Redskins’ search for identity could lead to defense (not a QB) with first pick

Jay Gruden is facing the music after the Redskins’ fourth straight defeat, which was likely a death blow to any playoff hopes. 

The Washington Redskins aren’t just looking for a quarterback. They’re trying to find an identity. And that quest could take them in a direction other than quarterback — or even offense — with their first pick at No. 15 overall in the NFL draft.

Make no mistake: They will look for offense, whether a quarterback or receiver. They need more help at guard; they could use an all-around tight end to prevent predictable personnel groupings; they might need to add another body at running back.

But they won’t stop trying to improve their defense. And here’s why:

“When you have a great defense, it makes it easier to win games,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “Sometimes you have a great offense and you run into a great defense and all of a sudden you can’t do anything, as we witnessed in a couple of games last year from other teams.”

That’s why the Redskins could select a pass-rusher at No. 15 or maybe even an inside linebacker. Both could be available and would help the Redskins — finally — build a good defense. They haven’t had a defense ranked in the top 10 in both scoring and yards allowed per game since 2008. They haven’t finished with a top-10 ranking in at least one of those categories since ending the 2009 season ranked 10th in yards allowed per game.

With a strong defensive line, anchored by Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, and the addition of safety Landon Collins and linebacker Reuben Foster to the lineup, the Redskins have a chance to create a good unit.

“Having a great defense consistently, you always feel like you’re in the game,” Gruden said. “You don’t have to press the issue, you don’t feel like you have to score on every possession.”

Gruden told ESPN last summer that his idea of an explosive offense didn’t necessarily mean scoring 40 points a game.

“Explosive to me is ball control, having big-play ability, of course, but also expressing your will on the defense,” Gruden said.

Last season, the Redskins were 7-1 when scoring first and 0-8 when they didn’t. Through seven games in 2018, their defense ranked fourth in yards and fifth in points. They were 5-2, with three straight wins in which they averaged 21 points while allowing 15.7. They were forming an identity as a team: run the ball, don’t turn it over and play good defense.

But Washington finished 17th in yards allowed and 15th in points last season, and the Redskins lost six of their last seven games, in part because of injuries but also because of a defense that slipped.

They have an offense that plays with little margin for error. If there’s a strong defense, the overall identity starts to form — on both sides of the ball.

“You can work in your play-action, your bootlegs, you can really focus in on the running game, and I think that’s when we were at our best last year personally,” Gruden said.

They’re closer to reaching this point on defense than on offense. Last season, quarterback Alex Smith‘s style sometimes prevented bigger plays downfield, but kept the ball away from the opposition. That mattered. But the Redskins don’t have a settled quarterback situation, with Colt McCoy and Case Keenum battling for the job — and another prospect could be added during the draft.

They also need an offensive line that can stay healthy — or has more depth in case it can’t. That means finding a left guard at some point, even though they signed Ereck Flowers with the hopes of him converting from tackle to guard. If they’re going to try to control the ball — as of now they do not have the makings of an explosive passing attack — then they have to dominate the front.

They need running back Derrius Guice healthy after his torn ACL; and Adrian Peterson to still run well, as he did in most of 2018. But they won’t fully know about Guice perhaps until training camp. And Peterson just turned 34. How long can he defy odds? But his presence is important considering the desire to play a certain way.

They also need less predictability from their tight end groupings. If Jeremy Sprinkle was in the game on first down, for example, there was at least a 72 percent chance of a run — regardless of whether he was by himself or paired with another tight end.

“We’ve got to figure out ways to be balanced in all personnel group settings,” Gruden said, “and how we can adapt our running game to make sure we have the equal amount of runs in each personnel group with each person in that group.”

All of these thoughts frame the way Washington will approach the draft and what it’s looking to build. Gruden has a vision; it started to become a reality last season but only for a short time. They need it for 16 games.

“We received the opening kickoff, we get two or three first downs, we chew up some clock, we punt it, we back them up, we get the ball back, we play field position and we win games 20-17 or 23-16,” he said. “It was a great recipe for us early. I like playing that way.”

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