The Washington Redskins might be the perfect team to attack the new-look Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, as the Redskins' zone-based running game can exploit weaknesses in the middle of the Philly defense.
Defensively, coordinator Jim Haslett need not sweat any surprises that new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly might have in store. Kelly's version of the read-option is nothing that Haslett's group has not seen enough of in practice from their own offense this summer.
Kelly's own zone-based ground game might cause some problems, but if the Redskins don't know how to stop a rushing attack that is almost identical to their own, they deserve to get beat.
Here's a closer look at some of the things Washington can do to ruin Kelly's highly anticipated NFL debut.
Target Inside Linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks in the Running Game
Simply put, the Eagles cannot tackle. They have changed their defensive scheme to a hybrid version of the 3-4, but the problem of poor tackling persists.
The heart of the problem is found at the heart of the defensive front. Inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks struggle in making good reads, flowing through traffic and escaping blocks.
The first play they faced in preseason play is a prime example of Philly's woes against inside runs. Against the New England Patriots, the Eagles unveiled their new 3-4 look.
The problem was that the alignment was unsound. The Eagles don't play a two-gap 3-4 scheme with their linemen head-up on offensive blockers.
Notice how they have two defensive tackles here. The nose tackle is shifted to attack the weak side A-gap between the center and guard. The D-linemen next to him is in the weak side B-gap between the guard and the offensive tackle:
From this alignment, part of the Eagles defensive front was too close together. They were aiming for roughly the same spot, and their alignment made angle and reach blocks easier for the offense.
More importantly, the way the Eagles lined up created two natural free lanes for blockers to get to the linebacker level. Keeping the inside 'backers free from blockers is key to the success of the 3-4, but the Eagles left theirs open to attack:
That is just what happened here, as the Patriots quickly moved up to nullify Ryans and Kendricks. A tight end stood up Kendricks, while a guard moved up to absorb Ryans:
This opened a huge hole in the middle for running back Stevan Ridley to exploit. The young rusher made one simple cut and gained 62 yards:
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan should be practically giddy when he studies this film. The two staples of his zone-based scheme are getting blockers into space and having a runner make one quick cut. Both of those things happened here, and the Eagles were easily overwhelmed.
The other interesting thing to note about this play is how the Patriots used an unbalanced line to outnumber the 3-4. The Patriots stacked two tight ends on the side of the run.
This gave them a seven-on-five advantage in the trenches, which allowed them to quickly get blockers on Kendricks and Ryans without leaving themselves outmatched up front.
The Redskins can use the same ploy. They experimented with overloaded and unbalanced lines in the preseason, and they can use them again to earn a numerical advantage against Philadelphia.
Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 of the preseason, the Redskins showcased the same unbalanced look the Patriots used to dominate the Eagles' front.
The Bills showed a hybrid front, with their 4-3 personnel aligned in the same 3-4 looked the Eagles used. The Redskins stacked two tight ends on the same side and ran behind them:
Once the ball was snapped, the Redskins extra numbers and blocking techniques dominated. Notice how both tight ends secured drive blocks:
Also notice how the O-linemen took angles to block the side of defenders and nudged them away from the flow of the run. This combination of extra blocking and angle techniques produced a 24-yard gain.
Aside from adding extra blockers and quickly moving to the second level, counter runs and misdirection plays can also attack Philadelphia's porous run defense.
Aside from bad tackling, the Eagles struggle because their linebackers often make bad reads and over pursue. They are a flow team, and the Redskins can use that against them.
A play from the Eagles Week 2 preseason matchup with the Carolina Panthers shows the problem.
Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams was initially going to sweep behind the left side of his O-line. But the aggressive flow of Ryans and Kendricks created an enticing cutback lane the other way:
It is easy to see how Ryan and Kendricks overplayed their pursuit. They flowed to the ball-carrier, but in a very pronounced way.
One quick cut from Williams took him away from the pursuit. It left Ryans and Kendricks lost in traffic and unable to redirect to the ball:
Running counters, traps, or any of the one-cut runs the Redskins feature should seriously exploit this glaring weakness.
The Redskins can get Ryans and Kendricks to overplay and flow the wrong way by using misdirection off shotgun runs. It worked brilliantly in last season's Week 16 win in Philadelphia.
The Redskins lined up in a shotgun look, with one running back, three wide receivers and one tight end. Notice again how the basic alignment of Philadelphia's defense featured an inviting rushing lane. The same problems that doomed their defense in 2012 have continued this preseason:
The Redskins overloaded one side of the defense by stacking two wideouts and the tight end on the same side:
This alignment encouraged the Eagles to think the run was going behind the stacked side. So naturally, the Eagles would flow that way. The trap was already set.
To bait the trap, the Redskins kept tight end Logan Paulsen in to block the weak-side defensive end. This freed left tackle Trent Williams to pull and lead the runner in the opposite direction, away from the flow of the defense:
Keeping Paulsen in to block also helped the Redskins front match Philly's front four. That let center Will Montgomery quickly move up and block Ryans.
As Morris began his run, most of the Eagles front seven flowed to the stacked side of the line. Kendricks initially went that way, but then had two lanes of pursuit the other way to get to Morris:
But he hadn't read the run in time and took neither route. He essentially stayed static on this play.
With good lead blocks from Williams and the wideout on the single-receiver side sealing the safety, Morris completed an easy 10-yard score.
Inside zone runs, unbalanced lines and misdirection are just some of the things the Redskins can do to expose the Eagles run defense.
