Every Play Counts: Washington Defense
By Michael David Smith
In 2005, the Washington Redskins rode a very good defense -- fourth in the league, according to DVOA -- to the playoffs. Coordinator Gregg Williams had his unit attacking like his mentor, Buddy Ryan, used to do, and things were looking up in Washington.
And then last season, disaster struck. The Redskins dropped down -- way, way down, all the way to 32nd in the league in defensive DVOA. The personnel (especially safety Adam Archuleta, a free-agent addition) didn't seem to fit Williams' schemes, and the Redskins were one of the league's most disappointing teams.
Now that 2005 Redskins defense is back. DVOA now ranks the Redskins' defense fourth overall, fourth against the pass and seventh against the run. The Redskins are 3-1 and looking like a playoff team again.
So what happened? To find out, I watched the Redskins' defense on every play of their 34-3 demolition of the Detroit Lions. The whole defense is sound, but the front four -- especially against the weak Lions offensive line -- was absolutely amazing.
First, defensive end Andre Carter is a beast. Last year he signed a six-year, $30 million free-agent contract with the Redskins, and although he started all 16 games, most observers thought he failed to live up to that contract. This year he's looking like he's worth every penny -- and, given the market rate for defensive ends these days, he may even be underpaid.
The Lions at times tried to block Carter with a tight end, which was just silly. No tight end is going to block this guy. And how fast is he? On one play he lined up at right defensive end and began to rush Lions quarterback Jon Kitna. But when he saw that Kitna was going to throw to Calvin Johnson near the sideline, he sprinted out there to help tackle Johnson for a gain of only three yards. This guy has great athleticism and a nose for the ball that comes from being a coach's son, which he is -- his dad, Rubin, played defensive tackle for the Broncos and is now head coach at Florida A&M.
Carter had his way with Lions left tackle Jeff Backus, especially on a third-quarter play on which he threw Backus to the ground with the old Reggie White "hump" move and sacked Kitna in the end zone for a safety. Forget whether Carter is worth the money Daniel Snyder is paying him, and instead someone remind me why the Lions gave Backus a six-year, $38 million contract last year.
The other starting defensive end, Philip Daniels, is a 12-year veteran and a very smart player. On one first-and-10, Daniels knew before the snap that the Lions had a screen called -- he had it so well sniffed out that he just got out of his stance, took a step back, and waited for Kitna to throw to running back Aveion Cason. It was like someone told him exactly what play the Lions were going to run. He then chased Cason to the sideline and forced a fumble. Incredible play.
Of course, you know just from looking at the box score that Carter had two sacks and Daniels forced a fumble. What about the players who don't show up in the stats? I especially liked what I saw of second-year defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery. He had only one tackle, bringing down Kevin Jones for a gain of two yards on a first-and-10 in the second half, but he's a big, quick guy who's a handful for the offensive linemen who try to block him. He frequently pushed the middle of the pocket backward and prevented Kitna from setting his feet. Montgomery played only sparingly as a rookie fifth-round pick last year, but he's started every game this season, and he's definitely one of the reasons the Redskins' defense has improved.
It really was incredible how often the Redskins managed to get pressure while rushing only four. Williams likes to blitz, but he won't blitz if he doesn't have to, and on Sunday he didn't have to -- his defensive line was doing just fine on its own. Unless I missed one somehow, the Redskins actually went the entire game without ever rushing more than four players.
And while this might sound counterintuitive, the Redskins' defensive players swarmed all over the field Sunday, even though they rarely blitzed. The Lions had one series of three straight plays that included a draw to running back Tatum Bell on which left cornerback Shawn Springs stepped up to stop him for three yards; another handoff up the middle to Bell on which Daniels easily shed the block of Lions right guard Stephen Peterman to stop Bell for a loss of a yard; and a sack on which the Redskins got outstanding pressure from all four defensive linemen. Both defensive ends rushed upfield and both defensive tackles collapsed the middle, and although it was defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin who sacked Kitna, all four defensive linemen contributed equally.
As for depth on the front four, backup defensive lineman Demetric Evans had a sack. I also liked what I saw of first-year defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander, who beat Lions guard Edwin Mulitalo to hit Kevin Jones at the line of scrimmage on one play. He looks like the kind of player who could be versatile enough to play either tackle or end. However, I wasn't very impressed with backup defensive end Chris Wilson. He's quick (as a 6-foot-4, 246-pound defensive end, he'd better be), but the only thing he does is rush to the outside. His only tackle came after a 10-yard run by Jones.
Although the Redskins didn't blitz their linebackers Sunday, strongside linebacker Marcus Washington did have a sack on a play when the Redskins rushed only three defensive linemen. Although Washington negated his sack by facemasking Kitna as he brought him down, the rush was an incredible play on which he shoved Lions right tackle George Foster (who outweighs him by 100 pounds) on an inside move and then easily beat him around the corner. Washington had a very good game despite playing with a dislocated elbow.
Weak side linebacker Rocky McIntosh flies all over the field and also had a good game, but I was a little disappointed with middle linebacker London Fletcher, the Redskins' big free-agent signing this year. Fletcher was fine, but he didn't have the kinds of spectacular plays he so often did over the last five years with the Buffalo Bills.
In the secondary, rookie safety LaRon Landry can really lay the wood to people. On one play he was playing way, way back -- it looked like he was about 30 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap -- but as soon as the ball was handed off, Landry made a beeline for Jones and got the better of a head-on collision. (He does need to learn not to yap at a guy after he's drilled him, though; Landry easily could have been flagged for taunting after the hit.)
Right cornerback Carlos Rogers was matched up with Calvin Johnson for most of the day and had a very good game, including one outstanding play where he toyed with Kitna, making it look like Johnson was open but then sticking his hand right in front of Johnson as the ball was approaching to knock it away. The aforementioned gain of three yards was Johnson's only catch of the day.
Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz has a great offensive mind, but Williams knew just how to attack that offense. (Of course, it helps that the Redskins' front four is much more talented than the Lions' offensive line.) So how would I attack the Redskins if I were an opposing offensive coordinator? In the passing game, I think I'd try a lot of trips formations. Kitna had a 14-yard completion to Mike Furrey on a play in which the Lions lined up with two receivers to the right side of the formation, then motioned a third receiver to that side. The Redskins always kept Springs on the left and Rogers on the right, and overloading one side seemed to cause a coverage breakdown in the Redskins' secondary.
I'd also try to run more than the Lions did. It's understandable that the Lions passed so much when they were behind late in the game, but they abandoned the run too early. Midway through the second quarter, Tatum Bell had a couple of solid runs, a nine-yard gain on first-and-10 followed by a four-yard gain on second-and-1. On both plays, Bell ran right into the heart of the Redskins' defense, and it looked like the Lions -- a finesse team -- might be able to move the ball on the Redskins by overpowering them. But the Lions didn't stick with it, and those two runs ended up being Bell's last two touches of the game.
Jones also ran well at the beginning of the second half, but again, the Lions didn't stick with it. The Lions wouldn't have won the game by calling more running plays, but they probably would have had more success than 10 offensive drives yielding six punts, two interceptions, a field goal and a safety.
The Redskins aren't going to have that kind of success all season, but they are going to play well enough to show that last year was an anomaly. With one of the best defensive lines in the league, a solid group of linebackers, and a talented young secondary, this team is going places -- as long as the players can stay relatively healthy. If the Redskins are hit by an above average number of injuries, they will face the same problem as last year, because this front line talent is not supported by much depth.
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.