Safer zone coverage and a four-man pass rush got the Washington Redskins defense back on track in Week 4.
Coordinator Jim Haslett scaled back his blitz calls and emphasized numbers and depth in coverage, while trusting his playmakers up front to create pressure.
The result was seven sacks against an overwhelmed Oakland Raiders offensive line. Haslett's zone-based coverage schemes also prevented a speedy receiving core from stretching the field.
The key to the formula was trusting a four-man rush to generate pressure. That is a luxury Haslett has with the likes of Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Darryl Tapp and Barry Cofield.
But it is one the often blitz happy play-caller rarely takes advantage of. He also too often puts his porous secondary at risk with single coverage concepts, rather than the deep zones used so effectively in Oakland.
But Orakpo's two sacks perfectly demonstrated how straight pressure from the front, with no blitzing, and safe, zone coverage can work wonders for Washington's defense.
In the first example, the Raiders had moved to the Redskins 44-yard line and faced a 3rd-and-8. Haslett's defense was aligned in nickel personnel.
He showed pressure, with inside linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley Jr. in both A-gaps.
Let's split the play in two and look first at how the Redskins got to the quarterback. One of the keys was causing confusion inside with interior linemen Cofield and Stephen Bowen.
The pair ran a twist with Cofield crashing one way and Bowen (72), looping around him. That occupied the entire interior of Oakland's offensive line.
The pressure inside allowed rush ends Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to attack the edges against single blocking. That's a mismatch the Redskins want to create in every pass-rushing situation.
But pressure isn't just about buccaneering a way to the quarterback. Good pressure is about rushing responsibly.
Washington's front four maintained their rush lanes and were able to trap quarterback Matt Flynn. He was bracketed on the outside by Kerrigan and Orakpo, while Cofield prevented any escape through the middle.
With the coverage giving him nowhere to throw, Flynn soon felt the pocket collapse around him. Orakpo came off his blocker and notched the sack for a four-yard loss.
Even with time, Flynn would have struggled to find a receiver, because Washington's coverage shell was disciplined and had a numbers advantage.
The Redskins initially showed a standard Cover 2 look, with a pair of deep safeties. But it was tweaked to allow for a double-team on wideout Denarius Moore, the most dangerous of the Raiders receivers.
Haslett would also have Fletcher and Riley bail out into short zone coverage underneath. That would give the defense seven covering against five potential receivers.
At the snap, cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson, both rotated deep, along with the safeties. That gave the Redskins a four-deep shell, preventing any vertical routes.
The defense then used zone principles to pass receivers off and along the zones. Moore cut underneath the deep coverage, indicated by the white arrow. But that just put him in the zone in front of Riley and Fletcher.
On the outside, nickleback Josh Wilson bumped his receiver, indicated by the blue circle, before preparing to release him deep, where Hall (23), would be lurking.
Once Wilson had released the vertical route, he moved to cover an underneath receiver. A crossing receiver, tight end Mychal Rivera (81), was picked up in zone by Riley, as Fletcher waited for Moore.
The Redskins had created a perfect bracket, with four covering defenders deep and three underneath. That meant Flynn had two difficult options.
He could have either settled for a short gain in front of the underneath coverage, but that would not have been much use on third down. Or he could have attempted to thread a pass between the intermediate and deep defenders.
With every member of the pass defense, having their eyes on Flynn, instead of trailing receivers in man coverage, that would likely have resulted in an interception.
What the Redskins did here was essentially play zone coverage, but adopted man techniques on any receiver entering their zones.
It is a coverage technique known as pattern reading. It is the preferred way for most pro defenses to play zone against the sophisticated passing offenses of the modern NFL.
Smart Football's Chris Brown offers one of the better descriptions of the fundamentals of pattern reading:
Pattern reading, on the other hand, is much like a matchup zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones, but they play tight to the receivers who come through those zones.
When performed correctly, pattern-reading defenders know exactly how to cover receivers in their zones and seamlessly (in a quite literal sense) pass the receivers onto other defenders as they run their routes.
(taken from The Essential Smart Football by Chris B. Brown, Kindle Edition, Amazon Media EU)
The Redskins performed this technique expertly here. Surprisingly, Haslett stayed patient with his coverage concepts and reliance on four-man pressure, even with the game on the line.
Washington held a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter and the Raiders had driven to their own 49-yard line. They faced a 2nd-and-10 and Haslett fielded his base 3-4 personnel.
With the Raiders showing three wide receivers and one tight end, Haslett adjusted the front to match up in coverage.
This involved having outside linebacker Orakpo, shown in the blue circle, split out and cover the slot receiver. Fletcher, in the yellow circle, would be responsible for tight end Rivera.
Next to Fletcher, Riley would key running back Rashad Jennings and spy him if he released into a pass pattern.
Haslett had his corners give big cushions on the outside and kept two deep safeties behind them. The Redskins were showing a Cover 2 Man look.
Once the ball was snapped, Orakpo, Fletcher and Riley trailed their receivers in man coverage, with the two safeties occupying the deep zones behind them.
The tight single coverage underneath made Flynn pause on short throws and the safeties took away any chance of the deep ball.
With the coverage set, the front four, outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and the three-man defensive line, were free to get to Flynn.
One of the keys to their pressure was the tilted alignment of Cofield. Rather than playing head-up over the center, like a traditional two-gap nose tackle, Cofield was tilted so he could attack a single gap.
Kerrigan would rush off the edge, taking a wide angle around the Raiders right tackle.
As Cofield slanted into the A-gap, he drew the attention of both the center and left guard. That meant one-on-one matchups for Kerrigan and ends Kedric Golston (64) and Chris Baker (92).
With Golston standing his man up, the tackle was left alone on Kerrigan. He couldn't make the block and Kerrigan got to Flynn and knocked the ball loose.
Cofield recovered for the biggest play of the game. The Redskins would score the clinching touchdown two plays after this turnover.
This was a perfect example of how disciplined coverage and front four pressure can create big plays. Haslett has the quality pass-rushers to maintain this formula and avoid taking chances with the blitz.
Generating pressure with four rushers means leaving seven in coverage. Given the lack of talent in the secondary, filling zones with numbers is more prudent than risking single high looks.
When they first introduced the 3-4 in Washington, Haslett and head coach Mike Shanahan wanted a Pittsburgh Steelers-style zone blitzing unit.
But given where their strengths are, namely up front, the Redskins should morph into something closer to a Chicago Bears-style Tampa 2 formula.
Whenever Haslett has trusted zone coverage and front four pressure, the results have been positive. They were in Week 15 of the 2011 season, when the Redskins upset the New York Giants on the road.
They were for the latter half of the 2012 season, when the defense binged on big plays, relying on a front four rush and opportunistic coverage.
The same formula got what had been dire defense during the first three weeks of the 2013 campaign, back on track.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass