In a very high number of ways, the defense that took the field against Dallas was a lot like the Redskins defense of years past. The game plan was to bend, but to not break. To try and prevent the big play. Hey, let's create some turnovers! And to an extent, none of this is surprising because a lot of the players are the same guys who have been playing on this defense for many years.
From an outcome based approach, the difference between this defensive game and any game that Greg Blache called against Dallas was simply a DeAngelo Hall strip and return that gave the Redskins their only TD. Hall may be the one guy on the defense who could have done that last year and wouldn't have looked painfully out of his element doing so. The story was pretty much the same: conceed first downs, prevent big plays (71 out of 75 plays for Dallas went for 15 yards or fewer), let the oddly-conservative offense that Dallas runs stay on the field, and the Redskins offense on the sideline. The only way the defensive outcome is different last year is that last year, Dallas almost certainly pulls that game out at the end.
From a process-based approach, things could not have been more different. The corners were excellent. All of them. DeAngelo Hall had his best or second best game as a Redskin: at least his best since 2008. Carlos Rogers was, for this game at least, back to early 2008 coverage number levels. His break-up of a Roy Williams pass in the third quarter where Romo had better protection than any other play of this game was excellent. The best play in run support, maybe by any Redskin in this game, was made on a third and two toss play by...Byron Westbrook. But the most pleasant surprise on defense may have been the play of Philip Buchanon.
The corners were better than the safeties. Three safeties played in the game for the Redskins. Chris Horton didn't play any snaps in the box, and thus, wasn't a particularly useful player when he was on the field. I thought Reed Doughty and LaRon Landry were both hit and miss. Both made their plays: Landry made many more plays, including multiple touchdown saving tackles. Ultimately the difference in their days was circumstancial. LaRon Landry needs to be an impact player on the pass rush to have value in the box, and in this game, he had one pressure on Tony Romo in the second quarter on a beautifully designed blitz. He had more opportunities than that to make a play and simply did not. I loved his game against the run, however. He was our best run defender in this game, including linebackers and defensive lineman. Doughty didn't make any plays against the run, because he is playing Landry's old position. I don't know what Jim Haslett's defensive terminology is, but what showed up on tape in this game was a fairly traditional "free" and "strong" safety. The free was hardly ever in the box. The strong was out of the box plenty. Doughty, I thought, was good in coverage, though if he doesn't take the bait on that run action at the goal line, Romo is at least going to have to look somewhere else besides Miles Austin. Hall thought he had help on that play, and he was right to believe that.
This defensive line could be a problem. Last year, man for a man, we were better than other teams and other lines we played. This year, we have just a couple of match-up advantages on the DL. Adam Carriker didn't play a ton of snaps, but was healthy and effective when he played. Kedric Golston had one play on the goal line when he shed Doug Free and blew up the play in the backfield. Otherwise, he wasn't anywhere to be found on the tape. Phillip Daniels had a single pressure on Tony Romo, but even that comes with the cavaet that he's just not athletic enough anymore to go get a quarterback. Vonnie Holliday, who was the only defensive lineman used in our pass rush scheme -- which is awesome, by the way -- had himself two pressures. Holliday is the best pass rusher this team has on the DL not named "Haynesworth", but understand that his role is circumstancial. If this is the way things are, he's going to kill the rest of the DL in pressures because of his usage on third downs. Haynesworth made two or three hustle plays in this game, but he was fairly decisively neutralized by the Cowboys defensive line. The Cowboys ran the ball nearly every time he was in the game, so don't blame Albert for the lack of pass rush early.
Schematically, the Cowboys decided that Hall was the weak link of our defense, and they designed a lot of plays to force him to make open field tackles against bigger opponents. He passed the test. Carlos Rogers had 8 targets for 36 yards allowed (4.5 YPT). Hall had 16 targets (the most I've ever charted for a single player in a game) for 88 yards (5.5 YPT). Phillip Buchanon gave up just one yard on three targets. Even though Miles Austin beat everyone on this list (except Buchanon, I guess) multiple times, this was a decisive victory for the Redskins corners.
We have three excellent pass rushing linebackers. Between Andre Carter, Brian Orakpo, and Lorenzo Alexander, the Redskins' 1 DL 4/5 LB pressure schemes are so very dangerous. What I noticed -- and I could be wrong -- is that when the Redskins went to a dime defense, that they actually pulled London Fletcher off the field. I did notice Rocky McIntosh out there when Chris Horton or Byron Westbrook or Kevin Barnes was in as the 6th DB. But this appears to be a down and distance thing with Fletcher. He's not going to play every play of this season for us, which at his age, is probably good. When Rocky McIntosh is flat beating Andre Gurode on the blitz, you know that Dallas is in trouble. Give Doug Free of Dallas some credit: one of the key match-ups they could not afford to lose was Free against Andre Carter and Free won that battle all game long. Free was less effective against Lorenzo Alexander. I also thought replacement LG Montrae Holland had an excellent game, as well as most of the Dallas offensive line. Almost entirely all of the big pressures on Tony Romo came against Alex Barron.
The blown coverage on Miles Austin at the end of the game was a Brian Orakpo mis-read. But I don't think he read it wrong so much as he didn't know/understand our coverage. We were playing a pretty conservative three-deep on fourth and ten with Rogers as a slot-safety to the three receiver (left) side. Buchanon, Orakpo, and Fletcher had underneath responsibility: prevent the first down. Both linebackers ran with Jason Witten on a short cross. I know Orakpo was trying to take away Romo's throwing window to Witten, but he can't follow him in that coverage. He has to turn him loose.
The Redskins played quarters coverage (or maybe even five-deep) on the last play of the game. Dallas responded with a three vertical concept in the back of the end zone with Roy Williams running an over (crossing) route from left to right, and Marion Barber first chipping and then running the flat. The design of the play is to put the underneath defender, McIntosh, in a bind by giving him something to watch (Barber) while sneaking a far more dangerous receiver behind him into the front of the end zone. That was D-Hall's zone, but Hall had read the route combo on that side and had come inside to help Doughty with Miles Austin, the primary receiver against any sort of pressure look from the Redskins. Williams got open in Hall's zone essentially because he started on the other side of the field: there is simply no key other than to communicate the route. But the guy who would have been responsible for the communication, 52, was distracted by Barber, an irrelivant part of the play.
And of course, one second into that play, Orakpo had already ended it, drawing holding.
Any issues vs. the run in this game were purely contain/tackling issues. I thought the LBs were excellent against the run in this game. The defensive line had a couple of gap issues (looking at you Golston and Haynesworth), and for a guy who played most of the game, Ma'ake Kemoeatu only had an impact (positive or negative) on a couple of plays. Dallas never challenged him on the interior. When they ran that power draw against us, it was something we were willing to concede from the 1-5 front. 3 yards and a first down for 45 seconds of clock? Sounds good to me.
There's a right way and a wrong way to go about preventing the big play. The wrong way is to not match your personnel with the opponents, let the quarterback know who is going to be open pre-snap, and have the corners play so soft that the offense can't help itself to throw the ball to the outside. The correct way is to force the offenses' hand. Pressure the crap out of their quarterback, give them pass defense fronts they've never seen before, and make them take the game out of their quarterbacks hands on third down for fear of the alternative. Dallas was very successful in third downs all day, but could not overcome their propensity to waste plays trying to get Jerry's new toys some meaningless statistics. In this game, we prevented the big play not through being scared of being beat deep, but by trading advantages in time of possession to force Dallas into a schematic shell.
Dallas really did dominate us statistically in this game, but we dared them to stay on schedule and take their yardage in chunks. They simply couldn't play like that for more than 35 yards at a time. A more disciplined team beats us fairly decisively in this one. For Dallas, it was the perfect strategy.
Teams grade players using a plus/minus system. I don't like it because it's fairly subjective: not so much that a good play with a good outcome isn't obvious in the game film, but that I can only grade what I see, and even though I spend hours a week watching and re-watching, I'm going to miss good plays in the plus/minus. It's a necessary evil, so take these ratings for what they are.
- Brian Orakpo (+8/-3) +5
- LaRon Landry (+6/-2) +4
- DeAngelo Hall (+7/-4) +3
- Carlos Rogers (+4/-2) +2
- Rocky McIntosh (+4/-2) +2
- Lorenzo Alexander (+2/-0) +2
- Vonnie Holliday (+2/-0) +2
- Phillip Buchanon (+3/-1) +2
- Byron Westbrook (+1/-0) +1
- Adam Carriker (+1/-0) +1
- Ma'ake Kemoeatu (+1/-0) +1
- London Fletcher (+1/-0) +1
- Albert Haynesworth (+1/-1) 0
- Kedric Golston (+1/-2) -1
- Reed Doughty (+0/-2) -2