How Can Washington Redskins DC Joe Barry Get Creative with Defensive Line?

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2015

Washington Redskins Terrance Knighton (98) and Chris Baker (92) take part in drills during NFL football minicamp at Redskins Park Tuesday, June 16, 2015 in Ashburn, Va. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

There are few things more annoying than somebody who has something really great and doesn't know how to get the most out of it, like the kid who always had the best toys when you were younger but simply let them go to waste.

The Washington Redskins had better hope Joe Barry is not that guy.

The Burgundy and Gold's new defensive coordinator has been given an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line. Now he has to get creative with the talents at his disposal.

Frankly, that should be easy given the versatile pieces Barry has to work with. New arrivals Stephen Paea, Ricky Jean Francois and Terrance Knighton can all play various spots along the front. So can backups Chris Baker and Frank Kearse.

Paea and Knighton figure to be ends in Washington's hybrid, one-gap version of the 3-4 this season. But they've each spent plenty of time over center (something detailed in this breakdown of the DE rotation).

Paea is one of many new faces on Washington's D-line who can attack offenses in a variety of ways.
Paea is one of many new faces on Washington's D-line who can attack offenses in a variety of ways.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Kearse can play end, tackle or nose guard. Meanwhile, Baker can also flip-flop between spending time over center and sliding out to end.

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But Barry doesn't just have to tap into what his players already know. He can also take key figures out of their comfort zones and expand their potential for wrecking offenses from a variety of alignments.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that the line is now the strength of Washington's defense. That argument has merit when considering the question mark next to Keenan Robinson at inside linebacker. Then there's the uncertainty over who exactly will replace Brian Orakpo on the outside.

The better options and marquee talents reside up front. Now Barry has to use them.

Barry can't get predictable with the versatile pieces along his defensive front.
Barry can't get predictable with the versatile pieces along his defensive front.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

His first step should be borrowing a page or two from other linemen-heavy defenses around the NFL.

Showing 4-3 vs. Run

Playing in the NFC East means needing to be able to corral some dangerous running games. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys boast two of the most dominant offensive lines in football.

The Eagles also have a potentially devastating one-two punch in the backfield in the form of 2014 league rushing champion DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. It would also be a mistake to sleep on Dallas runner Joseph Randle and young New York Giants workhorse Andre Williams.

Barry can use his ample options up front to tweak his alignment against run-heavy teams. The Arizona Cardinals, one of the league's toughest run defenses during the last two years, provided a great example.

Facing the Cowboys on the road in Week 9, then-Arizona defensive boss Todd Bowles junked his base 3-4 front for a 4-3 set on early downs. Here's what it looked like against two Murray runs in the first quarter:

Arizona's 4-3/6-1 front and how it might look with Redskins' personnel.
Arizona's 4-3/6-1 front and how it might look with Redskins' personnel.Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Obviously, the names have been changed to reflect how this front might look with Washington's personnel on the field. Either way, notice how the Cards put two nose tackles in the middle. Tommy Kelly (95) was over center, while Dan Williams (92) slid into the center-guard A-gap.

That's an awful lot of beef in the middle. It was Williams who actually made the play, stopping Murray for a one-yard loss.

In the Redskins version of this front, Knighton might play that role, while either Francois or Baker comes in over center. Moving Knighton off the 0-technique spot might not seem like the wisest move but can have its advantages.

For instance, in this case the Cards put Williams, their best run defender, over right guard Zack Martin, the most dominant interior blocker on the Dallas line. Moving Knighton, who automatically becomes the focal point of Washington's run D, around like this can neutralize the strength of a blocking scheme.

It's a great way to force a team to change the direction of its running game.

Arizona did the same thing to Murray and the Cowboys a few plays later:

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This was a true heavy set from the Cardinals defense. Notice how Arizona played with two 3-technique tackles (linemen 2 and 4).

From their positions in the B-gaps between the guards and offensive tackles, they could slant in either direction. That meant pressure on the run whichever way Murray went. Calais Campbell soon dumped the running back for a two-yard loss.

Washington has a host of options here. I've gone with Francois and Baker inside, but it could just as easily be Paea or Kearse for a little extra speed and explosiveness.

Hatcher could take the role played here by Campbell, No. 93, as the end tilted toward the outside. That alignment would take advantage of his quickness off the edge.

On two plays, the Cardinals completely shut down the best ground game in the NFL. They did it by making full use of their D-line rotation to match size against size and dominate the line of scrimmage.

The Redskins have the personnel to do the same things. Ostensibly, these plays look like a 4-3, but are really a 6-1 front with two outside linebackers bracketing the beef in the middle.

Now imagine a front of Paea and Hatcher flanking Francois and Knighton, with Trent Murphy and Ryan Kerrigan on the edges. It would be a brave team that still believed it could run on that sumo-sized front.

The Redskins were pretty solid against the run in 2014, finishing 12th in the league's rankings. But Barry's unit may have to be even tougher this season.

Aside from the groundhogs in their division, the Redskins also face a host of other powerful running teams. They include the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, both owners of power-based rushing attacks spearheaded by Mark Ingram and LeGarrette Blount, respectively.

Then there's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers. All three boast a stable of quality runners, including Charles Sims, Stevan Ridley, Chris Ivory, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

The Redskins will face more than a few quality running backs in 2015.
The Redskins will face more than a few quality running backs in 2015.Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Let's not forget about Matt Forte and the Chicago Bears, along with LeSean McCoy and the Buffalo Bills. Stopping the run isn't just a basic requirement for Barry's defense in his first season; it's a necessity.

But he can do more than just load up the line of scrimmage. A few tweaks to Washington's base 3-4 alignment can also help.

Showing Odd Fronts

One of the distinguishing features of one-gap 3-4 schemes is the use of odd fronts that don't cover up the center the way traditional versions of the system usually do. Odd fronts are a good way of shifting key playmakers along the defensive line to match the strength of an offensive formation.

The New York Jets provided a good example during their Week 5 road win over the Atlanta Falcons from the 2013 season:

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Notice how the Jets altered their 3-4 base by stacking all three of their linemen on the left side of Atlanta's two-tight end set. This could have been because of the strength or weaknesses of the blockers on that side. Or it could have been a response to tendencies observed on film, such as the Falcons' runs behind the left side out of balanced formations.

Here's a closer look at the alignment, including the techniques and how it might look with Washington's personnel on the field:

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Notice how the nose guard is shaded into the A-gap between the center and right guard. Knighton would cause havoc from this alignment.

On the other side, there's a 3-technique who would be Paea in this case. It's the spot he thrived in when he logged a career-best six sacks for the Chicago Bears last season.

The presence of two tight ends means a 9-technique. Hatcher would be excellent in this role on the outside shoulder of a tight end.

Hatcher and his dynamic quickness against a tight end has to be a matchup win for Washington's defense, whether it's a run or pass.

But altering alignments isn't the only way for Barry to maximize the D-line talent at his disposal. He can also create favorable matchups by moving personnel around.

Moving the Big Man

There's one player in particular Barry can move around to destroy running games. There's no doubt Knighton is at his best over center, but smart teams will simply try to avoid the middle by running away from him.

But that won't work if Barry is willing to move his man-mountain linchpin around. He can take a page from how the New England Patriots used Vince Wilfork for years.

Essentially a house-sized 0-technique, Wilfork most often dominated the guard-center-guard box. But head coach Bill Belichick was never shy about moving him around to take away run tendencies.

He did exactly that in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins:

Wilfork, the 5-technique end.
Wilfork, the 5-technique end.CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

Belichick moved Wilfork off center and shifted him to 5-technique end against Miami's zone-read pistol look. The Dolphins had a tight end on the right and had also put H-back Charles Clay in the backfield on that side. So Wilfork and his giant 6'2", 325-pound frame were positioned to neutralize the strength of the formation.

Wilfork soon stuffed running back Lamar Miller for a short gain.

Here's how the alignment would look for Washington:

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The Pats had Wilfork at end and Sealver Siliga replacing him at nose tackle. For the Redskins, Knighton and Baker could easily and effectively play these roles.

But Wilfork doesn't provide the only template for how to get creative with Knighton. For years, the Baltimore Ravens kept offenses guessing as to where Haloti Ngata would line up.

Sometimes that meant seeing him play 3-technique tackle, the way he did on the road against AFC North foes the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8:

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Of course, not many 6'4", 340-pound behemoths are athletic enough to rush the B-gap the way a deceptively nimble Ngata can. But Knighton is one of the few other big men who offer this level of flexibility.

He's the main playmaker up front for Washington this season, so it just makes sense to move him across formations and increase the ways he can attack offenses.

Creativity Has its Rewards

Using his linemen in flexible ways can have tremendous rewards for Barry and the rest of his defense. One of the most most notable benefits is how it increases the scope of confusing pressure looks he can show offenses on third downs.

Going back to the Jets' tilt in Atlanta reveals a great example:

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New York showed the Falcons an overloaded pressure with three standing rushers on the right. They used just two down linemen in the formation, with the dynamic Muhammad Wilkerson actually aligning over center. This role could easily be performed by Hatcher or Paea.

The presence of three standing players left Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan unsure about who would rush and who would drop:

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They also confused Atlanta's offensive linemen, drawing their focus away from the dangerous Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. The latter sacked Ryan for a loss of eight yards.

Imagine this type of front with Hatcher and Paea as the two down linemen and Kerrigan, Murphy and rookie Preston Smith as the standing rushers. That's a group offering a myriad of pressure combinations and plenty of big-play potential.

Those are the rewards awaiting Barry, as long as he's prepared to get creative.

He wasn't the most dynamic choice for new coordinator, and Mike Jones of the Washington Post told B/R's Stephen Nelson that he has doubts about whether Barry can really get the most out of the talent in D.C.:

That's a legitimate concern, given Barry's less-than-stellar track record as a coordinator. But it's also worth noting he has valuable recent experience working with versatile and dynamic D-linemen.

As a member of the San Diego Chargers staff, Barry saw firsthand how Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes expanded the playbook for defensive coordinator John Pagano. He can use them as an early template for some experiments in Washington.

In San Diego, Reyes and Liuget showed Barry how versatile linemen can expand the playbook.
In San Diego, Reyes and Liuget showed Barry how versatile linemen can expand the playbook.Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

There have also already been indications that the Redskins will add some wrinkles along a revamped line this season. CSN Washington's JP Finlay noted how Washington has shown "some different looks during OTAs."

He also carried quotes from Paea explaining how some combinations might work: "It's just a scheme. When we go sub, we still have the package where I play nose. Or I'm with TK (Knighton), and he plays nose. I like it, versatility like that."

Finally, Finlay quoted Barry's commitment to being multiple: "We are very multiple. We’re going to give you a bunch of different looks."

That process should begin up front. It's where the success of Washington's defense in 2015 will be determined.

This line now has too many talented bodies not to be the focal point of Barry's schemes.

All screen shots via CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

All team rankings and player information via NFL.com.


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