For the 3-6 Washington Redskins, taking on the suddenly hot Philadelphia Eagles is not a game to approach conservatively. Washington needs to play with smart aggression and take risks calculated to maximize key weaknesses on both sides of the ball for the Eagles.
Specifically, Washington's defense must dominate the middle of Philadelphia's offensive front, while the Redskins' own offense should target a suspect safety group.
Defense: Pressure Through the Middle and Containing LeSean McCoy
The Eagles offense presents multiple challenges for Washington's struggling defense. The primary focus has to be on eliminating, or at least reducing, Philadelphia's prolific output of "explosive plays."
This is a term highlighted by former Super Bowl-winning head coach and NFL Media analyst Brian Billick in an article for NFL.com. Billick defines explosive plays as gains of 20 yards or more and reveals that the Eagles lead the league in such plays, having produced 61:
While Philadelphia doesn't have the best offense in the league, it does have the most explosive one. The Eagles have 16 more explosive plays on offense than any other team in the league, and seem to be rounding into form with Nick Foles as quarterback. If the defense can play better, Philadelphia should be favored in the NFC East.
Billick's point about Nick Foles coming around is well taken, considering the second-year quarterback has thrown 10 touchdowns in his last two games, both Eagles wins.
Stifling Foles and his ability to launch vertical strikes will depend on the Redskins' ability to bring pressure through the middle. It worked in Week 16 of last season, when Washington's defense sacked Foles five times in a 27-20 Redskins win.
One of those sacks came from a staple blitz out of the team's base 3-4 front. Inside linebacker Perry Riley Jr. attacked the gap between the right guard and center.
His path was cleared by a slight tweak to the defensive line's alignment. Instead of lining up in a 2-gap look, with both ends directly over the offensive tackles, the Redskins moved Kedric Golston (64) into a 3-technique role between the left guard and tackle.
This helped the D-line to control the interior of the Eagles offensive front and create a blitz lane for Riley to attack. He promptly beat a block from running back LeSean McCoy and decked Foles for an eight-yard loss.
The Redskins did not stop bringing pressure through the middle at Foles. Later in the game, coordinator Jim Haslett deployed one of his favored eight-man pressure fronts.
He put one defensive lineman in each A-gap on either side of the center. Haslett then used inside 'backers and safeties, including Madieu Williams, shown in the red circle, to cover the rest of the inside gaps.
Haslett sent seven on the rush. With the interior trio of Philadelphia's O-line again overwhelmed, Williams broke free to sack Foles for another big loss.
Of course, plays like this full-house blitz carry risks, as Halsett has found in the past. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is certainly someone who knows how to punish aggressive defenses.
But that shouldn't deter Haslett from still taking some chances to get to Foles, as long as he is selective about rolling the dice.
Blitzing the middle takes advantage of the fact that Foles is often a stationary target in the pocket. He seldom shifts his feet and will wait for vertical routes to develop.
Going at the middle can also expose the soft center of Philadelphia's offensive front. The Eagles have struggled with interior pressure this season.
In a Week 7 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the middle of the Eagles O-line was dominated by defensive tackle Jason Hatcher.
He routinely won one-on-one matchups inside, as he did for a key sack in the third quarter. On this play, Hatcher simply whipped right guard Todd Herremans.
He used a quick rip move to get around Herremans and close on Foles in the pocket.
Herremans received no help because the center and left guard had to double-team Hatcher's fellow tackle, Nick Hayden.
The Redskins can win inside all game against the Eagles, but they need their interior playmakers to produce. One or more of Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen or Jarvis Jenkins has to dominate.
Disrupting the inside and penetrating the line of scrimmage is the key to stopping this offense. It will be especially important when it comes to trying to contain a prolific ground game led by the inimitable McCoy.
He currently tops the NFL rushing charts with 932 yards. To keep him contained, Washington must deny McCoy quick hits to the inside and force him to move laterally.
To achieve that, the Redskins should follow the template provided by division rivals the New York Giants. In two meetings this season, Big Blue held McCoy under 50 yards in each game.
The key was the way they shifted their defensive line to cut McCoy off on the edges, before flooding the middle to trap him in the backfield.
A play from Week 5, when the Giants held him to just 46 yards on 20 carries, showed both of these ploys in action.
The Giants would clog the middle with slants to the inside, but hold both edges. Safeties would contain the edge on the right, while defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul would do the same on the left.
