Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is devising unconventional ways to create pressure. His plans involve designing creative fronts to favor his best pass-rushers, particularly his linebackers.
Haslett's unconventional sets caused havoc during the preseason. Two fronts in particular consistently created chaos for opposing blocking schemes.
The first is a simple riff on an old theme. The second is more varied, but owes a debt to a late, great defensive guru.
Outside Linebackers as Defensive Tackles
Last season, the Redskins nickel fronts worked because of the inside pressure from defensive tackles like Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield and Jarvis Jenkins.
Haslett is applying a riff to his four-man looks for this campaign. Simply put, he is replacing one of his hulking interior D-linemen with an outside linebacker.
Shifting a speedier rusher inside to attack the guard-tackle B-gap has been highly effective during preseason play. A great example of it in action comes from Washington's opening preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.
The Redskins lined up with outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (91) at defensive tackle, next to lineman Bowen. On the edges were rush ends Brian Orakpo and rookie Brandon Jenkins:
Once the ball was snapped, Orakpo immediately drew a double-team. That left Kerrigan, the team's next best pass-rusher, in a one-on-one matchup:
His initial quickness beat the slower guard, and he quickly got around his blocker and then to the quarterback. The play was made possible by Orakpo occupying two blockers:
By moving one of their best pass-rushers inside, with the other on the outside, the Redskins are challenging conventional blocking schemes. Offenses must decide whether to double-team the man in the middle or slide their protection to the edge-rusher.
Whichever choice the O-line makes, the protection scheme leaves a premier pass-rusher facing a single block. It is impossible for the offense to double-team both without leaving a free rusher to attack the quarterback.
It is a similar ploy to the one 4-3 teams use when they slide an end inside, as both Kerrigan and Orakpo stand 6'4" and weigh in the 255-260-pound range.
So they are essentially rush ends with big enough frames to not get dominated by guards, but they are also ones who also possess greater quickness and agility than interior O-linemen.
It is something that worked well during the preseason, with situational pass-rusher Darryl Tapp also dominating inside. Moving outside rushers to the tackle spot will be a feature of this season's pressure fronts.
The presence of players like linebackers Darryl Tapp and Brandon Jenkins, in theory, should allow the Redskins to attack offenses in a wider variety of ways. Orakpo noted there are times that left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan can slide in to tackle, which he has done in both preseason games.
It shows how much (more) versatile we can be as far as the defensive front, Orakpo said. You may see me going inside sometimes. We may have four ‘backers out there. Who knows? We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff in store that we can’t wait to really showcase this season.
Using outside linebackers—the best pass-rushers in a 3-4 scheme—in more creative ways is something teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers have done for years.
Given his background in the Steelers system—having coached the Pittsburgh defense in the late 1990's—it is high time that Haslett did the same thing. He appears ready to try different things, such as shifting Kerrigan and Orakpo inside, or aligning them both on one edge.
But that is not the most unconventional way that Haslett has found to deploy his best pass-rushers this preseason.
Haslett's creative alignment, from left to right, starts with eighth-year pro Darryl Tapp, rookie Brandon Jenkins and Ryan Kerrigan taking three-point stances along the line of scrimmage. Orakpo stands up behind Kerrigan at right outside linebacker, while Perry Riley lines up at the left outside position, and London Fletcher, in his 16th season, mans the middle.
The front caused havoc during Week 3 of the preseason against the Buffalo Bills. In the initial look, Tapp (54) and Kerrigan (91) aligned as interior tackles, while Jenkins and Orakpo stayed out on the edge:
The next part of the front involves one inside linebacker, in this case Riley, moving to a pressure alignment. On this play, he cheated up to the line:
This creates an immediate dilemma for the blocking scheme. With Riley stacked in between two of the front four, as he is here, that challenges the Bills to slide their protection to him. That means having the center kick over to block Tapp while the guard takes on Riley, if he blitzes.
Alternatively, the Bills could also decide to keep the running back on that side in order to block Riley. So even by having Riley fake the blitz, the Redskins can take away one receiver.
If he does blitz, and the Bills don't slide their protection, the offensive tackle blocks Riley. That would leave the running back to block the outside rush end, in this case Jenkins, which would be an obvious mismatch.
This front lets the Redskins use both inside linebackers to occupy backfield receivers.
Riley and London Fletcher can take both backs in man coverage if they release into pass patterns. But if the backs stay in to supplement the blocking up front, Fletcher and Riley are free to blitz.
It is a tactic known as "Green Dog," and it is highly effective. Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is a master of using this ploy to destroy pass protection.
On this particular play, Fletcher and Riley locked up the backs in man coverage. The four-man line, consisting entirely of outside linebackers, destroyed the pocket:
Unlike the Titans, the Bills opted to double-team Kerrigan on the inside, but that left Orakpo, Tapp and Jenkins against single blocks. They beat their men, and the Redskins registered a huge sack.
By adding Tapp and Jenkins to Orakpo and Kerrigan, the Redskins are now loaded with more pass-rushing weapons. Haslett has found a great way to get them all on the field.
Haslett's front features some interesting tweaks, but it echoes a clever blast from the past. In 1989, late, great defensive genius Fritz Shurmur designed a similar linebacker-heavy front for the Los Angeles Rams.
It was known as "Eagle," and it used five linebackers, a quartet of whom formed a four-man front, just as Haslett has done. By delving into the archives, Haslett has found the right way to maximize his talent up front and craft a safer way to get pressure.
Unconventional Sets Mean Less Blitzing
On both of the plays highlighted here, it should be apparent that the Redskins have created major pressure with just four rushers. Being able to do that consistently could have hugely positive implications for this defense in 2013.
Haslett has often been a coordinator who is not shy about pressing the blitz button. In fact, he probably has to be physically restrained from doing it.
But blitzing large numbers always leaves a defense exposed, and the Redskins have surrendered their share of critical plays because of it.
We’re gonna be a lot better this year, a lot better, Orakpo said. We’re not going to really need to blitz as much. We’re gonna keep it — if we’re able to get pressure with four guys, we’re gonna keep it that way year-long. We’ve got a lot of different packages that we haven’t even [shown]. We’re just very, very basic, very vanilla right now. . . . Our pass rush is by far going to be a lot better, as you guys can see the past two games.
It’s been a big emphasis, not just getting pressure but getting pressure with four guys because that’s what we didn’t do well enough last year, Kerrigan said this week. We had to rely too much on the blitz. You want to be able to get pressure with just your down linemen.
Considering the lack of playmakers in the secondary, the Redskins would be wise to bring less blitzers. It would allow Haslett to rely on numbers in the defensive backfield, which will help to compensate for a lack of talent in that area.
With superior personnel up front and more options, the Redskins can still get creative about how they manufacture their four-man rush. The early signs are very encouraging.
All screen shots courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass