Redskins vs. Rams Defensive Review: A number of improvements required

Washington Redskins Kareem Moore (41) tries to fight off St. Louis Rams Brandon Gibson after intercepting the football in the first quarter at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on September 26, 2010. St. Louis won the game 30-16.  UPI/BIll Greenblatt Photo via Newscom

I’m going to begin this analysis by listing a few things that I believe are right with this defense.

They get strong pressure on the quarterback. This is something the Redskins were able to do last year and backs my belief that Albert Haynesworth didn’t have a particularly meaningful effect on the increased pass rush.  Brian Orakpo is having an even better season than last year.  Andre Carter and Adam Carriker have both been effective players in the pass rushing schemes.  Lorenzo Alexander is still a beast.  Vonnie Holliday can still get after the passer (not so much, however, those athletic running backs).  The inside linebackers are getting more pressure on quarterbacks than they ever did last year.  We sometimes blitz corners, although we played it pretty straight up against the Rams.

Our run defense is above average. It’s not a great unit and our short yardage defense leaves a lot to be desired after it was best-in-the-NFL last year.  But the two longest runs against our defense this year both involved straight whiffs (not even what you’d call “broken”) on tackles by FS Kareem Moore.  Obviously that’s a personnel issue, and Reed Doughty is an excellent tackler who has issues versus the pass.  LaRon Landry is a major contributor in the run fits.  The corners, for the most part, are providing good run support.  Our linebackers almost never over-pursue their gaps; either you get a body on them or they finish the play.  All of that is how you make up for a defensive line that isn’t always up to the task of plugging gaps in the offensive line.

They are strong situationally. I really like our defense from a game theory perspective.  We like to make offense respond to our fronts in downs and distances that wouldn’t be considered “normal” by running plays they would normally not consider to convert, because we’ll usually trade first down yardage to force them to execute as a team.  The 1-5-5 front is an example of this: teams know they can beat it by running, but you’ve spent the whole week working on passing to beat our defense, and now you are faced with a playcalling dilemma.  I think these situational calls will benefit us as the year progresses.

We need turnovers to make the defense work, but we’re at least getting those turnovers. The inherent problem with the structure of the defense is the emphasis on both patience and pressure.  We’re going to force more mistakes than average because our concepts are based around confusion.  None of our three opponents this year have had trouble moving the chains.  Dominant defenses force three and outs when were not forcing turnovers, and the Redskins are in the bottom half of the league in forcing punts.  While the turnovers haven’t come cascading down (1, 1, then 2 in 3 games), the Redskins have avoided the dry spells in the last two years, which is an improvement.  So far, the Redskins have benefitted from three missed field goals, which make it seem like there have been more turnovers than their acutally have been.  We can’t count on opponents continuing to miss a field goal a game, but the Redskins have certainly helped themselves: Kareem Moore and Carlos Rogers already have INTs, and they’ve done it against sound competition.

Strength inside the 10 yard line. Teams have been largely unsuccessful at scoring on the Redskins once they drive all the way down the field.  Teams are so reliant on those holes in the zones, that when they aren’t there in the red zone, offensive efficiency goes way down.  The ability to get 3 yards running where Ma’ake Kemoeatu should be isn’t very useful on 2nd and goal from the 7 yard line.

Of course, there’s a number of problems with the defense as it stands.  The pass defense benefitted from NOT having to face a top five passing offense this week (no such luck next week), but still exhibits all the problems it did in the past weeks.  The coverage units have been very much sub-par.  The Redskins prefer cover three, and opponents know that.  The Redskins disguise their pressures well, but their coverages behind it are pretty well defined.  In the first two weeks, the Redskins were almost exclusively a zone coverage team.  This week, we ran a lot of man, both with safety help and without it.

