ago overall, so it’s realistic to expect solid improvement. They did not make quarterbacks uncomfortable last season, hence the overhaul. But they should be better (a phrase uttered many times about this team in a variety of areas).

But what his story did was force me to do some research on ESPN Stats & Information. And I found a number that absolutely must improve regardless of their sack total – and it’s not always connected to sacks, either.

Yards per pass attempt.

The Redskins have been dreadful in this area the past four years; it’s evident in the number of big plays allowed and it’s why they’re considered a boom-or-bust defense.

First, a little stat on sacks over the past five years: There were three seasons in which teams recorded 50 or more sacks and two seasons in which no teams did. Of the teams that finished top 10 in sack totals, 47.1 percent made the postseason. And only one of the nine teams with 50-plus sacks in this span has won a playoff game. By the way, the Redskins' high total under coordinator Jim Haslett was 41 in 2011.

Now, yards per pass attempt from 2009-13: During this period, 60 percent of the teams that finished top 10 in this category made the postseason. Only once has more top-10 teams in sacks made the postseason over a top-10 team in YPA. Seattle ranked eighth in sacks (44), but first in yards per pass attempt (5.82). The Seahawks’ season ended well. Quarterbacks knew they had to unload fast and Seattle responded by making tackles.

Washington has been terrible in allowing yards per pass attempt during this time. Since 2009, the Redskins’ best finish in this area came in ’09 when they were 18th at 6.96. Since then, under the current defensive staff, their best finish was 21st in 2011 at 7.47 yards. They were 31st last year, allowing 8.04 yards. You can’t assume that number will improve dramatically just because of more sacks. Rather, they need to tackle a whole lot better in the back seven for that to happen.

The Redskins don’t have to finish with 50 sacks to be a better defense; 45 sacks but more strip/fumbles would be plenty. But they do have to pressure more and when the ball is caught, they have to tackle. It's basic, but basic has been problematic in recent years. If they do that, wins will follow.

John Keim

ESPN Washington Redskins reporter

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