Redskins-Packers Defensive Review: Where I rail on Conventional Defensive Statistics

Washington Redskins safety LaRon Landry (L) tackles Green Bay Packers tight end Donald Lee (R) who fumbles on the play in the first quarter of their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland, October 10, 2010. The Redskins recovered the ball on the play.  REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

So, after 5 weeks, the Redskins have dropped to last in total defense.  They are 30th in passing defense.  That’s nice to know.

If you’re reading this you already know that total defense is terribly misleading completely worthless as a defensive measure.  The Redskins give up 18.4 points per game, which is 8th best in the NFL.  That’s also meaningless, but it’s no more or less valuable than “ranking dead last” in something, which sounds way cooler if you: 1) despise the 3-4 defensive alignment, and 2) want everyone to know how much your life sucks when you have to watch your team play the 3-4 defensive alignment.

The Redskins rank in the top quartile in scoring defense because the offense has turned the ball over less frequently than anyone but the Jets and the Eagles’ offenses this year.  The Redskins aren’t actually the 8th best defense in the league.  Brian Burke’s Efficiency Ratings has the Redskins at 15th on the year.  Football Outsiders’ DVOA has them at 23rd overall.  Which system is more correct?  I couldn’t possibly tell you.  What I can say is: that it’s a pretty accurate range to assume when watching the Redskins defense play.

If you defined defense specifically as “preventing touchdowns by the opponent”, there’s nothing not to like about this defense.  The Redskins are giving up fewer TDs/drive than either of the last two seasons.  In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a defense that was better at preventing TDs by the opponent.  The quality of offense faced this year has been well above the average: consensus top ten offenses in four out of five weeks.  That doesn’t change this next week with Indianapolis visiting.

Of course, “preventing touchdowns by the opponent” could be rephrased as that dreaded term “bend but don’t break,” which would make everyone cringe.  The turnovers are up, at least: we’re now into the middle third of the NFL!  But whenever yards against are at odds with points against, a defense is going to get the reputation of bend but don’t break.

One thing I will say through 5 weeks is that what the Redskins put on film is usually out of line (in a good way) with the statistics.  It’s hard to believe that a defense that looks this good actually ranks solidly in the bottom half, though clearly, all methodologies are in agreement that this is the case.

One reason for a discrepancy is that the Redskins really struggle to get drive-killing sacks, despite the fact that the film shows three or four rushers with multiple dynamic pass rushing moves.  The Redskins have 12 sacks through 5 games, which is tied with the Jets for 7th in the NFL.  However, the Redskins have faced more passing attempts than any defense in football, and given the circumstance, 12 sacks really isn’t all that much.  Brian Orakpo has 4 sacks, and that puts him on pace to get a career-high 13 by seasons end.  No other Redskins player even has two sacks (though regarding the sack on Aaron Rodgers in the 4th quarter: either Alexander or Fletcher would have gotten their second sack had they not split it with each other).  This even though, again, the Redskins have faced more passing attempts by quarterbacks than any other team in football.

A big problem in this sack issue is in the scheme, specifically, that no one outside of Orakpo is rushing the quarterback enough to make a significant impact.  That’s now starting to change with Lorenzo Alexander, but a big concept against Green Bay was the three man rush.  The three man rush can be a great defensive tool (especially if you’re playing our offense), but it’s a major bend-but-don’t-break concept used primarily when the defense feels the offense has a talent advantage.  Not so coincidentally, Haslett began this game calling a lot of 3 and 4 man rushes, but then as Green Bay started to lose weaponry to injury, the fourth quarter and overtime were laden with pressure schemes.

Both strategies worked to their intended degree.  Green Bay ran up a ton of yards on us in the first quarter, but got in the end zone just once, needing a 71 yard run from Brandon Jackson to get in striking range of the end zone.  That specific play wasn’t even well blocked by Green Bay — no blockers reached the second level on that play — but they were able to double team and drive Golston out of the hole, and when Fletcher stepped up to fill the front side gap, it left McIntosh one on one with Jackson in the hole to prevent a first down.  McIntosh took a timid angle, then chased.  Then Kareem Moore took aim at Jackson’s shadow.  Then DeAngelo Hall ran past him.  Twice.  And then it was a foot race.

Green Bay had some long drives early in this game which led to point opportunities, but those opportunities died in the second half.  The Redskins had given Rodgers time to throw most of the first half, but in the second half, he started to get pressured on most every passing attempt.  On the series to begin the fourth quarter, Lorenzo Alexander recorded a pressure on every play of the series.  The next series, Orakpo began the drive with two pressures on Rodgers.  The first pass attempt on the series after that, Fletcher and Alexander came unblocked to meet at Rodgers, setting up a meaningless 3rd an 23.  In overtime, Orakpo ran right around Chad Clifton to drill Rodgers to end the first series.  The final passing attempt from Rodgers resulted in the cumulative effect of all that pressure: Rodgers threw well behind an open Greg Jennings with Jeremy Jarmon in his face, was picked off by Landry, and the Packers would later report that Aaron Rodgers sustained a concussion on that hit.

On Rodgers’ last 15 dropbacks spanning the fourth quarter and overtime, he absorbed a hit or was pressured into a decision on 10 of those plays.

Word Diagramming a Key Defensive Play

I want to go back to the three man rush for a second, because the Redskins have used the unique talents of their players in very creative ways to create mistakes by the quarterbacks they have played.  This was a 3rd & 10 play in the first quarter.  As they often do in that situation, Green Bay spread the field with four wide receivers.  The Redskins went with three down lineman, which declared a three man rush at the snap.  That’s not the creative part.  The creative part was in the defensive look that they gave the offense versus the coverage they played.  They were in dime personnel, with Lorenzo Alexander head up on Greg Jennings, Rogers on the slot receiver to the opposite side, and Hall and Buchanon on the outside.  With one defensive lineman on the interior (Holliday), McIntosh and Orakpo were the outside rushers.  The Redskins like this because they know that even with a three man rush, Orakpo’s presence causes Rodgers to decide which side (and what receiver) he is going to go with the ball pre-snap.  They’ll be able to give him a clean pocket, but if he wastes time, Orakpo is going to flush him from that pocket relatively quickly.

For Rodgers, this isn’t hard to diagnose.  You have Greg Jennings in the slot, and with Lorenzo Alexander on him, that’s zone coverage.  Alexander isn’t going to cover Jennings down the field with no help.  The beauty of the defensive call: Rodgers is right enough to trust what he’s seeing, and wrong enough where he has almost no chance to execute it.

The defensive coverage is “Tampa 2″, but with one caveat: it only takes 7 coverage defenders to run Tampa 2, and we have 8 in coverage, which means we have a movable piece.  That’s Alexander.  He’s going to be in man coverage on their best receiver, Jennings.  But the trick is this: not only does he have help, the Redskins are in a normal zone defense.

Because of Orakpo’s presence, Rodgers is going to start with Jennings and stick with Jennings throughout the play, even though he has three other receivers in the route.  This is exactly what the Redskins want: this defensive call is trying to force a mistake by the quarterback.  At the snap, Rodgers expects Alexander to drop and read him, but this doesn’t happen.  He runs with Jennings, who goes over the middle on an over route, settling in between Rogers and Doughty (who have middle underneath responsibility).  After being fooled, Rodgers flushes to his right, away from Orakpo’s rush.  He finds the window between Alexander (in trail position) and Rogers, and floats a pass off the wrong foot with little velocity.  Fletcher reads this the whole way, drives on the route, and drills Jennings when he reaches up for a high throw.  Rodgers didn’t take a sack or throw an interception, but in this case, the Redskins defense forced a bad decision.

DeAngelo Hall’s Day

While Carlos Rogers had a big day (at least aided a little bit by Donald Driver drops), DeAngelo Hall had a horrific day that regressed his season coverage numbers to right around his career expectation.  He got off to a good start this season, pitching a great day against Dallas, a good half against Houston, and he was competitive in the Philadelphia game.  Still, five games into the season, Hall has already had two terrible games, and while I still believe that an aggressive Hall is a useful player, I think the sample size is great enough where we know that we’re never going to get 16 games (or 10 games) of aggressive DeAngelo Hall.  I loved his work against Dallas in the opener when he was sound fundamentally and made multiple game changing plays, but in the span of the last three weeks, we’ve endured enough of “bad” DHall to last a career.

Hall’s coverage numbers (all DB coverage numbers for all five weeks coming in a separate post) for the Green Bay game: 8 targets, 7 completions, 6 successful completions, 63 passing yards against for about 8 yards per target.  Hall’s one consistent pass coverage skill is that he hardly ever gets a pass completed behind him, and has yet to this year, but he was pitch and catch this game.

Against a schedule of quality quarterbacks, Hall has been less successful at intercepting passes than at stripping runners.  That strip on Tashard Choice probably won the Redskins a game they otherwise had no business winning, but had Mason Crosby been able to squeak the ball inside the upright the way Graham Gano was able to in the same clock minute, Hall would have already given that victory back.  On that 21 yard reception in crunch time by Andrew Quarless, Hall had outside leverage on a slant pattern, but needs to know to lock up on a receiver when the quarterback leaves the pocket (and Rodgers had to, because other Rogers was unblocked).  Rodgers made this throw across his body against an inexcusable cushion to a third string rookie TE.  If we’re going to be afraid to get too close to a rookie tight end for fear of getting beat deep, we’re going to need someone new in that role.

There was also the tackle “attempt” on Jackson’s long run.

Tackling concerns

A big problem with this team is that they are not a sound tackling unit despite having many players held over from last season when they were a great tackling unit.  Too many missed tackles on running backs, on receivers, and on tight ends.  LaRon Landry has actually significantly improved his tackling, but Kareem Moore, London Fletcher, Rocky McIntosh, and Andre Carter all look very bad in their form.  If I have a criticism of the way this unit is being coached compared to last year, this is it.

Facing Manning

What works on Aaron Rodgers won’t always work on Peyton Manning, though the strategy of hitting the QB early and often would seem to be the best bet.  That means we’ll probably need to use fewer three man rushes and try to take advantage of mistakes made by Manning’s injury replacements at receiver rather than more three man rushes and unique coverage concepts on slot receivers, such as Dallas Clark.

Of course, you’d need to be a modern day Thomas Edison to invent a strategy to befuddle Peyton Manning, and that point will be front and center in next week’s defensive breakdown.

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