Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
11 Jan 2006
By Michael David Smith
When Joe Gibbs returned as the Washington Redskins' head coach two years ago, his first mission was to find the best defensive coordinator Daniel Snyder's money could buy. Much like his predecessor, Steve Spurrier, Gibbs has always delegated the defense to an assistant. So as important as the decisions to acquire Clinton Portis, Mark Brunell and Santana Moss have been, no move shaped the second Gibbs era as much as the hiring of Gregg Williams.
Williams is a protÃ©gÃ© of Buddy Ryan, having worked for him in Houston, and he emphasizes the same strategies for his linebackers â€“ disguising coverages, forcing turnovers, taking risks that allow the occasional chunks of yardage but also result in big defensive plays. An examination of the Redskins' linebackers -- Lemar Marshall, LaVar Arrington and Marcus Washington -- on every play of their hard-fought 17-10 victory at Tampa Bay shows a unit that gives opposing offenses fits because of its incredible quickness, but also has a few flaws that Seattle could expose this weekend.
Marshall, the starter at middle linebacker, tackled Cadillac Williams on the first two plays of the game. Marshall is better in space than he is at fighting off blockers, so a lot of credit for his tackles, especially a three-yard loss on second-and-7 on Tampa Bay's first drive, should go to right defensive end Phillip Daniels. Williams wanted to run to the outside, but Daniels blew up left tackle Anthony Davis, stood up fullback Mike Alstott, and forced Williams to cut back to the inside, where Marshall was waiting for him. It's a lot easier to play linebacker when a defensive lineman in front of you occupies two blockers.
But Marshall missed Williams a few times, too. On a second-and-4, he lined up in the middle and then shifted to the right, biting on a Williams stutter step and taking himself out of position. Williams ran up the middle, where Marshall should have been, for five yards and the first down. On a first-and-10 later in the game, Marshall met Williams as he crossed the line of scrimmage and was in perfect position to make the tackle, but even though he got his shoulders into Williams, he somehow bounced right off him. Arrington was right next to Marshall and brought Williams down, but against Shaun Alexander, the Redskins can't afford to have their middle linebacker missing tackles like that.
Arrington missed some tackles, too, including one on tight end Alex Smith when Simms hit him on a short pass, but Marshall was right behind Arrington to tackle Smith for no gain. On the one hand, the missed tackles are a concern, but on the other hand, the linebackers work so well together that it seems like every time one of them misses, another is ready to clean up.
Arrington was all over the field against the Bucs, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Tampa Bay's second series lasted one play, when Redskins tackle Joe Salave'a tipped a Chris Simms pass and Arrington picked it off and ran it to the 5-yard line, setting up a Clinton Portis touchdown. But the replay showed that at the time Salave'a tipped the pass, Arrington was in the middle of nowhere and didn't seem to be covering anyone -- he made an athletic play to catch the ball and run it back, but having the ball tipped in his direction was luck, not skill. (Arrington appeared to fumble at the end of the play, and Tampa Bay's Dan Buenning appeared to recover, but Arrington was ruled down by contact, so the play couldn't be reviewed. If ABC had any camera angles that definitively showed whether Arrington lost the ball, it didn't share those angles with its viewers.)
Arrington, like Marshall, struggles at shedding blocks. On a seven-yard Alstott run on third-and-1, left tackle Anthony Davis buried Arrington, driving him a few yards off the line and then knocking him to the ground, and Alstott ran right where Arrington should have been. Seattle left tackle Walter Jones must have salivated as he watched the film of that play.
Tampa Bay's running game was at its best when it ran at the linebackers instead of around them. On a first-and-10, Alex Smith went in motion and Jameel Cook lined up at fullback. At the snap Smith hit Arrington, Cook hit Washington, neither linebacker got off the block, and Alstott had an easy route up the middle for eight yards. Seattle fullback Mack Strong is a much better lead blocker than Smith or Cook, so the Redskins could have some trouble with Strong leading Alexander through holes.
That play set up Chris Simms' two-yard run to the corner of the end zone. Marshall was at outside linebacker, and turning Simms inside was his responsibility, but Tampa Bay guard Dan Buenning pulled to the outside and blocked Marshall to set up the touchdown. Seattle has a guard -- Steve Hutchinson -- who can pull better than Buenning does, which could spell trouble for the Redskins.
Despite a history of knee injuries, Arrington still has speed. On one play Arrington dropped into deep middle coverage, but when Simms hit Alstott on the left sideline, Arrington covered 20 yards as fast as any linebacker I've seen this year to get there for the tackle.
