Passing defense has been a major issue for the Washington Redskins this season, but the solution to the problem can be a simple one.
The Redskins currently rank 28th against the pass, surrendering 273.7 yards per game. However, more press coverage can improve their much-maligned secondary.
For 2.5 quarters against the high-octane Denver Broncos in Week 8, the Redskins proved how well press techniques can work for them.
They frustrated Peyton Manning and his clockwork passing attack by plastering his receivers. The tactic not only kept the Broncos off balance, but it also led to some big plays for Washington's defense.
Disrupting Timing and Taking Away Space
One of the best reasons to utilize press coverage is to disrupt the timing of an opponent's passing game. By jamming and re-routing receivers, press schemes give quarterbacks little space to fit the ball in, and it gives their receivers even less space to adjust to a throw.
In this example from the second quarter of the Redskins Week 8 contest, the Broncos faced a 3rd-and-3 at Washington's 43-yard line. As they did for the majority of the game, the Redskins aligned in a 4-2-5 nickel look.
All three corners were rolled up tight on Broncos receivers in press alignments. Josh Wilson, shown in the red circle, was lined up against Wes Welker in the slot.
The main objective of press coverage is to not allow a clean release off the line of scrimmage, and Wilson achieved that. He had his hands on Welker as soon as the receiver came out of his break and stayed plastered to him as the route progressed.
Wilson's press let him get on the inside of the receiver. That is vital in press coverage because it lets the defensive back use the sideline to cut off the receiver.
That gives the quarterback very little room to aim for, as Manning found out. His pass fell ahead of Welker and was incomplete, resulting in a Denver punt.
FOX Sports commentator Troy Aikman implied that this was a play the Broncos should have made. But the press coverage made it very difficult for the Broncos to execute, even when they play featured players as talented as Manning and Welker.
With a smaller target to aim for and less room for the receiver to adjust, press coverage forces quarterbacks to be incredibly accurate.
Not many can make drop a ball into a tight space on the sideline. While the back-shoulder throw was invented in order to combat this issue, not every quarterback is able to execute it.
Modern passing attacks demand precision. If routes are altered by jams and bumps at the line, that precision is fatally disrupted.
Applying pressure at every level of an opponent's pass can force mistakes from any offense, and the Broncos found that out the hard way against the Redskins.
Pressure with the Press Forces Mistakes
Challenging quarterbacks and receivers with press coverage is a great way to generate big plays for a defense. The Redskins got one in the third quarter against the Broncos thanks to this scheme.
On the play, Denver had a first down at their own 20. The Redskins again deployed a nickel look.
They had all three corners rolled up tight on Manning's wide receivers, with a pair of safeties covering the deep portion of the field. The player to focus on here is DeAngelo Hall, who is shown in the red circle.
Hall was lined up against Demaryius Thomas and immediately jabbed him with both hands at the snap.
Hall stayed pinned to Thomas and never let him progress into a smooth break.
By keeping his hands on Thomas, Hall was able to fight his way to the inside and in front of his receiver. That put him in a perfect position to intercept Manning's ill-advised slant pass and return it for a touchdown.
Manning had nowhere to go because all of his receivers were locked up in press coverage. As a result, the Redskins cornerbacks could take chances and be physical because of the safety help behind them.
When receivers aren't allowed to run free and instead attract immediate contact, it forces a quarterback to either take a risk, as Manning did here, or pause in the pocket.
The latter consequence can be a major boost to a team's pass rush.
Helping the Pass Rush
Forced to be more accurate due to less space for their receivers, quarterbacks will often hesitate before releasing the ball against press coverage. That gives extra time for a pass-rusher to collapse the pocket, and the Redskins used this formula to register a vital strip-sack in the third quarter.
On this play, the Broncos faced a 2nd-and-12 from their own 29-yard line. The Redskins were in a nickel alignment and again had their corners rolled up close, with a pair of deep safeties behind them.
At the snap, the Redskins played straight man coverage all across the field, as the corners locked up their receivers on the outside.
Meanwhile, one inside linebacker took a receiver in the slot, and the other picked up the running back coming out of the backfield.
You can see what Manning saw as he surveyed the field, as not one receiver had been allowed to break open early. For a closer look at how this affected the play, focus on cornerback David Amerson and inside linebacker Perry Riley, Jr.
Notice how Amerson immediately got both of his hands on his receiver, which quickly disrupted the outside route. He stayed pressed to his receiver and prevented any chance of a quick break to the inside.
In the slot, Riley wasted no time clamping onto his receiver. He got a bump and stayed pressed to his man, allowing him to gamble with such an aggressive approach because of the safety behind him.
This pressing from Amerson and Riley clearly made Manning pause in the pocket, as he was looking their way for his primary reads.
This hesitation gave the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback, and the pressure soon collapsed the pocket around Manning.
Ryan Kerrigan then forced a fumble that fellow pass-rusher Brian Orakpo recovered, setting up a Washington touchdown.
When receivers are given more freedom to release in front of zone coverage, the pass rush has to be that much quicker getting to the quarterback. Press coverage, however, slows down the process of passing and gives good pressure fronts a fraction longer to create havoc.
The pass rush is the clear strength of Washington's defense and any scheme that aids it should be emphasized.
This Defense Has the Right Pieces for a Press Scheme
The Redskins press techniques disrupted the precision of Denver's offense, but what was truly the most surprising and pleasing about the scheme was how well the players adapted to it.
For instance, Hall and Amerson are usually defined by their abilities in off-coverage, yet both showed a willingness and flair for pressing receivers off the line on Sunday.
Amerson, in particular, can really benefit from a press-led scheme. At 6'1" and 205 pounds, he is the team's biggest corner and boasts the physical attributes to play press.
The scheme can also make things easier for a struggling group of safeties, as their responsibilities are clearer when they simply have to hang over the top of deep routes.
Manning did eventually rebound and throw for 354 yards on Sunday, but that figure came with a few caveats.
First, he committed four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble). Second, the defense wore down from being left on the field too often during the second half.
In fairness, the Broncos did also make some good adjustments. They ran pick plays and screens, which are both adept at beating man coverage.
But these are things defensive coordinator Jim Haslett can iron out, and he should make a concerted effort to do so because committing to a press coverage scheme will improve the secondary and the defense as a whole.
All screen shots courtesy of FOX Sports and NFL.com Gamepass.