We’re simply a better man coverage team than a zone coverage team right now, but when you play the zone coverages, you’re trying to build towards a defensive future where you aren’t so reliant on individual cover guys that you may or may not have to get the job done for you.  Right now, there’s a crazy amount of holes in our zone coverages.  Last year, that was the case and we did absolutely nothing to improve over the year: we admonished our athletes for making mistakes.  This year, we are clearly more patient with the zone coverage, and you know what?  The results have pretty much mirrored last year with no noticible improvement outside of the fact that Landry is no longer in the middle of the deep field handing out touchdowns.

Our zone coverages are very, very soft.  Soft zone coverage can be beneficial in that it requires the offensive unit to really execute under duress, but our coverages fall more into the “people are running over the middle wide open” category.  That’s not intentionally soft, it’s just not good enough.  Yet.  More man coverage could be a short term solution to the problem, but our coaching staff needs to decide whether or not our adjustments should be geared to the short term or long term.  If they choose short term, then I will be more critical of the coverage units (lack of) progression than I would otherwise be if they stick with zone and try to improve.

Third/Fourth Down Defense

The Rams faced the following third downs during this game: 3rd & 7, 3rd & 2, 3rd & 6, 3rd & 10, 3rd & 6, 3rd & 2, and 3rd & 3 in the first half, then 3rd & 10, 3rd & 7, 3rd & 4, 3rd & 1, 3rd & 6, 3rd & 3, 3rd & 10, and 3rd & 20 in the second half.  That’s an average of 5.4 yards to convert in the first half and 7.6 yards to convert in the second half.  In the first half, the Rams largely were unable to sustain their drives.  In the second half, they had no issue sustaining them, converting 50% of the time on third down and going 1 for 1 on fourth down in both halves.

In the first half, the Redskins struggled some in first and second down play, but performed adequately on third downs.  The Rams won a couple of throws against our corners on third, but for nothing after the catch.  By the second half, the Rams started to actually beat our schemes to extend drives on long distances.  If you were to be charitable and throw out the 3rd and 20 pass that Bradford converted against Hall on the grounds of the game already being over, the numbers look pretty similar, but 1) that was essentially the game ender, according to win probability, and 2) there were no outliers in the first half to also toss out.

The common theme in the second half conversions were uncontested throws short of the sticks where the Redskins uncharacteristically failed to close and tackle to prevent the first down.  On the event that they would have made those tackles, the Rams proved they could get a yard on fourth down anyway, so the Redskins might not have been able to get off the field even if they had made those tackles.  Such a reason is why short yardage defense could be our major issue: teams are realizing that fourth and short is a bad situation to bring out the kicking unit, and so defenses now have to play as four down defenses in more than just end of game siuations.  The Redskins have had a problem as a four down defense: analysts generally don’t split their third and fourth down stats, but the Redskins have been simply horrendous as a fourth down defense this year, with no stops in five attempts over four games.

Is there a problem with being blitz happy?

Generally speaking, yes.  In 2008, Greg Blache was blitz-happy to the point of a defensive deficiency.  Specifically speaking, the Jim Haslett Redskins are being more judicious with their pressure schemes this year than they are given credit for, and they’ve been highly effective schemes (at least, independant of the coverage being played behind them).  When they blitz, they are getting to the quarterback quicker than when they rush four.  That’s something that wasn’t true in the past.  When they rush four, they are still making a lot of plays, but quarterbacks have a little more time to find the holes in the zones.  For the first time since 2007, the Redskins clearly have blitzing personel at linebacker and in the secondary, so you might as well use it.

This was not a big blitzing game for the Redskins.  In fact, I’m not sure that Carlos Rogers, Kareem Moore, Phillip Buchanon, or DeAngelo Hall ever came on a blitz, which is a bit disappointing.  Landry was still pretty effective, and Carriker really benefited from the one on ones he got out of the pressure schemes.  The Redskins have had great success with simple stunts out of four man rush schemes, as we’re now the teams who are toying with offensive lines rather than getting toyed with.  Perhaps amazingly, this hasn’t translated to an overall better defense than last year, even though there as many guys in coverage, and more free runners on the quarterback.  For all the differences in philosophy, as well as significant personnel changes, the strengths and weaknesses of this defensive unit have remained consistent with those in 2009.  We’ve just traded some per-play efficiency for opportunistic defenisive ability, at least based on evidence from September.