As McCoy took the handoff, the Giants flooded the inside and started to gain penetration. That forced McCoy sideways and into Pierre-Paul.
On the backside, safeties Ryan Mundy (21) and Antrel Rolle, shown in the black circle, filled the cutback lane. That is crucial against a dynamic runner with the change-of-direction skills McCoy possesses.
Another vital factor in stopping McCoy is supporting the primary tackler. As McCoy was forced sideways into Pierre-Paul, the defensive end could attack downhill because of support behind from linebacker Keith Rivers.
Pierre-Paul soon tripped McCoy, causing him to lose a yard.
McCoy is renowned for his ability to make would-be tacklers miss. So it will be important for the Redskins to swarm around him in numbers whenever they can.
Like the Giants, they must keep their defensive line moving to attack the running game. The Eagles have rarely had an answer for this approach, as ESPN's Phil Sheridan noted after the loss to the Cowboys:
But the truth is, the Giants had done a very good job of stopping McCoy. They moved their defensive linemen around and had them attack gaps the Eagles offensive linemen weren't expecting. The Cowboys did the same thing, which led to the turgid run game you saw Sunday.
“The majority of that was from the New York Giants game and this last game,” center Jason Kelce said. “They're moving the defensive line. We have to do a better job of taking care of the slanting and angling.”
One week after losing to Dallas, the Eagles hosted the return game against the Giants, who provided another perfect example of the "slanting and angling" Kelce referred to.
New York put eight in the box, with Rolle (26) again joining the front. Terrell Thomas (24) was positioned on the other side, giving the Giants force players on both edges and the means to trap McCoy in the backfield.
The Giants would slant to attack the right side of Philadelphia's offensive line.
As they did, they filled gaps and relied on one man gaining quick penetration. That player was former Eagle Mike Patterson (93).
He attacked downhill through the inside gaps in the Eagles' stretch zone blocking. His penetration forced McCoy to either continue toward the sideline or reverse field and run the other way.
As he headed for the sideline, the Giants swarmed to McCoy in numbers and kept him contained. They pressed the outside with Thomas and Mathias Kiwanuka (94), while defensive tackles Patterson and Linval Joseph closed in from behind.
That forced McCoy to cut back and run laterally to the other side of the field. He was again denied the outside, this time by Rolle and Pierre-Paul, as pursuit defenders swarmed in from behind.
McCoy was soon stopped for no gain. He did a lot of running on this play, but it was all sideways and ultimately yielded no yards.
The Redskins must follow a similar formula. They have to force McCoy to the sideline by penetrating the middle and then outnumber him on the edges.
It is a plan that can work, and Washington's defense can certainly take comfort from its efforts against Minnesota Vikings star runner Adrian Peterson in Week 10. He was held to 75 yards and a 3.8 average on 20 carries.
The concern against McCoy is that stopping him requires disciplined, sound and fundamental football. They are three qualities this defense has consistently failed to show this season.
One more note about containing Philadelphia's rushing attack concerns the read-option. It is something Kelly is certainly not shy about using, even with Foles under center.
On both plays taken from the Giants game, a safety was put on the edge of the defensive front. In the first example, it was just Rolle, while in the second, he and Thomas covered both edges.
This is simply to cover a possible fake handoff to McCoy, followed by a run from the quarterback. It is a staple play of the read-option, one the Redskins have run many times themselves between Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III.
Foles certainly does not offer the same dual threat Michael Vick posed to Washington in Week 1. But he did run the option last week against the Green Bay Packers.
The Redskins cannot ignore the possibility of Foles as a runner.
Offense: Attack Weak Points in the Secondary and Beat the Blitz
When Griffin and company do have the ball, they should target weak areas in the Eagles secondary. That starts with manipulating a suspect group of safeties.
Rookie starter Earl Wolff sustained an injury in Week 10, further weakening the position. That could mean a start for struggling veteran Patrick Chung, according to Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer:
Bill Davis said that Mychal Kendricks is day-to-day. Confirmed that Wolff is week-to-week and Chung will likely start Sunday.— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) November 12, 2013
Washington's offensive schemes contain the concepts to directly attack Philadelphia's safeties. One way is via the Hi-Lo concept, a signature of the West Coast offense and a favorite of head coach Mike Shanahan.
The Redskins executed a perfect example of it against the Vikings.
The play would involve speedster Aldrick Robinson running a deep route on the outside, shown in red. Leonard Hankerson would run a crossing route underneath, shown in yellow.
These routes would put immediate pressure on both safeties. The Redskins planned to split the safeties to get Hankerson free across the middle.
The first step was a play-action fake between Griffin and running back Roy Helu Jr. That drew the underneath safety, Andrew Sendejo, down to the line.
Hankerson was then free to attack the space behind him.
The other crucial element of the play was how Robinson's vertical route drew the deep safety in coverage.
Because of Robinson's speed, the safety had to help out his cornerback over the top and couldn't rotate down to cover Hankerson.
The third-year receiver was left wide open underneath for a 29-yard gain.
This is the type of pass concept that will challenge Philly's safeties to make decisions and draw them out of position. That should lead to plenty of big plays through the air.
Of course, a lot of the success of those plays will depend on how Washington handles the Eagles blitz. Philadelphia defensive coordinator Billy Davis is a student of the zone blitz and hasn't been shy about bringing fire zone pressure this season.
The Redskins didn't respond well to the approach when they were beaten by the Eagles in Week 1. Philadelphia sacked Griffin three times and harassed him with blitzes for most of the game.
But the offense has since gotten better at beating fire zone concepts, as they showed against the Vikings.
In this example, Minnesota would blitz a cornerback off the left side of their defense. On the other side, defensive end Jared Allen would drop into zone coverage.
In the middle, linebacker Chad Greenway would blitz through one A-gap, while fellow linebacker Erin Henderson would retreat to cover the middle zone.
The Redskins countered by placing their two premier playmakers in the passing game, wide receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed, together on the same side.
That would create confusion for deep safety Robert Blanton.
As the play developed, Minnesota's zone droppers, Allen and Henderson, helped give the defense a three-deep, three-under shell, the standard coverage for fire zone blitzes.
But because it was a passive zone with defenders dropping out late, receivers like Garcon and Reed were given free releases off the line.
They were able to adjust their routes to target the soft spot in the zone, just behind the underneath coverage and in front of the deep trio.
Blanton didn't know which one he should double-up on. If he left Reed, Garcon would be open, if he left Garcon, Reed would be open.
The latter is just what happened and Reed made a nice catch for a key gain.
Zone blitzes can be exposed simply because they so often rely on the same coverage structure. Picking up the pressure is important, and that's where Helu and Morris have to do what they can as blockers.
But the real key to beating fire zone pressure is anticipating where the gaps are going to be in the zones behind it.
By moving their personnel around as they did here, the Redskins can create free receivers in these gaps. That should eventually deter Davis from relying on the blitz for too long.
Garcon was a key part of this play and has become the central figure in the passing game, as detailed in yesterday's breakdown. He could be in line for another big game if he goes after one man in the Eagles secondary.
Cornerback Cary Williams was far from at his best against the Packers in Week 10, according to McLane:
Rough game for Cary Williams. Targeted 13 times, gave up 9 catches for 113 yards, per PFF. One pass defensed.— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) November 11, 2013
Now McLane faces a receiver who has tallied 14 catches for 291 yards in his last two games.
Shanahan and his offense can expose an admittedly improving Philadelphia defense if they are ruthless about targeting the weak points in this secondary.
While Morris and the running game can still lead the way, the Redskins have to maximize their potential for big gains through the air.
Special Teams: Another Cautious Approach in the Kicking Game
One week removed from facing dangerous Vikings duo Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels, the special teams is presented with more challenging returners.
Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is still a threat as a punt returner, but a new face may garner most of coordinator Keith Burns' attention. The Eagles recently signed former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills special teams ace Brad Smith and will give him his chance in the return game.
Smith certainly has the skills to embarrass a special teams unit that seems to produce fresh follies every week. Burns would be wise to adopt a strategy similar to the one he used in Minnesota.
That involved a ruthless commitment to kicking away from dangerous returners. Kick Kai Forbath used short, squib and directional kicks to avoid Patterson.
He should do the same against Smith, while punter Sav Rocca has to deny Jackson any opportunities for a return.
This is a game where the Redskins have to combine bold approaches with smart performances. They must be daring, but not reckless.
Defensively, they have to get into the backfield, but must be collectively disciplined. On offense, staying patient early will be important, but Griffin and company cannot waste opportunities for big plays when they arise.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports, NFL Network and NFL.com Game Pass
Statistics via NFL.com.