Shanahan's rushing attack has a real chance to eclipse the 200-yard mark to open the season. Consistent success on the ground will keep Philadelphia's offense off the field and render many of Kelly's famed schemes moot.
Linebacker-Led Fronts and Discipline are the Defensive Keys
The worst thing the Redskins can do defensively is get caught up in the hype surrounding Kelly and his offensive schemes. Haslett needs to keep the techniques simple and not concentrate too much on the specifics of what Kelly will show him.
The entire philosophy behind Kelly's schemes is to react to a defense's natural tendencies. It is a reactive brand of offense that forces a defense to overplay its hand.
The Redskins should know all about it. After all, they used the exact same tactic to win their division last season.
The best thing Haslett can do to counter Kelly's option-based system is stress discipline from his players. If anything, he needs a restrained attitude to attack the Eagles offense.
Containment is the key, and to do it, Haslett must match Philly's athleticism and speed. Fortunately, he has crafted the right front to do it.
The six-linebacker package known as "Swift," is the ideal front to use against dual-threat quarterback Michael Vick. It puts the Redskins best defensive athletes on the field.
Now Haslett and the Redskins are hoping the new alignment will confuse the heck out of the Philadelphia Eagles' up-tempo offense, just as new Philly coach Chip Kelly's guys are trying to vex the Redskins.
The hope is, when the Redskins meet the Eagles in a Week 1 Monday Night Football showdown Sept. 9, the defense will create more chaos than Kelly's high-speed offense can.
The Redskins need more linebackers on the field to corral Vick when he takes off to run. Halsett's "Swift" scheme is reminiscent of the five-linebacker defense used by the late Fritz Shurmur in 1989.
In fact, Haslett should study Shurmur's greatest success with his five-linebacker front for tips for Week 1.
In the 1990 NFC Wild Card Game, Shurmur's Los Angeles Rams defense faced the Eagles and the greatest dual-threat quarterback of his day, Randall Cunningham.
Shurmur's Rams stymied Cunningham all game, keying a surprise 21-7 win. Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated explained how they did it:
Never played a single snap of man-to-man, not one, said Shurmur proudly after his lie-back-and-stop-it defense had befuddled quarterback Randall Cunningham and the rest of coach Buddy Ryan's Eagles, holding them to a single touchdown in L.A.'s 21-7 victory. We never rushed more than four people. We didn't blitz once.
There are two key points from Shurmur's quote that the Redskins should adopt against Kelly's Eagles. The first is the "lie-back-and-stop-it" mentality.
Haslett's unit needs to take a zone-based approach in order to keep their eyes on the backfield. The defense needs to constantly spy Vick and the misdirection that Kelly's option looks try to create.
The second aspect to note is the idea of only rushing with four men. (This is something that I already discussed this week while looking at Washington's unconventional defensive sets.)
These sets allowed the Redskins to create safe pressure all preseason. Shurmur offered a perfectly succinct description of the merits of four speedy rushers, coupled with disciplined zone behind them:
The thing about having four linebackers on the rush is that they're more agile and can cut off Cunningham's scrambling, said Shurmur. And the thing about all that zone is that everyone's always facing Cunningham and seeing what he does. No one's back is turned.
It is essential the Redskins keep their eyes in the backfield and not overreact to the tricks and fakes in Kelly's offense. But Haslett must also be smart about how he uses the "Swift."
Kelly won't be shy about turning running backs LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown loose against undermanned fronts. But mixing a linebacker-heavy front in for passing situations has considerable advantages, as noted by Zimmerman:
To keep the big guys fresh for Philly's ground game, which had become surprisingly effective late in the season, Shurmur thought up a new wrinkle. Pull the linemen on long-yardage passing downs and rush only linebackers. And that's what L.A. did—from left to right: Kevin Greene, rookie George Bethune, Strickland and Brett Faryniarz.
If Haslett follows a similar template to the one Shurmur used nearly a quarter of a century ago, he can frustrate the Eagles.
Many have noted the pace of Kelly's attack, particularly the no-huddle version of it. But Corbett states the Redskins have been preparing for the up-tempo version of the Eagles:
Head coach Mike Shanahan and Haslett have tried to prepare their defense for the highly anticipated opener since the first day of training camp by having the Redskins first-team offense mimic the Eagles attack run by quarterback Michael Vick. Orakpo and others said part of this week has been dedicated to studying and stopping the Eagles.
It is also important to repeat that the Redskins have seen a lot of this stuff before. It's in their own playbook. One notable example is the zone-read, bubble screen combination in the video below:
It is very similar to the type of screen game the Redskins used to help Robert Griffin III become quickly acclimated to the pro level. Again, discipline is vital here.
That means secure rush lanes when pressuring Vick to keep him in the pocket. It means edge defenders not crashing down to attack the initial handoff.
This is not to suggest that Washington's front seven should simply stand still and waits for a play to develop (although there are worse ideas).
What Haslett cannot do is get too smart with his coverages, blitz calls and line moves. Remember, the key for the Eagles is reacting to overly aggressive techniques by the defense.
This is a game where the Redskins best defense will be their offense, specifically the running game. The Eagles front seven makes too many mistakes to contain Washington's runners.
With less time to work with, Kelly won't be able to fully unleash his own zone-running attack. Then Vick will have to air it out and take some chances.
Once that happens, Haslett's pass-rushers can force him into mistakes.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass