There are two primary complaints about the Redskins defense right now coming from fans and commentators alike:
- They are struggling to stop the run
- Their blitzes are too predictable in quantity, if not quality
What does it all mean? It's proven difficult to really gash the Redskins for chunks of yards on the ground. A vast majority of NFL teams have graduated the NFL style of the 70s where it was all about what you could do on the ground play after play after play. Offensive coordinators who support antiquated "three yards and a cloud of dust" offenses are routinely criticized and tend not to hold jobs for very long. In short, the Redskins haven't proven to have a sustainable issue against stopping the run, at least not in the way that the Indianapolis Colts have. This will all change if big plays on the ground become a common sight. If the Redskins begin to get gashed by the run, coordinators will begin to stick with it, taking the 4.0+ average the Redskins will give them until they break a long run.
If there's a meaningful difference between last years run defense and this years run defense, it's that last year's was centered around making sure London Fletcher could arrive at the ballcarrier unblocked on most plays. That meant the two blockers in front of him as well as the two linebackers in front of him had a responsiblity to aggressively take on blockers and open up lanes downhill for Fletcher. This year, Fletcher is not the centerpiece of the run defense concepts, though he remains the focal point of both opponents we played in the running game. The focal point of our run defense is LaRon Landry, who oftentimes, even has Fletcher taking on blocks to make sure he comes free. Tackling has not been an issue for Landry this year, though in the past, it certainly has been.
Landry is a defensive back, which is why some analysts are concerned about the Redskins run defense. If he's making all the tackles, isn't that indicitive of a schematic problem? Not necessarily, because Landry is making most of his plays at the linebacker level, and fewer in the secondary after a 7 or 8 yard run. Effectively, the Redskins base defense might as well be a 2-5 front.
This week, there was a lot more base 3-4 concepts because the Texans are predomiantly fond of their pro-style sets. The Redskins defensive line does a pretty good job keeping blockers off of the linebackers, however, they aren't a big, powerful group, so they usually get driven a yard or two off the ball in most plays. This means that the biggest difference between this years run defense and last years run defense is that the Redskins hardly ever get a tackle for loss in the backfield. I think we had three in the game versus the Texans (Carriker - 1, Fletcher - 1, Hall - 1). The Redskins faced 23 running plays, so the vast majority of the Texans runs (87%) went for positive yardage. If you follow the concept of adjusted line yards, it seems pretty clear that the Redskins defense is going to rank very low this year. They haven't even proven to be competitive in short yardage situations, much less dominant like they were last year. However, giving up a median run of three yards, as the Redskins do, makes rushing offense completely unsustainable for the opponent. To beat the Redskins defense this year, you have to throw early and often.
Herein lies the problem with the Redskins defense this year: through two games, the pass defense has been very, very poor. It's far too early to say that the poor results are not simply a function of the opponent, but in two weeks, Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and Miles Austin now have three of the best receiving games of the young NFL season. The only thing those three have in common is that they played the Redskins defense. You could argue that the strategy of using Landry as a movable piece in the run defense is hurting the overall pass defense, but that's probably contradictory to the true story. Landry's biggest and best contribution to the Redskins defense so far is that he's been absolutely unblockable on the pass rush. When you block him with a back, he stuns him and goes right over him. When you block him with a guard, he spins and goes right by him. When the offense doesn't otherwise account for him, he finds a free gap, shoots it, and pounds the quarterback. Landry was credited with just a single sack in this game, but the one that was credited to Lorenzo Alexander was pretty much Landry's sack, he tripped up Schaub who stepped up and awkwardly fell at Alexander's feet.
There were 80 defensive plays in this game, and 57 passes. Landry fired about ten times, give or take two either way. He had five combined pressures/hits in addition to two sacks. That's an alarmingly efficient rate. If a 4-3 defensive end made plays at that rate, it would be the equivalent of a seven sack, 15 pressure performance. That's historically great. We saw Landry flash this ability under Gregg Williams in 2007, but he was a rookie, and with Sean Taylor only playing eight games that year, it was difficult to have him get into any rhythm in that role.
Unfortunately, the abolition of the "Angel" position created that same year for Taylor and later Landry has really hurt the Redskins on the other end. The deep middle coverage has been incredibly poor. That's not all Reed Doughty's fault, though he's progressively less useful in coverage the further you move him from the line of scrimmage. It's really a combination of everything. The Redskins have been excellent at defending deep sideline routes this year: Phillip Buchanon and Carlos Rogers in particular, but the outside leverage that the corners keep on the receivers at all times in this zone defense has given quarterbacks a bunch of voids to pick apart in the deep field between the corners and the safeties.
