Jason Hatcher and Trent Murphy are the keys to a defensive rebound for the Washington Redskins this season. One is a high-priced veteran free agent, the other is the team's top draft pick, but together they will be central to more creative and aggressive schemes.
Coordinator Jim Haslett has promised a more multiple system this season, per Jason Reid of The Washington Post:
I like our guys. I really do. We’ve got a good group. We’ve got some versatility to do different things.
We’re going to try to take advantage of some of the guys we have.
That's the plan at least. Making it work will demand variety and movement. The preseason has already offered a good glimpse of how Haslett will use his two new playmakers to achieve both.
The process begins with Murphy, who was drafted for his flexibility. He is in the mold of outside pass-rushers who allow coordinators to seamlessly mix defensive fronts.
These players are usually given names like "Elephant," "Leo," "Jack" or "Joker." Chandler Jones of the New England Patriots, Cliff Avril of the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens veteran Terrell Suggs are prime examples of these players.
It's no coincidence that their respective teams run defensive schemes that can't be categorized in any one way. They aren't 3-4 or 4-3 teams. In fact, they are either front on any play, depending on what their rush end does.
That's what Murphy did in college, and what he'll do for the Redskins, according to Todd Dybas of The Washington Times:
The Redskins are using Murphy the same way Stanford did. He’s a pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker hybrid. In one instance during Sunday’s walk-through, he was among a front four that included Brian Orakpo on the outside right, with Jason Hatcher and Ryan Kerrigan on the interior.
But more than just giving the base fronts a chameleon-like quality, Murphy will likely make his biggest impact in sub-package defenses. In these schemes, Murphy will be a roving rusher who can supplement the pass rush from multiple positions along the front.
Washington's 24-23 preseason win over the Cleveland Browns provided a great example. It came late in the first quarter, with the Browns offense facing 3rd-and-5.
Murphy was one of three standing rushers, along with starting outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. That pair bracketed D-lineman Jarvis Jenkins, who was the only Washington defender who aligned with his hand down.
Murphy began lined up next to Orakpo, standing up inside. But before the snap, he moved to the outside of Orakpo. His final pre-snap alignment can be seen below:
Once the ball was snapped, Orakpo ran a stunt to overlap with Jenkins while Kerrigan and Murphy collapsed both edges:
Murphy prevented dual-threat rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel from scrambling away from Kerrigan's pressure and escaping the pocket. Kerrigan benefited by notching the sack for a seven-yard loss:
Just by moving Murphy around, Haslett managed to create havoc at every level of the Browns protection scheme. The key to the play was how aligning Murphy next to one of Washington's star outside linebackers caused a slide in protection.
The Browns slid four of their five O-linemen to the side where Murphy and Orakpo were paired together. That meant Kerrigan only had one blocker to beat. Any time that happens, it's going to be matchup win for the Washington defense:
That's a good example of some of the things Murphy can do for this defense. But Hatcher could be even more useful.
The trick for Haslett is to get a player who logged 11 sacks for the Dallas Cowboys in a 4-3 defense in 2013 to produce big plays in a 3-4. Actually, there should be no trick to it.
Instead of wedging Hatcher back into a 3-4, Haslett simply needs to expand his schemes to free one of the NFL's best interior pass-rushers. That means moving Hatcher all over the line.
He was certainly on the move in his debut against the Baltimore Ravens, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
Hatcher later lined up at right end and generated pressure. Later still, Hatcher settled in at right defensive tackle in a 4-3 look before flipping to left defensive tackle, and then back to right end in the 3-4. Hatcher also had three snaps at nose guard.
The highlight of his performance came in the first quarter. Hatcher aligned in a four-man line in a nickel scheme.
But he lined up at the 3-technique position, on the outside shoulder of right guard Marshal Yanda:
Hatcher aimed a powerful attack at Yanda's outside shoulder. He pushed the guard back into the face of quarterback Joe Flacco:
Hatcher's pressure was key to preventing Flacco from stepping up to avoid the outside rush from Orakpo and Kerrigan. That meant the pocket quickly crumbled around the Ravens quarterback.
Hatcher came free from the inside while Orakpo closed in off the edge. The two met at the quarterback, which is exactly the way this pass-rush scheme is supposed to work:
This play is a great example of why Haslett has to find ways to isolate Hatcher against interior blockers. It's a process that began well against the Ravens, per ESPN.com Redskins reporter John Keim:
Defensive lineman Jason Hatcher clearly makes a difference with the pass rush. He drew extra attention from Baltimore’s front. He moved around, playing over the center, both ends and tackle. The Redskins did a good job getting him inside against guards, much like he did last year in Dallas when he had a strong season. His sack was the result of good coverage, but also an excellent pass rush, which showcased his strength and his hands (at the end).
Hatcher is too good to block individually. Moving him around is a great way to isolate him against vulnerable O-linemen.
It's something that can also work against the run as well as it does against the pass. A key stop on the game's first drive helped prove that.
This time, Hatcher lined up on the other side. He was positioned over left guard Kelechi Osemele (72). But Hatcher's alignment was different. He took a 4-technique, on the inside shoulder of the guard.
At the snap, Hatcher slanted inside, which was just what Washington's front seven needed to do to force the play outside. The congestion in the middle kept blockers off inside 'backers Perry Riley Jr. (56) and Keenan Robinson (52). That allowed them to pursue laterally.
Robinson ran free to drop Bernard Pierce for a 1-yard loss:
Hatcher can be the kind of roving playmaker Haslett hasn't had along the front since taking over the Washington defense in 2010. He can be used in similar ways to Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots or Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens, moved around to attack the strength of a formation.
But it's his work with Murphy that will really open up this season's playbook. Any time Hatcher aligns as the sole D-lineman in sub-package schemes, the Redskins will have their very own "Psycho" front. If Murphy puts a hand down next to him, the team will field a NASCAR-style speed rush package.
The possibilities are vast and should ensure more big plays from this season's unit.