This upcoming season will mark Mike Shanahan's third year in D.C. The former two-time Super Bowl champion head coach hasn't exactly set the world on fire here with the Washington Redskins.
Certainly, it is not all Shanahan's fault for the team's performance the past two seasons. Anyone who inherits a team that was formerly coached by Jim Zorn with a roster assembled by Vinny Cerrato and had plays called by a former bingo caller will face a significant uphill battle.
To Shanahan's credit, he's turned over a lot of the roster, removed the prima donnas, injected a ton of youth into the team and has seemingly changed the course of the franchise. Putting the Donovan McNabb debacle aside, the Shanahan regime has made a habit of doing things the right way.
But now in his third season, Shanahan finds himself smack in the middle of his contractual tenure with the Redskins. He's made it through two season with a combined record of 11-21.
After this season, he will have two years remaining on his contract. With the blockbuster draft trade for Robert Griffin III, Shanahan and Bruce Allen have made it clear that the next three seasons will be nothing like the last two.
With so much optimism heading into this summer, there are three significant scheme changes Shanahan's staff can make to ensure that the team doesn't end up with another 5-11 season.
The first scheme change is the most tangible adjustment that is already in the works. Kyle Shanahan needs to help his father inject designed running plays for RGIII. When Mike Shanahan announced that RGIII will be the starter he mentioned that scheme changes were already being built into the system during the rookie minicamp (via ESPN):
We're going to adjust our system to what he feels comfortable with... and we'll watch him grow and we'll do what we feel like he can do and what he does the best. ...One thing the NFL is not used to is a quarterback with his type of speed and his type of throwing ability, so I think we can do some things that people haven't done.
RGIII is excellent at making throws on the run and has a canon for an arm. But what I'd like to see the most is an offense that includes designed runs for him.
I'm not talking about progression-based leaks out of the pocket where Griffin has the option of running wide if nothing is available down field. Hopefully Griffin will be comfortable enough with the offense to make these reads on the fly and react quickly to lapses in coverage. I hope that he doesn't suffer from the one read and run philosophy that Tim Tebow made famous in Denver.
What I'd like to see are designed QB boot legs that create a lane for RGIII to plant and turn up field. The zone-blocking scheme is a powerful tool for allowing runners to go north to south in the blink of an eye. The Redskins offense will be incredibly dangerous if defenses have to put a spy on Griffin because he's ripping off five to six first-down runs a game.
Although I'm not a Cam Newton fan by any means, what Ron Rivera's coaching staff did in Carolina last year provides a good outline for successfully integrated designed runs against NFL defenses. I'm not advocating that the 'Skins try to mold the offense into a spread system but they would be better served having a portion of the playbook that highlights RGIII's world-class speed.
Ask any Redskins fan how Brian Orakpo did last year and you'll probably hear the same thing, "Once Kerrigan got there, Orakpo took a step back." From an "eyeball test" standpoint, many fans and critics alike think that Orakpo had a down year in 2011.
Maybe the league is starting to figure him out? Maybe he peaked in his rookie year?
Where does this school of thought come from?
Some will point out that his sack numbers have been down since his rookie year. Others may say it was the switch to the 3-4 that hurt him.
But in 2011, Brian Orakpo set a career high for combined tackles, assists, pass deflections and forced fumbles.
At his right outside linebacker spot, Orakpo is routinely going up against the best athlete on the opposition's offensive line. With the emergence of Ryan Kerrigan, the backfield chips and double-teams may not necessarily go to Orakpo each time.
However, if Orakpo and Kerrigan have the ability to swap spots on any given down, it adds another dimension to the defense. When an offense picks out a particular weakness or strength in either players' game, they are going to develop there game plan to either offset or take advantage of what the OLBs are presenting.
If an offense doesn't know whether or not Orakpo is rushing from the strong side or weak side or if Kerrigan is dropping into coverage or delaying a blitz from either side, it will keep the offense on their toes. Opposing quarterbacks will have to consistently make more adjustments at the line to try and adapt on the fly.
Great defenses excel when they put their Pro Bowlers in the best positions to succeed. The Cowboys move DeMarcus Ware all around their defensive front throughout a game. Even though it's not a direct correlation, the Steelers allow Troy Polamalu to line up in a number of different spots pre-snap.
With London Fletcher back and a healthy Jarvis Jenkins, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are going to be a force to reckon with. Add in the extra dimension of strong-side/weak-side interoperability and the Redskins front seven will be downright dangerous.
This is a problem that I've had with the defense for years. Hopefully the issue will partly be resolved by LaRon Landry's absence from the depth chart this year.
For years the Redskins defense has tried to compensate a weak front seven pass rush with bringing a safety into the box. It may, at times, help out in the run game but it exposes the biggest weakness the 'Skins have on defense: coverage skills.
This has forced the defense to play their corners on an island out wide while one or both safeties are brought in on a jail house blitz. Gregg Williams was infamous (no pun intended) for his bend-don't-break scheme that allowed for passing yardage due to a lack of defensive backfield help.
The 2012 defensive front seven will not need any extra help getting to the quarterback or stuffing the run.
Jim Haslett needs to put whomever is starting at either safety spot this year back in coverage to support DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson. When it comes to coverage skills, Wilson is leaps and bounds ahead of Hall. But what Hall lacks in cover skills, he more than makes up for with his ability to attack the ball.
If there is help in the backfield routinely, Hall should be able to take his customary gambles on defense trying to get the big interception without putting the team at risk. I don't think my heart can take another year of watching Reed Doughty having to sprint back downfield and try to recover on a blown nine route because he was playing at the line of scrimmage and the CB mistakenly played an underneath zone or passed the receiver off to no one.
Let the safeties play back in coverage so that London Fletcher isn't running full-steam down the seam to cover Jason Witten on a bomb to the end zone. Stellar support on the back end can afford a lot of flexibility and versatility with the play of the front seven.
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