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11 Jan 2006

Every Play Counts: Washington Front Seven

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 protégé of Buddy Ryan, having worked for him in Houston, and he emphasizes the same strategies for his linebackers – 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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 11 Jan 2006

25 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2006, 3:37pm by Loren


by Matthew Furtek (not verified) :: Wed, 01/11/2006 - 11:34pm

Great write-up... you covered everyone who played major minutes. What about Big Joe Salave’a?

It looks like the rain will be a major factor this weekend in Seattle.... any ideas on if it would favor Washington's front 7 or Seattle's front 7?

by Michael David Smith :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 12:18am

Not sure how the rain would affect the game. Has anyone ever studied it? Does rain help passing teams or running teams?

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 12:56am

Wait, wait, wait...

It's going to rain? In Seattle??

No disrespect to the Patriots intended, of course.

by thad (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 1:12am

On the Arrington interception,
wasn't he just playing zone?

by SJM (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 1:48am

Excellent writeup as usual. (No disrespect intended to the Pats.) But won't the return of Shawn Springs (who has had a great season when healthy) and a full game from Marcus Vick's role model put the Skins' front seven in a better situation than last week? I'm not saying they will shut down Seatle's O, but this isn't quite the same lineup that faced Tampa.

by charles (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 1:54am

That was a good article, evans is underrated so is killings the backup to griffin. The one advantage tampa bay had over seattle though was joey galloway the redskins had to double him there are no wideouts from seattle that will get the attention that galloway got. So that means eight or nine in the box to stop alexander.

by Jason (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 1:56am

#2 It's my impression that slick conditions negatively affect speed and quickness more than it does size and power. If your game is to use bursts and/or leverage to beat someone, you might as well be on ice trying to dig in, but if your game is to just stand and take up space or bump around, basically just use your inertia, you can do that on a slick surface too. One game in particular that jump out to exemplify this is Bears vs. Steelers this year. The Bears defense runs by guys and darts through gaps. You can't do that when the ground gives way. When you're giving away a lot of beef, you need to make up for somehow like speed, quickness and severe leverage. If that's taken from you, you're now just as slow as the other guy and still underweight. The recent Colts at Patriots in the playoffs fall into this category as well. Everyone always talks about the temperature, but I think it was the sleet and mud that really handicapped the Colts. Again, just an impression. I'd love to see detailed analysis on the battle of inertia versus speed in slippery conditions.

by BillWallace (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 3:31am

Immediately after the Arrington interception (before I saw it was tipped), I joked to my friends that Simms probably just assumed there would be no linebacker there because it was a stupid place to be, but he forgot to take into account how stupid Arrington is. When I saw it was tipped I realized I was more right than I meant to be.... depressing.

My impression of the Hawks is that even though they are better at every position than the Bucs, they don't get a lot of big plays. And big plays being the skins big weakness, they probably won't score more than 20 points.

by hector (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 5:05am

re #7
In rugby, rain favors heavy-packed team as the ball slides and speed is reduced.
Obviously, it's a lot more difficult to gain speed in rain and rain can hide the speed difference between two players. Then, as noticed by Jason, it rests strength and size. You come back to what they call the "fundamentals", smashmouth rugby/football.

In addition, the shirts and pads are heavier to carry when it rains and the uniforms give the feeling to be tighter.

by MDD (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 5:48am


one advantage tampa bay had over seattle though was joey galloway the redskins had to double him there are no wideouts from seattle that will get the attention that galloway got. So that means eight or nine in the box to stop alexander.

Galloway's numbers are better because he's TB's only target, not because he's head and shoulders better than what Seattle has to offer. The Seattle recieving corps is far and away a more dangerous group than TB's group of schlubs.

Galloway: 28.4 DPAR, 14% DVOA, 152 Passes
Hilliard: 4.4 DPAR, -2.4%, 53 Passes
Clayton: -1.7 DPAR, -20%, 55 Passes
Smith: 4.8 DPAR, -1.1%, 60 Passes
TB Total DPAR: 35.9, 320 Passes

Jurevicius: 20.7 DPAR, 20.9%, 84 Passes
Jackson: 14.3 DPAR, 23.1%, 55 Passes
Engram: 13.2 DPAR, 9.7%, 97 Passes
Hackett: 9.1 DPAR, 16.3%, 43 Passes
Stevens: 16.6 DPAR, 23.9%, 68 Passes
SEA Total DPAR: 73.9, 347 Passes

by Greg (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 6:28am

The type of field turf in Seattle will absorb the rain well. The turf uses a tire rubber substance as well and speaking from experience playing on this type of surface as a soccer player.....speed and quickness should not be hindered. The biggest issue is the ball getting wet and the grip for the quarterbacks. I expect Alexander and the best offensive line in football to have a big game against the Skins missing Renoldo Wynn. This is just one of those special years that does not come along very often especially here in Seattle. Forget we have not won a playoff game in 21 years. It is 2006 and streaks are meant to be broken. Heck the University of Washington basketball team had the longest winning streak in the nation at home with 31 before losing two of their last 3. So why not Seahawks!

by Sam B (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 7:14am

#7 Everyone always talks about the temperature, but I think it was the sleet and mud that really handicapped the Colts.

I've always assumed that temperature is a proxy for nasty weather conditions like snow, rain and wind. I doubt a dry still cold day (which are rare, although I'm in one today) would really have that much impact on a warm-weather team - or are they really that woosey?

by Sam B (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 7:16am

Eek. I forgot to genuflect!

No disrespect intended Patriots - sorry, sorry.


by Matthew Furtek (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 10:27am

Re: 10
Thanks for that. I was trying to figure out who Seattle's receivers were, I forgot about Jakcson. Was Jackson hurt for part of the season, because I thought that Hackett got a lot of time as a 3rd WR... or maybe it's just Seattle run's a lot of different personnel onto the field.

I'm not sold on the strength of Washington's secondary. I think Rogers and Harris are shaky... everyone knows about Harris but Rogers hasn't faced a real accurate QB who can make him pay for being a few steps slow.

The QBs Washington has faced during their win streak Fitzpatrick, Warner, Bledsoe, Eli Manning, McMahon/Koy Detmer, Chris Simms. I've heard a lot of talk from Redskin fans about how Seattle had a weak schedule, but I think those QBs are a good argument that Washington hasn't had to play a tough, well-balanced offense.

by JonL (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 11:42am

RE: #14

I'm pretty sure every Seattle receiver has missed time this year, Jackson included.

Really nice article. I've thought Daniels and Griffin have been their best defenders all year.

by Oswlek (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 12:04pm

My impression of the Bucs/Skins game was that the Skins defense was a tad bit overrated (although I hate to use that word. It itself is overrated ;) ). The Skins D played great in the first quarter, but I wasn't that impressed from that point on. It appeared to me that the Bucs left a lot of points on the field. Without getting too far into the "if they played better they would have done better" issue, just look at the dropped TD and the decision to not kick the FG. The D did nothing to cause the drop and the FG was a virtual chip shot. Add 10 points and you have 20 allowed to the Bucs. That is not a great defensive performance.

I was reminded of the Pitt/Jet playoff game last year. As I was watching that game it really looked like the Steelers were giving NY chances, but NY didn't take advantage of them.

I honestly believe that if Washington plays just as well as they played last week they will allow 30+ points to Seattle.

by Loren (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 4:50pm

Re: #16 "The D did nothing to cause the drop [of the not-TD catch by Edell Shepherd]..." Actually, the replays show that Carlos Rogers got a hand in there to stop Shepherd from securing the ball. Coupled with what MDS points out about Rogers alone forcing the Pittman fumble, and add in Shawn Springs coming back, and the Redskins secondary looks pretty decent. Still, though I'm a Redskins fan, I'm nervous about this weekend...but it's been a great run: crushing the Cowboys and Giants alone pretty much makes the season for me. Btw, love the site, love the commentary, love this article. Thanks guys!

by Loren (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 4:57pm

Any chance we can get this same analysis for the Redskins O versus the Seahawks D? That seems like the more interesting and up-in-the-air question, even if it's between each team's lesser half.

by Oswlek (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 5:54pm

Loren #17,

I watched a few replays myself and did not see what you are refering to. If you are right than I may have to back off my stance a little.