In the regular season, the Redskins usually took Arrington out on third downs and used their nickel package, with Shawn Springs playing something of a hybrid linebacker-safety role. But with Springs out against Tampa Bay, Arrington stayed in on third downs, and he didn't always look like he knew what he was doing. On one play he was on the field to blitz on a third-and-5, and he cost the Redskins badly by jumping offside. It wasn't long ago that Arrington was the best blitzing linebacker in football (his 11 sacks in 2002 are more than any linebacker has had since) but Williams thinks he's too undisciplined and will get burned on screen passes to running backs if he's permitted to blitz with impunity. So Arrington has a grand total of one sack in his two years playing for Williams.
Of the three linebackers, Marcus Washington was the best against the run. On a third-and-1, Alstott tried to leap over the line, but Washington met him in mid-air and stopped him for no gain.
For most of this season Washington's linebackers covered running backs well, but on Saturday Simms had success throwing to Michael Pittman, Williams and Alsott, completing all seven of his passes to his running backs for a total of 47 yards. Pittman had a 22-yard gain in the third quarter when he ran past Marshall in the middle of the field. Marshall's coverage was terrible on the play. Pittman lined up in the backfield split with Alstott and ran a short route to his right, but when Marshall over-pursued to the outside, Pittman cut back into the wide-open space in the middle of the field, where Simms hit him in stride. Marshall was two steps behind Pittman the whole way and was lucky that safety Omar Stoutmire eventually made the tackle.
Arrington is faster than Marshall and did a better job when he covered Pittman, rarely allowing him to get open. (A note on the official stats: On one pass to Pittman, Arrington was credited with a forced fumble when he and rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers converged on Pittman, but examining the replay, it's clear that Rogers actually caused the fumble.)
Marcus Washington seemed a little too cautious in pass coverage. On a five-yard pass to Williams on second-and-6, Washington dropped deep into the secondary and let Williams get open, although he showed good quickness in getting to Williams and tackling him before he got the first down. Washington also struggled covering the tight ends, letting Smith past him for an 11-yard reception on first-and-10 late in the second quarter, and giving up a 14-yard completion to Anthony Becht early in the third. Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens could provide matchup problems when Washington covers him.
Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin deserves a lot of credit for Washington's victory. On a first-and-10 early in the game, Griffin shed the block of Buenning and grabbed Williams at the ankles to trip him up for a loss of one. A couple of plays later, Tampa Bay ran a similar play, and Griffin again didn't let Williams get to the line of scrimmage, shedding the block of Tampa Bay center John Wade and exploding into the backfield to bring Williams down for a loss of two. The Redskins are banged up at a lot of positions, but with Griffin healthy their defense should be better than it was in the middle of the season, when he missed three games and was at less than 100 percent in a few others. When he's healthy, Griffin is one of the few defensive tackles in the league who is effective both against the run and at rushing the passer.
Washington's unheralded Demitric Evans had a big game as well. On a third-and-10, Evans beat Sean Mahan on an inside rush and got to Simms. Evans beat Mahan again to force Simms to throw the ball away on a second-and-2, but on that play Simms held the ball too long. There was time to dump it off to Mike Alstott, who was open beyond the first-down marker, and Simms didn't see him. On the next play, Simms was sacked when Stoutmire, who lined up at safety about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, sprinted up the middle and got to Simms. Simms also hurried a six-yard pass on third-and-21 on the play after the sack, even though he had room to step up into the pocket and wait for something to develop downfield. Having passes tipped at the line of scrimmage has been a problem for Simms all year, and it happened five times against Washington.
When examined closely on tape, some of the best plays by Washington's defensive line seemed more like bad plays by the Tampa Bay offensive line. When Phillip Daniels sacked Simms for a 13-yard block, the Redskins only rushed four, and yet three of its defensive linemen got into Simms' face within a couple of seconds. Of Tampa Bay's five linemen, only right tackle Kenyatta Walker, blocking Evans, did a passable job of protecting Simms. Washington can't count on that happening against Seattle.
Seattle runs a very similar offense to Tampa Bay's (Jon Gruden learned his offense from Mike Holmgren), so Washington won't have to make any wholesale changes to its game plan. But Seattle has better personnel at nearly every position, which means that as well as Williams has his defense playing, the Redskins' offense will need a lot more than the 120 yards it gained against Tampa Bay to get to the NFC Championship.
Other 2005 Every Play Counts columns on playoff defenses:
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
25 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2006, 3:37pm by Loren