It's been all change along the defensive line for the Washington Redskins this offseason. An overhauled front is expected to key a major revival for a unit that's been dire for the last five seasons.
While Terrance Knighton is a lock to anchor things at nose tackle, there are a few more questions at the end spots. In fact, the Redskins boast a contingent of players who will increase the flexibility of Washington's scheme and allow new coordinator Joe Barry to get creative up front.
The first thing Jason Hatcher and new signings Stephen Paea and Ricky Jean Francois will do is redefine how the Redskins operate their 3-4 defense.
Redefining the Front
For most of the last five seasons, Washington's defense has been a two-gap 3-4. It's a traditional version of the alignment, one that requires the ends to play the 5-technique.
This means shading over an offensive tackle. The alignment allows ends to control two gaps, the B-gap between the tackle and guard and the C-gap outside the tackle.
Here's a snapshot of the alignment from Washington's Week 4 road win over the Oakland Raiders in 2013, with veteran Kedric Golston and ex-Redskins starter Stephen Bowen at ends:
Controlling both gaps means holding up and occupying blockers, rather than beating them. It's a recipe for few statistics and playing second fiddle to the linebackers.
The philosophy has now changed since Barry's arrival. Instead of asking ends to control gaps, the Redskins will now ask the players at the edges of their D-line to attack.
Head coach Jay Gruden confirmed the change in alignment back in January, per Mike Jones of the Washington Post: "There will be some different ideas that we have, as far as it’s not a two-gap 3-4. It might be more of a shoot-the-gap-type of 3-4, a get-up-the-field-and-rush-them 3-4, you know what I mean?"
Barry is very well-versed in one-gap versions of the 3-4 from his time with the San Diego Chargers. The AFC West club regularly let Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes attack single gaps to take advantage of their quickness and knack for playmaking.
Here's what the front looked like in San Diego's Week 17 loss to division rivals the Kansas City Chiefs:
The new scheme gives more license for defensive ends to get into the backfield. Hatcher has already welcomed the changes in both alignment and philosophy, according to ESPN.com's John Keim:
You’re expected to make more plays in this system. You can make more plays in the backfield, make a lot of tackles, as long as you’re in your gap and do what you’re supposed to do it’ll be fun. Just attack. You ain’t holding up blocks no more. You can make a play here and there.
It won't just be Hatcher benefiting from the tweaked front. One of the great things about playing a one-gap 3-4 is how it allows 4-3 players to still thrive.
That's why a natural 3-technique like Paea, who's spent his career in a 4-3 with the Chicago Bears, can still flourish in Barry's hybrid system. The same is true for Francois, who featured in one-gap fronts for both the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts.
Here's how Hatcher and the new guys will function in 2015's defense.
One concern with playing a single-gap front is losing some strength against the run. Francois was a member of the Colts line that was pushed around on the ground several times by the New England Patriots last season.
As for Paea and Hatcher, they are both known more as pass-rushers than stout run defenders. That's one reason why Knighton was recruited as ample compensation.
But three players who commonly play the run only on their way to quarterbacks needn't spell trouble for Washington. Here are two examples of the team's one-gap ends thriving against the run.
The first features Francois and comes from Indy's Week 6 road win over AFC South foe the Houston Texans. Francois began the play shifted over center as a one-gap nose guard, an indication of the flexibility the new men will bring to this season's defense (more on that later):
Francois quickly clamped both hands on Chris Myers and stood the veteran center up. The D-tackle got his hands under Myers' shoulder pads, enabling him to win the leverage battle.
Francois had established a solid, powerful base and kept Myers rocked back on his heels:
After pushing Myers out of the path of the play, Francois began playing off his blocker and redirecting to meet the run. He engulfed Arian Foster for a minimal gain:
While Francois can be effective crashing inside, Hatcher is still a force on the edge against both the pass and the run. The 32-year-old showcased the latter talent during Washington's Week 9 road loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Hatcher began the play in his familiar alignment as a 3-technique end in between the left guard and tackle:
Left tackle Matt Kalil tried to cut Hatcher low. But the veteran swatted away the attempt and deftly galloped over Kalil to fill the cutback lane:
Hatcher then swarmed on Jerick McKinnon, dropping the runner for a one-yard loss:
A quicker, more attacking style of defense may be less physical than what the Redskins first intended when Mike Shanahan first installed the 3-4 back in 2010. But swarming to the ball can be as good as brute-force physicality when it comes to stopping the run.
Players like Hatcher, Paea and Francois have the initial quickness and downhill instincts to wreck running plays at their source, rather than control the line and keep blockers occupied so linebackers can make all the tackles.
Of course, the primary motivation for switching to one-gap techniques and signing players such as Francois and Paea is to boost your ability to pressure quarterbacks. This season's defensive ends are all adept at rushing the passer from a variety of alignments.
Paea was in on six sacks for the Bears in 2014. He's mastered the art of splitting the guard-tackle B-gap from both base and nickel looks.
