There are many theories on why the Redskins' defense is a surprising fifth in the NFL after four week. Here's one you won't hear much: the defensive line is significantly better this season.
Through four games, the Washington Redskins' defense is fifth in the league in fewest yards per game, fourth in fewest points and tied for first in third down conversion percentage. Last season, the Redskins were 31st in the league in yards allowed. What's the difference, you all ask? Last year was all Albert Haynesworth's fault.
OK, so that's a slight oversimplification. The easy answer is that Albert Haynesworth is gone. The more complicated answer has to do with a combination of a zillion factors, one of which has to do with there not being any more Albert Haynesworth. The answer I'll give has more to do with Albert Haynesworth than most would say, though not in the way you're thinking.
Not to say those zillion other factors don't matter. The second year of playing the 3-4 defense is always better than the first. The addition of Ryan Kerrigan in the draft allows the Redskins to run out two vicious pass rushers at the outside linebacker positions. Oshiomogho Atogwe has been a stabilizing presence in the secondary. The schedule so far has been pretty easy, with the Redskins facing a banged-up New York Giants team, an Arizona Cardinals team headed by Kevin Kolb, the heroically-injured Tony Romo-led Dallas Cowboys and a woeful St. Louis Rams team. And yes, it's nice not to have Haynesworth around moping.
But for the purposes of this feature, it's time to give a little love to the men who aren't designed to get much love with the 3-4 scheme. It's an upgraded front three that has been critical in the improvement of the Redskins' defense.
There's nothing fancy about what is happening here. The major reason -- or at least one of the major reasons -- the Redskins' defense is better is because they spent money to upgrade the defensive line. They specifically spent money on two guys: Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen. So far, both have been fantastic and have made life easier for the rest of the defense.
Thus far, Cofield has been the nose tackle a 3-4 defense desperately needs. No, he's not a giant like B.J. Raji or Casey Hampton, but he's done a pretty good Jay Ratliff impression. He's not necessarily getting a ton of sacks or tackles, but he's occupying blockers, batting passes down and making sure the Redskins' line doesn't get pushed back every play. Considering he came from a 4-3 scheme with the New York Giants, it's pretty amazing he's this good in a 3-4 already. The Redskins could have chased Aubrayo Franklin this summer. Instead, they chose to try their luck converting Cofield, and he's done well to show someone like Haynesworth that you can make the switch if you are committed to doing it.
Bowen, meanwhile, has been a revelation at end this season. Remember the stereotype that down lineman in a 3-4 never make plays? Tell that to Bowen, who already has 2.5 sacks this season. (You listening, Albert? This could have been you). At the time, the decision to sign Bowen was a little stranger than the one to sign Cofield, since Cofield had more experience as a starter. Bowen was simply a one-year starter on a declining Dallas defense, or so it seemed. Ultimately, the Redskins correctly realized that Bowen's playmaking ability in Dallas' under 3-4 scheme was a good fit in their slightly different 3-4 scheme. They also realized Bowen was on the upswing, and made a leap of faith that he would continue to improve and make himself underpaid. He has done just that so far this season. In many ways, he's exactly what they hoped Haynesworth could be once it became clear Haynesworth wasn't inclined to play nose tackle.
So really, this does all come back to Haynesworth. Anyone can have a theory on how Haynesworth's ongoing feud with Mike Shanahan and the Redskins affected his play on the field in the rare instances he actually suited up last season. The bottom line, though, is that Haynesworth was merely a third-down specialist last year, playing only a handful of snaps and occasionally rushing the passer. He didn't do anything a traditional nose tackle was supposed to do. That meant the Redskins' defensive line in 2010 counted heavily on Kedric Golston (now a backup) and Ma'ake Kemoeatu (now nowhere) as starters. It's no wonder the Redskins couldn't stop anyone. The defensive line was getting pushed back every play.
Now, that's not happening, and all the other members of the Redskins' defense has shined. Isn't that the whole point of running a 3-4 defense? The scheme is designed for them to be anonymous, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve credit for their role in the Redskins' defensive resurgence.