Jim Haslett's unit deserves credit for the way they harassed Drew Brees into one of the more uneven performances of his career. They did it by mixing up their rush schemes and playing disciplined coverage.
Haslett kept the Saints guessing and was still brave enough to throw in plenty of the blitzes Redskins fan have come to expect from his aggressive schemes. The sack numbers showed a moderately impressive two takedowns, but Brees was never allowed to settle and the pocket around him was rarely stable.
Here are some of the things the Redskins did to take Brees out of his comfort zone:
They managed to blitz Brees and still take away his hot reads
The best thing Haslett achieved in the game was to find the right balance between blitzing Brees and still protecting the coverage scheme. Ironically, it was DeAngelo Hall's controversial switch to slot corner that allowed the game plan to really flourish.
Special praise should be reserved for Hall who caused problems for the Saints pass-protection schemes with some well-timed blitzes from the slot.
An example is in the screen shot below.
Notice how the Redskins align in a basic 4-2-5 nickel front. They are showing a man under look with safeties deep and Hall is aligned in the slot on the weak side.
At the snap, Ryan Kerrigan crashes down inside, while Hall arrows off the edge. He is also joined by London Fletcher who comes on a delayed blitz. On the strong side defensive end Brian Orakpo drops out into zone coverage, along with Perry Riley, shown in the screen shot below.
Safety Dejon Gomes drops down to cover the slot receiver turned loose by Hall, who would be Brees' hot read. It's a simple zone blitz, but the basic concept still causes confusion for the Saints O-Line and results in a hit on Brees by Hall and an incompletion.
Hall frequently came free from both sides of the line of scrimmage and eventually buried Brees for a key sack. Look at how the Redskins aligned for the play in the screen shot below.
Hall is again in the slot on the weak side of a four-man front. However, this time he is joined by safety Dejon Gomes, who lines up between Hall and rush end Ryan Kerrigan. Over on the other side, Brian Orakpo takes a wider than usual alignment, while Perry Riley cheats up into the inside gap.
At the snap, Kerrigan again crashes down inside, but this time Hall takes a different route to get to Brees. He and Gomes run a stunt, with the safety going first and taking the outside lane, while Hall loops underneath and blitzes the inside gap.
The dual blitz keeps Darren Sproles in the backfield to block, taking care of one of Brees' primary targets. The key part of the play is that middle linebacker Fletcher slides across to pick up the slot receiver on Hall's side, the player who would be Brees' hot read.
The real beauty of the play is that Orakpo and Riley take zone drops on the strong side, marshaling tight end Jimmy Graham. So the Redskins showed a seven-man pressure front, rushed five and still managed to take Graham, Sproles and Brees' hot read away from him.
Haslett was willing to risk man coverage
Haslett took a chance and even played some man coverage against Brees. On the game's first play, the Saints came out with standard pro personnel, two wide receivers, two running backs and one tight end.
The Redskins aligned in their base 3-4, but brought Gomes up next to inside linebackers Fletcher and Riley. The corners were rolled up tight on the Saints receivers, shown in the screen shot below.
It was a run front, but as soon as Brees dropped back the Redskins signaled their intention to bring pressure and trust man-to-man coverage with a single high safety. At the snap, both Orakpo and Kerrigan blitz the edges, while Gomes shoots the C-gap on the strong side, shown in the screen shot below.
Under heavy pressure, Brees releases a slant intended for Lance Moore, who is trailed across the field by Hall. The pass falls incomplete and Brees takes a hit. In one play, the Redskins defense established the pattern for the Saints offense: Few pass plays would be executed clean and it would be up to Brees and his line to beat the pressure.
Haslett mixed his alignments up front
One of the best things the Redskins did was create confusion for the Saints blocking schemes by mixing their alignments up front. Haslett was willing to take advantage of the athletes at his disposal and present different matchup problems to the Saints front five.
Perhaps the best example occurred in the third quarter. In the screen shot below, the Redskins have nickel personnel on the field. However, their front four is aligned a little differently.
The highlighted portion shows outside linebackers Orakpo and Kerrigan lined up next to each other on the strong side. Two defensive tackles are slanted toward the weak side.
At the snap, the two defensive tackles run a stunt while over on the strong side, Orakpo rushes the edge and Kerrigan pressures the inside, shown in the screen shot below. The highlighted portion shows right guard Jahri Evans struggling to cope with Kerrigan's speed and leverage at the interior. Evans was flagged for holding, costing the Saints 10 yards.
The best part about this rush concept is its simplicity. Just by rearranging the front, Haslett created heavy pressure without having to blitz.
Okay, so Brees still managed to throw for 339 yards and three touchdowns, but he never quite looked like his usual dominant self. That's because he was forced out of rhythm by a Redskins scheme that kept the pressure on and still took away his most dangerous receivers.
Haslett's unit faces a different type of challenge, but one no less demanding, against the St. Louis Rams and the league's best running back, Steven Jackson, this week. However, the variety of the play-calling in New Orleans provides plenty of reason for optimism regarding this defense.
It seems that in year three of playing a 3-4, everyone is more confident with the system and willing to do more with the playbook. It's great to have a tandem like Kerrigan and Orakpo, who add genuine flexibility to the schemes.
It's also good to see Hall used in more creative ways. Variety in nickel situations was a little limited last season, but Hall proved he is a new weapon blocking schemes now have to consider.
Based on Week 1's evidence, the Redskins defense is in good shape to play the key role in defining the team's success this season.