Redskins vs Eagles Defensive Review — Fortunate to Get Out Alive

Washington Redskins Albert Haynesworth (R) and other members of the Redskins wait to take the field prior to the Redskins game against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on September 12, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

Every problem that the Redskins defense encountered against the Rams a week ago showed up on film against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4.  Coincidently, the Redskins changed their defensive look going into this game, going with a lot of four man fronts without changing the essence of the defense.  For the second week in a row, they made a personnel change, with Lorenzo Alexander in the starting lineup for Andre Carter, and then bumping up Chris Wilson to play Alexander’s former role in the defense.  They created a new look for Carter, which meant he would line up as a third down lineman in the nickel formation: a traditional defensive end in the 2-4-5 look.

This was a different front that the Eagles had to block than anything they had studied on tape to this point, but the results were essentially the same.  After four games, I’m ready to make a fairly declarative statement: The Redskins personnel is no better suited to the 4-3 than the 3-4 right now.  As a unit, they are caught somewhere in the middle of a defensive change right now, but going back is going to be no less painful than progressing towards a 3-4.  The problems with the defense are problems with the defense independent of what front you think they should be running, and whether you philosophically believe that a 4-3 is the quickest and most efficient way to get pressure on the QB, or whether you believe that the old model of lining up and hitting your opponent in the mouth is outdated, it’s high time we all just meet in the middle.  The Redskins defense has issues.  It might be a worse defense overall than last year (there’s still a lot of football left and the results have been too similar to make any statements one way or the other), but this isn’t a 4-3 or a 3-4 issue.  The biggest difference is that we are now matching our defensive personnel to the offensive personnel, and man for a man, their are mismatches.

The biggest mismatch in this game for Philadelphia was LeSean McCoy on Rocky McIntosh in the passing game.  If you were excited that Brian Westbrook finally left the division after all these years of torching the Redskins, I can’t say I blame you, but I have bad news.  LeSean McCoy is a back in the same mold with the same skill set and same rare natural ability that Westbrook had.  He had 174 yards of total offense on just 28 touches.  The good news: his 4.0 YPC average today was his worst showing of the season and dropped his YPC average for the year all the way to 5.5.  The bad news, of course, is that McCoy is already the most dynamic weapon in the NFC East, and is probably one of the best five backs in football after Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and Frank Gore.  After that, I would put McCoy up against anyone in football at that position, including Maurice Jones-Drew.

McIntosh was helpless in this match-up, as he was burned all over the field.  More helpless was the Redskins defensive scheme against replacement FB Owen Schmitt, who was mostly uncovered by the Redskins zone schemes.  Best I can tell, when he went to the flat, one of the three cornerbacks was responsible for him, but didn’t offer him the proper amount of respect with all the attention on Philadelphia’s receivers, who were absolutely silent in this game: part of this was good coverage, but there was also an element of missed opportunities on Kolb.  Kolb played well overall, I thought, but wasn’t really looking at the Redskins defense in terms of match-ups.  He was just trying to read if they were backing off and letting him go underneath, or if they were playing aggressive and forcing him to get the ball off on a timing throw.  This caused a couple of situations down the field where the Redskins poorly covered a receiver on a deeper route (15-25 yards).  Because Kolb wasn’t diagnosing the coverage, he couldn’t take advantage of these mistakes in pass coverage, even though his passing day was largely still efficient because he was “taking what the defense gave him.”

All great quarterbacks diagnose the coverage that the defense is playing, but in Kolb’s defense, Michael Vick didn’t exactly have a great read on our coverage schemes either.  Vick properly diagnosed a cover two coverage for a throw down the seam to Brent Celek, but he just missed the throw.  Three plays later he went down and would not return.

The numbers by both Philadelphia QBs are a function less of the power of the Philly offense and more of what the Redskins were willing to give up.  In a sense, we dictated to the Eagles what we were going to let them do, which is why their backs have 60% of their total receiving yardage.  But it would help just a bit if we would actually be aware of their response to conservative game planning and actually wrapped up and tackled their backs in the open field.  This was a poor tackling game for the Redskins.  I’m not dissatisfied by the gameplan, but the execution of the plan was poor, and had the Eagles been a little more aggressive as an offense, we probably would have lost this game.

For one thing, blitzing the quarterback simply wasn’t a big part of this gameplan.  We played mostly cover two defense, something we hadn’t done since week one against Dallas.  We did not get as much pressure on the quarterbacks as I am used to seeing over the last 20 Redskin games.  Orakpo would have been silent in this game if he wasn’t getting held by Jason Peters once a quarter.  Kedric Golston had his best game in the new defense, and Adam Carriker continues to play at a high level (though clearly, he brought something extra when playing the Rams).  Ma’ake Kemoeatu did not play many snaps in this game — it was the first time that Albert Haynesworth was on the field more than him.  Haynesworth played a great game, taking advantage of the one on ones Philadelphia was blocking him with, though it wasn’t a loaf-free day for big 92.  It was also his best game as a Redskin under Mike Shanahan.  Andre Carter actually had the lone sack in this game, after losing his starting job.  Chris Wilson made multiple nice plays, his best probably when he took on a double team at the nose/stand up A-gap ‘backer position on a draw, and didn’t move a foot, bouncing the play outside.  Haynesworth was held multiple times by Philly’s OL.