Here's a great example from Chicago's Week 5 road loss to the Carolina Panthers. Paea lined up at D-tackle in a 4-2-5 nickel front. The Bears also put two inside linebackers in both A-gaps, showing blitz:
The inside 'backer next to Paea blitzed, while the D-tackle stunted behind him:
When Paea broke through, running back Darrin Reaves was forced to try to pick him up. A running back against a lineman is an obvious matchup win for a defense, one thing this type of A-gap pressure is designed to create.
Paea predictably blasted through Reaves, knocking him back into quarterback Cam Newton:
With Reaves out of the way, Paea wrapped up Newton for an eight-yard loss:
This was an explosive play from a lineman who's strength is rushing the passer. It's a quality Hatcher also shares.
If the latter can rediscover the Pro Bowl form he produced for the Dallas Cowboys in 2013, the Redskins will boast a feared one-two punch along the line. The destructive double act will be particularly effective for a unit expected to show four-man nickel fronts "at least 70 percent of the time," according to Keim.
This year's defense is brimming with more dynamic linemen. Their presence will mean greater flexibility and creativity, along with more big plays, up front.
Flexibility and Creating Big Plays
In previous seasons, the Redskins have relied on functional linemen to do functional work. But with quicker, more disruptive players at the various positions, 2015's line will be a focal point for creating big plays for the rest of the defense.
Better athletes provide more ways to destroy a play. A great example featuring Paea comes from Chicago's Week 3 road win over the New York Jets.
Paea began the play lined up as a shaded nose tackle, or 1-technique. He was playing off the shoulder of the center in the A-gap:
At the start of the play, Paea drew a double-team as the Jets faked a run his way:
The Jets then tried misdirection to set up a screen pass. Quarterback Geno Smith executed a rollout and pump fake away from the initial false handoff.
Despite the theatrics, Paea still kept his eyes on Smith:
He didn't fall for the pump fake and showed excellent instincts and athletic range to redirect and follow Smith as the passer turned the other way.
At the same time, Paea spied the running back heading toward the flat:
Paea got into the throwing lane and kept his eyes on Smith to anticipate the release:
When Smith did release the ball, Paea went high to make the window small. Smith was forced to throw around the defensive tackle:
That put the ball outside the running back's reach, where safety Ryan Mundy (21) picked it off. He promptly returned his theft 45 yards for a touchdown:
Not many linemen are agile enough to shift directions and track a play the way Paea did here. But this is just a snapshot of the kind of big plays more athletic D-linemen can produce.
They can also help a coordinator get creative with the looks he shows an offense and how his unit sends pressure. Even Barry's predecessor, Jim Haslett, saw the advantages a playmaker like Hatcher presents.
A sack from Week 2's emphatic win over the Jacksonville Jaguars helps illustrate the point.
Hatcher was the lone down lineman in a six-man pressure front:
With five standing rushers moving around Hatcher, the Jags had no clue about who would rush and who would drop. They also couldn't tell exactly which directions the pressure would come from.
It turned out to be through the middle as Hatcher slanted into the center-guard A-gap:
Hatcher's rush prevented quarterback Chad Henne from stepping up to avoid pressure that was closing in from both edges:
Henne was soon swarmed on by Hatcher with an assist from blitzing linebacker Perry Riley Jr.:
This is just one example of the type of pressure fronts Washington can unleash on quarterbacks and blocking schemes in 2015. Hatcher, Paea and Francois joining versatile edge-rushers Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy and rookie Preston Smith, means Barry has a myriad of possibilities for generating pressure without leaning too heavily on the blitz.
In this context, deploying Hatcher and Paea as the starting ends makes most sense. Both are more effective rushing the passer than Francois.
He'll be the line's top swing backup who will regularly rotate in at both end spots and even play nose on some fronts. But there's one more intriguing depth player at Barry's disposal.
As a former 4-3 D-tackle, Frank Kearse has the attributes to fit the new scheme like a glove. He showcased his flair for pass rushing by collecting three sacks last season.
One of those quarterback takedowns came against the Jaguars in Week 2. Kearse aligned as a 1-technique:
He slammed into Zane Beadles and pushed the left guard into the backfield:
Kearse put Beadles back on his heels and began shedding the block:
With separation created and the pocket collapsed, 6'5", 310-pounder Kearse used a giant wingspan to prevent Henne from escaping the pressure:
Kearse then completed the sack:
This was a very impressive play from an unheralded D-tackle who simply dominated a former Pro Bowl guard. Kearse displayed the quick first step and natural power all competent interior pass-rushers need.
He fits the new scheme as a rotational 3-technique end and a situational pass-rusher in the nickel sets.
The qualities Kearse offers are certainly more suited to Barry's D than any attributes veteran Golston possesses. His thick base and ceaseless motor were more at home in a two-gap system, one where his lack of dynamism wouldn't be much of a hindrance.
Now Golston looks like the odd man out in a rotation where backup nose tackle Chris Baker can also play end.
The success of this season's defense will be determined by the new men in the trenches. General manager Scot McCloughan has given Barry the kind of playmakers any one-gap scheme needs.
If Paea continues his rise and Hatcher returns to form, Washington's line will be feared. It will also be a group that produces as many big plays as the linebackers.
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All statistics and player information via NFL.com.