Matt Schaub is a zone killer at quarterback, and his 9.4 YPA day comes hardly as a surprise. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of it comes in the form of pressure: the Redskins put a lot of pressure (and pain) on Schaub throughout this game. The Texans scored 7 points in the first half, 20 in the second half, and three in overtime. In all three periods, Schaub was relentlessly pounded by interior pressure in the A and B gaps. The Texans offensive tackles had great days: Duane Brown pretty much held Brian Orakpo without a mention in the first half, but Orakpo played big in the second half when the Redskins starting stunting in the tackle/guard gap instead of around the outside. LaRon Landry actually ended RT Eric Winston's sack-free streak, dating back to the end of the 2008 season. Despite all these pressures, Schaub completed 38 of his 52 passes. Schaub could trust his receivers to always be open against the Redskins zone coverage and the demolition of our secondary was really a team effort. Here are a few of the reasons Schaub and the Texans had so much success throwing the football:
Kevin Walter had a Mismatch against Carlos Rogers
Rogers usually does just fine against receivers in the mold of Walter, but Walter excelled on this day because the type of patterns he loves to run doesn't conflict with the coverages that Rogers likes to play. And so time and time again on first and second down, Walter could run down the numbers against Rogers and could use the middle of the field as a built-in option route to get open. The Redskins provided precious little help to the inside, and with outside responsibility, Rogers was beat by Walter's precision no fewer than eight times in this game.
Rogers' INT in the first quarter actually came against TE Owen Daniels, who really wasn't a factor in this game. It was just a rare mis-read by Schaub, and a good reaction on the ball by Rogers, who was kind enough to drop it up in the air that time.
The dig route (deep in) is known as a cover-three buster, and the Redskins play a lot of cover three. But even on the plays where the Redskins were not playing cover three, they still couldn't defend this route all day. The Texans ran this in front of two safeties, they ran in it in front of single safeties, and they ran it against no safeties. What was a little disturbing is that Schaub didn't have to even hit the receivers out of their break, the Redskins LBs and safeties simply weren't defending Walter and Andre Johnson between the hashes.
Walter had a big one against Rogers that set up the field goal that cut it to 27-20. The Redskins appeared to have a cover three call on with Landry in the deep middle, Doughty defending the deep third behind DHall (can't remember if he was blitzing on this play or not), and Rogers with his deep third on the single receiver side (vs. Walter). You're never going to believe what happened on the play when I tell you: Landry got baited out of deep coverage by a crossing route (by Jacoby Jones, I think? A. Johnson might not have been in the game then). Walter got inside leverage on Rogers deep, and Schaub's throw was excellent. I'm not sure it would have mattered if Landry was there, the throw was probably too perfect, and perhaps all the Redskins saved was 15 yards on top of the completion. But it was just more "gaping hole in zone" stuff that the Texans exploited all game.
Poor Screen Recognition
The Texans didn't run many screens, but they ran them on third down, and not enough Redskins linebackers diagnosed them in time to stop them. They are in a 1-5-5 on third down when the opponent is in three or more receivers. So it's the responsibility of the five linebackers to diagnose and blow up screens. So far, the only players to correctly see a RB screen in time to stop it were Carlos Rogers and LaRon Landry. Adam Carriker and Andre Carter have serious problems with play diagnosis (in general), and these screens usually target Brian Orakpo's aggression. The players who need to do a better job are reserve OLBs Chris Wilson and Lorenzo Alexander, as well as Rocky McIntosh. These guys play a lot in these 1-5-5s and if the formation has an obvious weakness so far, it's that it's far too easy to get your lineman out in screens against it.
The Arian Foster 50-yard screen was thrown to the opposite side of a third down overload blitz. That will happen from time to time if you continue to overload pressure on third down, but I think the positives of overloading in obvious passing situations certainly outweigh the negatives. Teams have really struggled to pick these blitzes up and get guys out into the routes. So far the screen is a stand alone weakness of this unorthodox defense.
The Johnson TD Pass
Doughty got screwed. Johnson was a lone receiver to the left against Phillip Buchanon in man-under coverage. The Redskins rushed five. Doughty was the free guy in the defense and had double coverage responsibility on Johnson. Buchanon simply didn't know/think Schaub would make the throw he ultimately did. He had no other read on the play besides Johnson, he just didn't follow the play to it's completion, and Doughty got out-positioned and out-jumped. This play simply should never have happened.
The linebackers are the best, deepest unit of the team, but the Texans starting receivers proved too versatile to match up with play after play. That's okay, as they might have the best group of receivers in the league. Andre Johnson and Miles Austin have averaged 123 yards per game against our defense, and Johnson won offensive player of the week. None of that is a good sign. The Rams don't have anyone who can masquarade as an elite receiver, so things will certainly be different this week.
Zone coverage is a work in progress, and we might simply not have the personnel to play it. We didn't last year. The starting corners are generally more than holding their own. Rogers did much better vs. Johnson than he did vs. Walter. Buchanon struggled today. The Texans generally didn't go at Hall very much, which suggests that his coverage was sound. There were too many situations where Doughty or Landry gave up an in-cut to a receiver who got free. I thought Fletcher was excellent in coverage in this game. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the Texans simply don't use the perimeter like other defenses and we'll have more success against other quarterbacks who lack the touch of Matt Schaub.
One thing that's painfully clear is that between where our safeties play and our linebackers play, there's a two yard void of space to throw the ball against every play for first down yardage. To be a good zone coverage defense, that space needs to be significantly smaller, half a yard at most. Next week, we play Sam Bradford, who will probably crumble under the same rush that Schaub fought through. But if the rush doesn't get to him, he's capable of putting up similar career-best passing numbers because the Redskins' zones are just too spacey right now.