How the Rams were able to adjust in the second half

What seems to have stuck out in the mind of many fans is that the Rams found more success AFTER Steven Jackson left the game with an injury.  Jackson wasn’t particularly effective in this game: his 42 yard TD run was no different in terms of value than Kenneth Darby’s 12 yard TD run.  Both made Kareem Moore miss in the open field and took it in for points.  Darby had 13 other carries for 37 yards (3.1 YPC).  Jackson had 9 other carries for 16 yards (1.7 YPC).  So you can see how losing Jackson might not have meant so much for the Rams, at least with regard to beating the Redskins.  The teams had played to a virtual draw until the point at which Jackson was injured.

I charted the Redskins with 7 hits or pressures on Bradford in the first half, but just one in the second half.  Was the difference play selection?  The Rams threw 23 of 36 plays in the first half, almost two thirds.  In the third quarter (to eliminate a run heavy fourth quarter designed to preserve a lead), the Rams threw 14 of 23 plays.  That’s not a significant difference.  I think the Rams made a bunch of small adjustments that nullified the Redskins’ pressure schemes in the second half.  Sam Bradford made quicker reads, if not more accurate throws (his accuracy was spotty most of the day).  He beat a pair of blitzes on the first drive of the second half where the Redskins got pressure to come free, but they also left a hot receiver with a clean release off the line.  The Rams were running smoke and other WR screen varients all day, but the plays were executed much better in the second half.

I think the biggest difference is that in the first half, the Rams were running just to run.  In the second half, they were running very effectively, really moving our defensive linemen off the ball (Haynesworth, Holliday, Kemoeatu, Golston in particular — Daniels can anchor still, but all NFL RBs can make him miss if he doesn’t have help).  On the first two drives of the second half, the Rams only had one successful run, the Darby TD.  6 carries into the second half, I think we wore down and got winded.

The other thing: Carlos Rogers was not targeted in the second half.  He had a good game.  They were able to convert a pair of first downs against him, but he made two nice pass breakups (one killed a drive), and a third that was called pass interference.  I didn’t like the call.  He clearly went through the receivers’ back, but the receiver (Gibson) ran a piss-poor route and Rogers was just breaking on the ball with no intent to go through the receiver to get there.  That’s supposed to be a no-call.

Finishing the game

Our defensive style leaves us out for a lot of plays, and even with a rotation, our defensive lineman and every down pass rushers are wearing down at the end of games.  This may be an unavoidable evil of our scheme.  Our run defense was great (save two plays) through three quarters.  But to come back in games where the offense struggles, it needs to be great through four quarters.  When we needed it to come through for us in the final 15 minutes, they didn’t get it done.

In that sense, it really is a lot like last year again.  Older players: they’re going to wear down after about 50 team defensive plays.  It happened against Houston and it happened against St. Louis.  Chasing Michael Vick is only going to make it that much harder.

Defensive plus/minus

  1. Adam Carriker +2 (+4/-2)
  2. Carlos Rogers +2 (+2/-0)
  3. LaRon Landry +1 (+2/-1)
  4. Phillip Buchanon 0 (+1/-1)
  5. London Fletcher 0 (+1/-1)
  6. Kedric Golston 0 (+1/-1)
  7. Lorenzo Alexander 0 (+1/-1)
  8. Rocky McIntosh 0 (+1/-1)
  9. Phillip Daniels 0 (+1/-1)
  10. Albert Haynesworth -1 (+1/-2)
  11. Ma’ake Kemoeatu -1 (+2/-3)
  12. Vonnie Holliday -1 (+0/-1)
  13. Andre Carter -1 (+1/-2)
  14. DeAngelo Hall -1 (+0/-1)
  15. Kareem Moore -2 (+1/-3)

Overall, more bad plays than good, and a lot of work to get ready for Philly’s impressive offense.

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