I promise that there will not be any horse-beating in this post. But before a good team-wide preview of the 2010 Redskins can be made, it makes sense to jump in and look at the changes and modifications made from 2008 into 2009. Sure, you know the team went from 8 wins to 4 wins, against the grain of an offseason that added a player in Albert Haynesworth who was worth more than a win by himself, but we can look at the playcalling and schematic breakdowns to see what works and what decisions put the Redskin players in bad situations.
To do this, I’m using the strategic Redskins statistics found in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, and FOA 2010. Statistics employed in this article are from there unless otherwise linked/noted
A good place to start would be with the 2009 defense. Schematically, things could not have been more different between the two seasons. In 2008, only four teams rushed four less frequently than the Redskins, who rushed four just 56% of the time. Instead, the Redskins would blitz 6 or 7 (or, yes, 8), and did so 14% of the time, third most in the NFL. Last year, throw all of that out the window. With Albert Haynesworth in the fold, few teams rushed four any more often than the Redskins: 69%, 5th in the NFL. They accomplished this by cutting their house blitzes in half, down to just 7% of the time. The frequency of Redskins zone blitzes also doubled, meaning they were still prone to bringing multiple linebackers, but were now more interested in replacing them in coverage.
All the linebackers brought in 2008 simply didn’t result in many sacks. 5 sacks, total, were made by back seven players in the 2008 Redskins defense, bottom third in the league in terms of total sack percentage by non-defensive lineman (and only that high because the Redskins had all of 26 sacks as a team). The Redskins matched that exact total in 2009 with far less blitzing, and greatly exceeded it if you count any of Brian Orakpo’s sacks as sacks by LBs. A couple of his 11 sacks came as a stand-up linebacker, but most came as a pass rusher from a three point stance.
Coverages were also very different. The increased zone blitzing also occurred due to an increased used of zone coverage. In theory, the significant increase in pass pressure with more guys in coverage. Consider: despite bringing in Brian Orakpo at strong side (SAM) linebacker, the Redskins, they actually blitzed five players LESS often than in 2008, by about three percent. This, more than a lack of aptitude from a two point stance, probably had a lot to do with Orakpo’s damage from the defensive line.
As mentioned, the reasoning for fewer five man blitzes was increased zone coverage. Cover-two, cover-three (mostly), cover-four, the Redskins used all of them. They had to be better. Had to be. They sent fewer players and got more pass pressure. It would be inexcusable to be worse in coverage with more players in coverage than they had in primarily man coverage the year before.
Except, that’s exactly what the Redskins were: worse in coverage with seven guys and great pass pressure than they were with five and little pass pressure. Was this due to something uncontrollable, such as injuries? It was not. The Redskins were the fourth most injured team in 2008 on defense, but were the 12th healthiest team in the NFL in 2009 on defense (this according to adjusted games lost). The run defense was much better overall, and phenomenal in power situations. The red zone defense was very, very good this year. Situationally, an excellent defense, which depressed offensive point totals, even as the pass defense declined.
The Redskins’ secondary and linebackers, by and large, could not grasp the concept of zone coverage. LaRon Landry was never a man defender, but they tried to give him an actual coverage responsibility in the defense, and he was terrible. Fred Smoot never understood when to pass his defenders off deep and when to follow, and his learning safety only compounded the problem. Carlos Rogers didn’t have a conceptual problem with the defense, when to pass and whatnot, but clearly, he was bad at the deep third coverage responsibility after playing for years as a man defender and a cover two short zone player. DeAngelo Hall looked comfortable and played well, but screwed up his responsibilities more than a comfortable player should have. Rocky McIntosh had a really poor success rate in zone coverage. Not nearly as horrible as Orakpo, but still terrible.
The defense improved on first down from a year ago, which is good, but declined a lot on second and third down. The first/second half splits completely reversed trend: after being a fairly average defense that got out-adjusted at the half a year ago, this team’s defense was horrendous in the first quarter, giving up big play after big play, and much better later in the game. The pass pressure made the biggest difference in late and close situations and red zone situations, where the Redskins improved across the board. On third downs in the middle of the field in the middle of the game, the opponents had little issue picking up the pass rush.
Ultimately, the 2009 Redskins defense will be remembered for it’s remarkable ability to stop offenses on 3rd and short, and its hilarious inability to line up correctly with an offense in 3rd and long. They’ll also be remembered for ranking 5th in adjusted sack rate after ranking 32nd, 26th, and 29th in the three years prior to 2009. Those improvements are real, and should be enjoyed in spades under new coordinator Jim Haslett. And the defense will improve on third down, if we can expect a small decline in short yardage defense (stuffed 3 out of every 5 3rd/4th & 1 or 2 yd runs is unheard of).
