It’s difficult to draw positives from an ugly defeat against a 1-7 team, but one Redskins unit managed to stop some bleeding Sunday in Miami.
Washington’s run defense held the Dolphins to 103 yards on 33 carries, a respectable 3.1 yards per rush. That’s marked improvement from the 4.6 yards per carry the unit had been surrendering during the previous four games, in which opponents had averaged 161 yards.
Those numbers might signal a return to the dominance displayed by the defense the first four weeks of the season, when its 84.5 rushing yards allowed per game put it among the league’s best in that category. The Eagles were the first team to expose flaws in the defensive line, gashing the Redskins for 192 yards on the ground in Week 6. Perhaps because of playmakers such as Philadelphia’s Michael Vick, Carolina’s Cam Newton, Buffalo’s Fred Jackson and San Francisco’s Frank Gore, the Redskins became prone to giving up big plays between the tackles. They entered the Miami game having surrendered 10 rushes of 20 yards or more, a mark currently exceeded by only four teams.
No such lapses occurred against the Dolphins, an encouraging sign for anyone wearing burgundy and gold.
“We didn’t give up the big play,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “If you can limit those big plays, then you’ve got a chance overall to keep a team to three yards a carry. If you’re doing that, you’re leading the NFL every year.”
Opposing offenses’ play-calling provides another explanation for the run defense’s statistical discrepancies between games before the bye week and those afterward. During its first four weeks, the defense faced an average of 19.5 rush attempts. Since the bye week, teams have run at the Redskins 35 times per game on average.
That trend should continue Sunday, when the Dallas Cowboys bring their surging ground attack to FedEx Field. Their once-mediocre run game quickly has become one of the most feared in the NFL, thanks largely to the spectacular emergence of rookie running back DeMarco Murray.
Since taking over starting duties from injured tailback Felix Jones in Week 7, Murray has broken the Cowboys‘ franchise record for rushing yards in a four-game span, in addition to smashing Emmitt Smith’s single-game franchise rushing record of 237 with a 253-yard game against St. Louis. Murray’s explosive ability, highlighted by his league-leading 6.7 yards per rush, means the Redskins’ defensive front will need to be on high alert if they hope to further recent improvement.
“I’ve been knowing a lot about this guy and what he did at Oklahoma,” said Redskins defensive end Brian Orakpo, who played in college against Murray for two seasons while at Texas. “I knew what type of player he was going to be. I feel like they got someone special. It was just a matter of time. You give a guy an opportunity, they’re not going to look back, and that’s what he’s doing right now.”
With Murray coming at them, the Redskins will bring the same resilient mindset they carried against Miami running back Reggie Bush last week. Like Murray, Bush entered the Redskins game with plenty of confidence, having rushed for 92 rushing yards against Kansas City the previous week and 103 against the New York Giants the week before that. He ended Sunday’s game with only 47 yards.
The Redskins are careful to note, however, that more than one player must be accounted for against Dallas. Fullback Tony Fiammetta has emerged as a steady blocking force in front of Murray, and the offensive line has jelled nicely since some early-season hiccups. Jones — who has recovered from the ankle injury that paved the way for Murray’s increased workload — will give the Cowboys another speedy option at the running back position.
“I don’t think it’s just [Murray],” defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “They have a good offensive line that’s playing better than they were at the beginning of the year, so you have to give credit to them. If we do a good job as a front seven against them, I don’t think he’s going to be able to run at all.”