The corners, Rogers and Hall, continue to play at a high level.  It took a few games, but Rogers is trusting his reads again and flying around and blanketing receivers, shutting down an entire side of the field…at least outside the numbers.  He still needs to remember to take off the oven mitts before the game starts, however.  Hall is reverting to form a bit in his coverage tendencies — I just don’t think you can expect a passive player to fly up and pop receivers and backs for a whole season — but I still think he’s having the best overall season of his NFL career.  Hall is an interesting project as a cover 2 corner.  He tried it in Oakland and was horrible at it.  This year, I actually think he’s looked better playing cover 2 than any other coverage we have called.  One of the reasons that Kevin Kolb missed a wide open DeSean Jackson on a corner route on the last drive is because Hall disguised it as man coverage underneath, pulling off to the flat after a flustered, rushed Kolb had already decided that his underneath receiver was the open throw.  Jackson, of course, was wide open, but Kolb would have needed to extend the play to have seen it.

Phillip Buchanon’s play left a lot to be desired in this game.  Buchanon has been good (not great) this year for us, but his coverage in this game was notably soft and he had little desire to make tackles after the catch.  His speed is an asset, but it’s his only skill.  Kareem Moore was much better in this game, I thought.  I saw a little bit of a ballhawk in him, and Philly never challenged him in the second half.  However, between Buchanon, Landry, McIntosh, and to a lesser extent, Fletcher, there were plenty of holes in the zone for Philly to attack.  We might, ultimately, have benefitted from leaving their backs open underneath, or at least we might have if we could tackle a bit.  That’s one place this defense absolutely excelled under Blache where it’s struggling under Haslett: tackling.

A number of times, we tried to pass receivers off in the zone coverage, only for no one to be there to pass them off to.  Outside of Rogers, and maybe Fletcher, players just don’t seem to grasp the idea of team defense.  These players still really want to play like individuals, and don’t want to read an entire field full of receivers.  There’s a lot of reading in our coverages, and I don’t know how capable the current guys on the team are at these.  In the nickel defensive package, you have about three guys who are always in the right place (Rogers, Fletcher, Alexander), and then six guys who are just a mystery as to what you can depend on them for.  One player who is markedly better in space than last season is Brian Orakpo, but he’s in coverage, far, far less. He’s out there to hunt quarterbacks.

It’s hard to see any improvement on the horizon in the coverage units.  Too many of the team’s most indispensable defensive backs with the largest contracts (Landry, Hall, Buchanon) seem uncommitted to really excelling as a pass coverage team.  These players are unquestionably committed to stopping the run and laying out people with highlight reel hits, but you can clearly see why a team that was built around Shawn Springs and Sean Taylor and Ryan Clark and Marcus Washington was able to accomplish what they did on defense as a unit, and the vast contrast between that group and the equally talented Carlos Rogers, LaRon Landry, DeAngelo Hall, and Rocky McIntosh lead group which doesn’t appear to share a similar set of defensive values.  It’s a clearly similar level of physical toughness without the same mental toughness.

So you can understand why analyzing this group is so frustrating.  Two coordinators and three secondary coaches have now failed to make this group of first rounders into any semblance of a successful zone pass defense.  Sure if Carlos Rogers could catch, if LaRon Landry could cover, and if DeAngelo Hall would play without lapses in concentration, we could cover for our vast flaws as a team defense, but all of these things are necessary evils of having these guys as starters in your pass defense.

At this point, I’m just not sure what coaching can do for our pass defense.  We get fantastic pressure on quarterbacks with just a four man rush.  We may just need 2 or 3 new players on the back end, and a re-vamped bench for defensive backs.  The difference in this game against Philadelphia wasn’t an improvement, it was that the Rams offense played us a lot tougher and a lot more aggressively than the Eagles did.  The Rams’ offense looked better than the Eagles’ did.

Defensive Plus/Minus

  1. Carlos Rogers +3 (+3/-0)
  2. LaRon Landry +3 (+3/-0)
  3. DeAngelo Hall +1 (+2/-1)
  4. Chris Wilson +1 (+1/-0)
  5. Kedric Golston +1 (+2/-1)
  6. Albert Haynesworth +1 (+2/-1)
  7. Kareem Moore +1 (+1/-0)
  8. Brian Orakpo +1 (+1/-0)
  9. London Fletcher +1 (+2/-1)
  10. Andre Carter +1 (+1/-0)
  11. Adam Carriker +1 (+1/-0)
  12. Lorenzo Alexander 0 (+2/-2)
  13. Phillip Buchanon -2 (+0/-2)
  14. Rocky McIntosh -2 (+2/-4)
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