Film Room: Dom Capers' Defense
by Cian Fahey
At the time, it looked like a statement score for Washington against the Green Bay Packers.
Eight plays after receiving the kickoff to start the second half, Kirk Cousins set his offense up at the 3-yard line. Cousins would determine where the ball would go before it was even snapped. He had three options, and his choice would be made by how the defense lined up. His first option was a screen to the left side of the offense, the wide side of the field where there were four receivers aligned together in a diamond formation. If the Packers fielded three or fewer defenders to that side, Cousins would throw the ball to DeSean Jackson. The quarterback's second option was to the near side. Jordan Reed lined up outside the numbers against press coverage. If Reed was left alone in a one-on-one situation, Cousins would throw the fade route to him.
Neither Cousins' first nor second option was available on the play. The Packers had a safety to Reed's side of the field and four defenders wide to counter Jackson's threat on the screen. Therefore, Cousins was forced to go to his third option, the least obvious choice available to him. Because he was left alone in the pocket, catching the ball from shotgun rather than taking it from under center, the defense wasn't expecting a running play. While Cousins isn't a statue, he's also not especially mobile as a scrambling threat. From 3 yards out, however, you don't need to be a great athlete to score. And when you have a clear running lane to the end zone, you definitely don't need to be a great athlete. Cousins got a free running lane to the end zone because the Packers defense wasn't prepared to counter a quarterback draw. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers had prepared his defense to correctly react to the numbers outside, but the alignment of the defenders remaining between the tackles was off.
Capers is a defensive coordinator who has drawn a lot of ire from his team's fanbase over the years. Most of that ire can be traced back to his defense's inability to counter Colin Kaepernick on read-option plays in the playoffs a few years ago. In that game, Kaepernick was repeatedly able to exploit space the Packers defense left available, but that wasn't the case in this game. Throughout four quarters, Capers' defense showed that it understood the tendencies and preferences of the Washington offense. They were ready for bootleg play-actions, shot plays on early downs, and quick throws to out routes from the slot in short-yardage situations.
Cousins' touchdown run was the exception, and it was the last time Washington scored. That score put the Packers at a one-point deficit, but Aaron Rodgers and the offense responded with 17 points. Washington had three drives before the Packers scored their final points of the game midway through the fourth quarter. Over those three drives, Washington had 16 plays that resulted in 44 yards, two punts, and one turnover on downs. Cousins had seven incompletions, one fumble, and two sacks on those 16 plays. Most important for Capers' approach was his patience. He didn't begin blitzing Cousins in the hope of creating pressure and forcing the quarterback into a mistake; instead he refused to give the quarterback one-on-one matchups to work with outside and forced him to show patience while throwing his receivers open into tighter windows.
On the first snap of its next drive after Cousins ran in that go-ahead touchdown, the Washington offense turned to one of its staple plays. The Packers had scored a touchdown to re-take the lead, so the dynamic of the game was different.
It's important to note the personnel on this play. DeSean Jackson is the lone wide receiver on the field. He is lined up to the near side of the field. There is a running back in the backfield, Alfred Morris, but more importantly there are three tight ends aligned together on the right side of the formation. One of those tight ends isn't actually a tight end, he is an offensive lineman who has reported as an eligible receiver. He is lined up as the innermost tight end, in position to act as a run blocker or pass protector.
Washington was the worst running team in the league by DVOA and the Packers were playing with a lead, albeit a slender one. Knowing that Jackson was on the field and the tendencies of Jay Gruden's offense made Capers' unit wary of the play-action pass.
The Washington offense has excelled at finding crossing routes after play-action on early downs this year. Having Reed running those crossing routes and the exceptional speed of Jackson clearing out space has allowed Cousins to be very productive on those plays. He typically gets time in the pocket because the defensive front is slowed by the play fake, and his offensive line is a very effective group in pass protection. When they keep extra blockers in and only run two routes downfield, Cousins should expect to have time in the pocket. The Packers were expecting this type of play though, so it was easier for them to get pressure on the quarterback in the pocket.