Most of what I am talking about with the missed opportunities is more anecdotal, though. I'm not necessarily qualified to go into tremendous detail, it is just an overriding feeling I had watching the game.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 7:24pm


There will definitely be a preview article breaking down each unit matchup for every game posted (probably) on Friday. Those articles are a mix of statistical analysis and this style of tape breakdown. I don't know what MDS has planned for this article (as a review of a previous game) for next week, though. I think he usually has several options and records a few different games, so he isn't screwed if things go awry (like if he planned on writing about Carson Palmer this week, for example). For Washington's O, I might suggest something on Santana Moss (how does he keep getting open?), their O-line (just to hear a description of the counter trey), or maybe Chris Cooley.

Anyway, I'd check back Friday morn.. mid-afternoon, and look at the NFC preview article. It should have a lot of the analysis you're looking for, pre-game.

by Luke (not verified) :: Thu, 01/12/2006 - 11:03pm

I know in the 1st meeting between the shehawks and the 4skins Moss kept getting open on come back routes. Brunnel was extremely patient and had all day on these 3rd and longs, even though the hawks were sending 5 and 6 guys. I think the hawks D coaches played into the skins hands, as they were constantly going max protect on these passing downs. Send 3 and double cover Moss all game.

by Jake Brake (not verified) :: Fri, 01/13/2006 - 5:45am

In Seattle, the rain does not pose major traction issues. The real challenge is the combination of cold and rain. The atmosphere gets heavy with cold, moisture-laden marine air at this time of year; it sinks in your bones, making movement stiffer and more difficult.

There is a strong chance of wet and fairly cold weather for the game on Saturday - the region is deep into a series of winter storms.

Even though the Seahawks practice in a bubble at this time of year, simply being acclimated to this climate gives them a major advantage. Portis will be feeling the rheumatiz in his banged-up shoulders. On the other hand, Brunell played his college ball at the UW (which is even colder and wetter), so he knows how to get it done under these conditions. But overall the weather would seem to favor the Seahawks.

by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Fri, 01/13/2006 - 11:23am

***Not sure how the rain would affect the game. Has anyone ever studied it? Does rain help passing teams or running teams?***

Don't have any specific stats, but growing up in central New York the rule was that rain helps running teams. Snow even seems to work better.

The NFL football is very slick as is, so rain makes it very difficult for QB's to maintain proper grip on the ball.

by AJ (not verified) :: Fri, 01/13/2006 - 3:25pm

Brunell - as evidenced by his performance last year and then again this year after getting dinged in the second Giants game - just ain't effective when he doesn't have healthy pins under him. My personal guess is that it throws off the timing in the offense because he loses a step.

The Bucs moved the ball on the Skins, but made critical mistakes and didn't score. If the 'Hawks show up at all, they should win easily. But what the heck, this season has to be considered a rousing (sp?) success for the Skins.

by Loren (not verified) :: Fri, 01/13/2006 - 3:37pm

Re: #19, Sean Salisbury may have made too big a deal of it on ESPN after the game, but check out Carlos Rogers' right hand when Edell Shepherd is trying to secure the ball - Rogers has both arms reaching around Shepherd, but his right hand is coming up from Shepherd's waist pointing to the ball. For the Seattle game and the future, it's nice to see Rogers wasn't giving up on the play....In general, I agree the Redskins got a lot of lucky breaks on the fumbles. And yet, were those lucky breaks balanced by having Portis hobbled, Wynn's arm broken and having the official right next to Taylor when he morphed into his alter-ego, KnuckleHead?