The Redskins percentage of runs on first down was largely unchanged from last year (down to 48% from 50%), which, considering all the time the Redskins spent trailing, implies more of a tendency to play conservative on first down.
I say conservative because the Redskins ran FAR less in two situations where the teams that run the most are going to be the ones that are most trusting in their rushing efficiency: 2nd and long, and 3rd and short. Only two teams ran more often in 2nd and long than the 2008 Redskins (48%), but two-thirds of the league ran more often in 2nd and long situations than the 2009 Redskins (32%). That’s nothing compared to power situations. The 2008 Redskins were one of the five best teams in football running in power situations, and they ran in those situations a league-average 67% of the time. In 2009, they ran in those situations 52% of the time, and only three teams ran less often in short yardage.
When the Redskins had second half deficits in 2008, they approached with a “punch you in the mouth” mentatlity, running the ball down opponents throats at a near-40% clip, among the top three teams in “running when the going is tough.” Last year, that dropped to 32%.
The Redskins threw a lot more often with Mike Sellers in the game in 2009. They ran about two-thirds of the time with him at FB in 2008, and helped him reach the pro bowl. This year, they ran only about three-fifths of the time he was in. The Redskins were also less aggressive in running out of the singleback formation in 2009. Both of these trends occurred while the Redskins ran even more single back formations. Sellers was not very good in run blocking last year, and the Redskins accounted for that by making him a non-factor in the second half of the year.
There were spread concepts alive and kicking in the 2008 Redskins offense, and Jason Campbell was excellent in those situations. By about week 3 of 2009, those concepts were more or less dead for the rest of the year. There were more 2 TE formations in 2009, but not as many as you’d think for a team that had two TEs among it’s best offensive players. 19 teams ran 2 TEs more than the Redskins last year, and Fred Davis didn’t really get an opportunity until Chris Cooley was injured. Both Sherm Lewis and Jim Zorn paid lip service to using the 2-tight formations, but Mike Shanahan will actually utilize those formations, instead of just talking about them. Same goes for getting the quarterback outside the pocket. Zorn/Lewis talked about it. Didn’t do it. Shanahan will get McNabb outside the pocket.
The tidbit I saved for last is about protection, and how Sherm Lewis probably hurt the Redskins’ ability to protect the quarterback, while making the receivers a lot better in the process. Jim Zorn used max protect (7+ blockers) concepts on almost ten percent of pass calls in 2008. He had a run blocking line, and good pass protecting backs, so this was a good way to get Campbell time. He used a similar strategy the next year, but after losing playcalling duties, the Redskins stopped blocking with more than five guys, pretty much ever. For the year, 19/20 pass plays for the year, the Redskins blocked with 6 or fewer guys. This was a more limited use of max protect than all except two teams.
The result was a spike in yards after the catch, where the Redskins ranked first in all of football. They were above average in all three years that Campbell was starting quarterback. Critics of Campbell will point to his tendency to go underneath the coverage for this trend, while defenders will point to his defined ability to find the open spot in the coverage with the most space.
What probably can’t be credited (after the playcalling and the quarterback) is the receivers themselves, who couldn’t beat man coverage, have low catch rates, and don’t make plays after the catch. The last Redskins wide receiver to have an above average DVOA season was Antwaan Randle El, with a mere 1.8% figure…in 2008. Randle El and Santana Moss both declined (though ARE’s catch rate increased), but Kelly and Thomas both improved to fill that void. Neither has posted an above average season quite yet, but they’ll get one more chance in 2010. None of the Redskins offseason acquisitions at receiver produced even replacement level results in their last stint — unless you count new WRs coach Keenan McCardell, an excellent third down target for the Redskins in 2007.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to suggest that the Redskins offense left two or three wins on the field by not being as aggressive on first down as they were on fourth (4th highest percentage in the league in “going for it”).
But you can see the missed opportunities in the defense, where the pass coverage units had every advantage: health, pass rush, ability to play zone coverage, and sucked. I don’t know how much blame for this lies with the coaching staff, as I was advocating for far less blitzing and more four man rushes in 2009.
What I was not advocating for was more pansy-zone coverage behind it. The Redskins are still a man coverage team. They don’t have a lot of zone coverage players: DeAngelo Hall, Justin Tryon, and London Fletcher are pretty much the extent of those players who can play zone coverage. I think coach Haslett would be wide to mix 4 man rushes with 5 man rushes, scrap the 6+ man rushes, and allow for aggressive zone coverage in the secondary.
Clearly, the Redskins lacked the ability to play team defense with zone coverage concepts. I’m not sure what could be done to fix the problem, as I’m not aware of any team at any level (high school) included lacking this ability. I’m sure they could be taught to play zone, and probably should have been instructed to do so last year. But if we can scrap soft defenses and go back to an aggressive man coverage scheme, I think that would be my preferred adjustment for 2010, as an observer.