Both edge defenders aggressively advanced downfield when the ball was snapped. As the above image shows, they were advancing long before Morris even had a chance to run past his quarterback to sell the play fake. Neither player was concerned with being caught too far upfield against a running play because they had a safety in the box and five other pieces from the defensive front to slow down Morris if he got the ball.
None of the Packers' defensive backs were impacted by the play fake. The free safety was immediately moving into a position where he could stay over the top of Jackson, while the cornerback who was pressing Jackson faced him while turning with him so that he and the free safety were essentially double-teaming him. On the far side of the play, the left cornerback was off the line of scrimmage, watching Jordan Reed and waiting for him to release into his route. The safety to that side held his position in anticipation of the running back or other tight end releasing into a route. Reed was going to be an easy option for Cousins if the safety to his side lingered too long or never turned back to track the tight end across the field.
He would also have been an easy option if Clay Matthews had not dropped back into coverage once he recognized the play fake.
Matthews was quick enough mentally to react to the play. He was also quick enough athletically to turn and track backwards so that he clogged the passing lane for Cousins. If Matthews had not been dropping into coverage, Cousins would have had a simple throw to a wide-open Reed. Because Matthews was there with the cornerback trailing the tight end from behind, Cousins had to drop the ball over the linebacker and ahead of the tight end to complete the pass. This wasn't an exceptionally difficult throw, but after play-action Cousins would have been expecting an easier route to his favorite pass catcher.
With both edge rushers pushing their way towards him, Cousins could not afford to hold onto the ball and wait for Reed to clear Matthews. Throughout the game, the Packers struggled to win true one-on-one matchups with their pass rushers. Washington offensive line coach Bill Callahan is highly regarded across the league. Callahan had limited impact on the Washington line early in the season because it was his first year with the franchise, but the cumulative improvement in the line play over the second half of the season has largely been attributed to the guidance of the coach. When the Packers put Washington two scores behind early in the fourth quarter, Capers could become more creative with his pass rush. He still played cautious coverage on the back end, but used stunts to get more pressure on Cousins in the pocket.
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On this play, Capers used a slow-developing stunt to get Matthews to the quarterback. He still only rushed four players after the quarterback, dropping the remaining seven defenders into zone coverage on the back end. Because Matthews came from an unnatural position to loop around the left side of the offensive line, left tackle Trent Williams was late to pick him up. Williams also let his initial man through, and Washington's left guard failed to pick that rusher up because he missed the stunt when the other defensive lineman worked across his face to engage the center.
This was a perfectly executed and well designed play for the defense that completely destroyed the scheme of the offense's play.
On the following second-and-19, Capers rushed four defenders naturally while playing zone behind them. Cousins forced the ball into a window that was never open, and the pass should have been intercepted. Two Packers defenders collided to prevent the turnover, but Washington was still left facing a third-and-19. Capers called another stunt with Matthews on third down. This time Matthews was the creator for Mike Daniels. Daniels' pressure on Cousins caused him to miss a throw to Reed in the flat, but more importantly it prevented him from looking downfield to try to get the first down.
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Preparing for the Washington offense is much easier than preparing for the Cardinals offense. The Washington offense was extremely productive over the second half of the season, but it's an offense that relies on specific play designs with a quarterback who doesn't consistently work against pressure. In Arizona, the Cardinals have a quarterback who has excelled against pressure all season long while pushing the ball downfield in different ways. Carson Palmer won't be rattled by pressure, and he will fit the ball into tight windows.
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Capers faced this challenge a matter of weeks ago when his team was swept aside by a score of 38-8. Although 14 of those points came on fumble returns that had nothing to do with the defense, Palmer was still able to throw for two touchdowns and 265 yards on 27 pass attempts, while a plethora of running backs combined for more than 120 yards on the ground. The Packers did manage to intercept Palmer, but that turnover came on a screen play in a situation that the Packers won't be able to naturally recreate.
Turnovers will be hugely important for this defense this week. Capers has to be aggressive in pursuit of them, because he knows that his defense can't expect to sit back and anticipate specific plays like they did last week against Washington.