Smother Detroit's Chief Offensive Weapon
No, it's not wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The Redskins should go all-out to get to quarterback Matthew Stafford. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett must throw a variety of blitzes at the fifth-year passer.
Haslett should focus on attacking Detroit's use of spread and empty sets. The Lions regularly use four and five-receiver looks to spread out defenses.
They will often take the gamble with an empty backfield and bank on Stafford's quick release to beat pressure. It is a risky way to travel, as this play from their 25-21 Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals shows.
The Lions have moved their personnel around to create a spread look. They have no one in the backfield to account for free blitzers. Cardinals' safety Tyrann Mathieu will blitz free off the edge.
The Lions struggle to adjust to this simple edge pressure. Right tackle Corey Hilliard is looking inside, despite help from the guard.
Instead of a double-team on the defensive end, Hilliard should have slid off that block to intercept Mathieu. But he hadn't even identified the safety showing blitz.
As a result, Mathieu was untouched off the slot and fired in to bat down Stafford's pass.
Haslett knows how to use similar pressures to attack spread looks. Week 2's drubbing at the hands of the Green Bay Packers actually provided one good example.
Haslett designed a fire zone pressure concept involving slot cornerback Josh Wilson running a twist with outside linebacker Brian Orakpo.
On the other side, fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan would drop out into coverage. In the middle, London Fletcher would rush the interior of Green Bay's O-line.
The Redskins created a free lane for Wilson in two ways. First, Orakpo's wide rush drew the left tackle out. That gave Wilson a natural gap to attack.
Next, Fletcher blitzed the weak-side A-gap, while D-lineman Stephen Bowen stunted to the strong side, taking the center away from Wilson's blitz. As Fletcher blitzed, inside 'backer Perry Riley Jr. dropped out to drift to the zone Wilson had vacated.
As the play developed, Bowen commanded a double-team. While Fletcher's blitz was picked up, Wilson was untouched and dropped Packers passer Aaron Rodgers for a 12-yard loss.
Haslett must scheme a host of these kind of pressures to attack Stafford. A diet of heavy blitzing may seem foolhardy, given the current state of the Redskins secondary.
However, Haslett does not have players good enough to just sit back in coverage. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers can stay in basic concepts and simply let their talent make the plays.
But a defense as short on elite quality as the Redskins has to get a little more creative. Yes, Johnson might still burn the defensive backfield. But he is likely to do that no matter how the Redskins approach things.
Stopping throws at their source is a better way to limit Johnson than trusting this secondary to cover him.
Challenge Detroit's Linebackers and Zone Schemes with Backfield Receivers
The Redskins would be smart to include their running backs more in the passing game. They should challenge Detroit's linebackers and the rigidity of their zone schemes with backfield receivers.
The Cardinals were able to expose the trouble the Lions can have with running backs catching passes out of the backfield.
On this play, the Cardinals intended to isolate weak-side 'backer DeAndre Levy (54), against speedy rookie runner Andre Ellington.
The Cardinals knew exactly how Levy would react. He would play tight end Jim Dray (81), first, pressing him before passing him off to a defensive back if he released downfield.
That is basic zone coverage technique, but it allowed Ellington to escape out of the backfield on a swing pattern, down the sideline, unnoticed.
By the time Levy had engaged and then passed off Dray, Ellington already had him beat.
Notice how neither of the other two linebackers reacted. Their roles in the zone scheme simply call for shallow drops and there is no flexibility to adjust to the kind of sneaky pattern Ellington ran.
Left alone against a fast runner in the open field, Levy took a bad angle in coverage and Ellington simply outran him. The play resulted in a 36-yard scoring pass.
The Redskins have the players in Roy Helu Jr. and rookie Chris Thompson to expose this flaw. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should involve both in the passing game as much as possible.
Bring back the Read-Option to Target Detroit's Young Defensive Ends
Possibly the best news for the Redskins heading into this game is Robert Griffin III's claim that he is ready to run again to attack defenses.
The Washington Post's Mike Jones quotes the dual-threat quarterback indicating his willingness to return to what worked so well for him as a rookie:
I can run more. That’s fine. I’ll do whatever we have to do to win the game. That’s always been my mind-set. I’m the quarterback, and if I have to create that energy, if I have to spit a rap line in the huddle, sure, whatever. I’ll do it. Whatever it takes to get that energy.
Jones also believes the read-option is still very much central to head coach Mike Shanahan's plans:
A year after averaging eight carries a game, Griffin has appeared hesitant to run. But Shanahan said the lack of the zone-read option attack can be traced to the Redskins’ inability to sustain drives and their having to play from behind and pass almost exclusively.
Shanahan said that the Redskins’ offense will evolve as the season progresses and eventually the unit will recapture its explosiveness from last season and Griffin again will be a dual threat.
If ever there was a game for the Redskins to recapture their read-option mojo, this is it. The Lions and their 4-3 scheme are a perfect opponent for Shanahan's combination of zone-based running and read-option fakes.
Both are designed to challenge defensive ends on the edges. The Lions rely a lot on young defensive ends, whose natural aggression could be used against them by the read-option.
Fourth-year pro Willie Young has made his first two full starts this season, while his deputy is top rookie Ezekiel Ansah. Justin Rogers of Mlive.com notes how much the Lions are featuring their young rush ends:
Despite not getting the start against the Arizona Cardinals, first-round draft pick Ezekiel Ansah played more snaps than any of the team's defensive ends on Sunday.
Ansah was on the field for 50 of Detroit's 71 defensive snaps, edging out starter Willie Young, who played 48. It was nearly double the 26 snaps the rookie played in the season-opener against the Minnesota Vikings when he was coming off a concussion.
The Redskins should get plenty of opportunities to test the recognition skills of both Young and Ansah. Shanahan will likely want to feature his famed zone-stretch run as often as possible and avoid the powerful interior of Detroit's D-line.
He will feel confident about being able to run at both Ansah and Young.
Despite the season already hanging in the balance, the Redskins cannot afford to take a safety-first approach. They instead have to gamble to force big plays and create their own fortune and momentum.
This team was successful last season precisely because of the way they attacked teams. This is the week the Redskins must get back to imposing their own will on an opponent.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass.