Kirk Cousins against a Todd Bowles-coached defense should make the Washington Redskins very nervous in Week 6. Bowles and his pressure-crazed New York Jets D represent the toughest test Cousins and the Burgundy and Gold have faced this season.
Bowles' elaborate and innovative pressure concepts could bring out the worst in a quarterback with a history of turnovers when facing the blitz.
No. 8's problems when a defense sends extra rushers were vividly and brutally exposed in Week 5. Specifically, the familiar issue reared its ugly head in overtime when the Atlanta Falcons sent Nate Stupar off the edge. Cousins threw with the linebacker in his face and his pass was picked off and returned for the game-winning touchdown by cornerback Robert Alford.
Granted, Cousins was hardly helped by wide receiver Ryan Grant slipping to the floor before the ball could reach him. Yet the slip can't mask Cousins' penchant for connecting with the other team when he's blitzed.
Of course, every quarterback struggles against the blitz. It's a truth about the NFL that informs Bowles' defensive philosophy. Pressure, pressure and more pressure is what any QB facing the Jets can expect.
What makes it so tough to handle is how Bowles doesn't follow the rules. He'll send seven-man pressure when most other coaches would play prevent. Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry just nodded his head. But the Jets boss will also mix in zone-blitz concepts using a variety of rush and coverage combinations.
No situation prohibits the blitz for Bowles, something Cousins must be aware of.
For instance, consider New York's 27-14 win over AFC East rival Miami Dolphins at London's Wembley Stadium in Week 4. Leading 20-7 inside the final 60 seconds of the half, with the Dolphins at their own 30, the Jets could have settled into a typical soft zone shell to take away the long ball.
Instead, Bowles sent a fire zone pressure at quarterback Ryan Tannehill, with five rushers attacking him from multiple angles, while unexpected defenders dropped to supplement coverage.
On 1st-and-10, the Jets aligned their 4-2-5 nickel personnel in a unique way. Bowles stacked inside linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis in the A-gaps on either side of the center. They were joined in the guard-center-guard interior box by outside rush end Calvin Pace (97):
This alignment put a ton of immediate stress on Miami's blocking scheme. It forced the running back to stay in to pick up one of three potential blitzers through the middle. Center Mike Pouncey also had to decide whether to have his linemen block down and close off the blitz lanes for Harris, Davis and Pace.
The latter is exactly what the Jets wanted.
Bowles and coordinator Kacy Rodgers wanted to create a free path to Tannehill off the edge for blitzing slot corner Buster Skrine:
To create confusion inside, Harris and Davis would run a cross blitz, while Pace and rookie Lorenzo Mauldin bailed into the underneath passing lanes.
Once they'd dropped, Pace and Mauldin let the Jets fall into a three-under, three-deep shell. Pace was the intermediate defender in the middle, while Calvin Pryor was the free safety protecting the deep middle.
This is the classic fire zone coverage bracket:
Trying to throw into such a densely populated shell meant Tannehill had to hold the ball, something he had no time to do with Skrine and Harris closing in:
You can see how the running back was doubling up on Harris (52). That meant there was nobody to meet Skrine in the backfield. He tipped Tannehill's throw to force an incomplete pass.
These are the kind of problems Washington O-line coach Bill Callahan must be ready for.
The Jets will challenge you with pressure-heavy fronts and plenty of disguise. Part of the reason this play caught the Dolphins cold is because it went against the grain.
It was a rare time Bowles didn't send a trio of blitzing defenders through the A-gaps. Triple A-gap pressure is one of the many innovative wrinkles he's introduced to help change the way defenses are bringing pressure in football's modern era.
Fran Duffy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com highlighted what this malevolent scheme looks like on the field:
So any time the A-gaps are loaded, Cousins and the Redskins have to think pressure. It's just not clear exactly where the blitz will come from. So the onus will be on 2012's fourth-round pick guessing right and being on the same page with his protection.
Tannehill couldn't get it right, and paid a heavy price, as noted by ESPN Stats & Information:
But the Jets will also give Cousins a headache or two in coverage.
Harris and Davis would attack on a cross blitz through the middle. Meanwhile, Skrine would come off the edge. At the same time, end Quinton Coples and D-tackle Leger Douzable were ready to bail underneath:
Behind the rush, the Jets appeared to be showing a four-deep, quarters shell. But at the snap, things changed a little.
With Skrine closing in off the corner, Luck was staring at a Cover 2 Man bracket, man coverage underneath with two deep safeties taking away the big play:
Skrine and Harris closed in on Luck as he hesitated in the pocket:
Thanks to the pressure, Luck overshot wideout Andre Johnson, who was covered by Douzable, a lineman:
The pass was tipped and sailed into the hands of Pryor, whose return set up New York's first touchdown.
That's been the recipe for these Jets so far this season: pressure, turnovers and points off takeaways. It's a trap Cousins and the Redskins cannot fall into. Unfortunately, history says they might.
Consider the quarterback's last game against a Bowles-coached defense. It came in Week 6 last year, during a 30-20 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Cousins threw for 354 yards but tossed three interceptions. A repeat of that performance will see Washington fall to 2-4. It will also put Cousins' standing as the starter in jeopardy.
It will help if a currently stagnant running game gets back on track. The Burgundy and Gold need to set up play-action strikes for the man under center. But it won't be easy against a defensive wall led by the awesome Muhammad Wilkerson.
Continued struggles on the ground will put the third-down battle into sharp focus. Writing for the Jets official site, Randy Lange detailed how Bowles' team has "prevented opponents' last 22 conversion attempts on 'crunch downs' or 'money downs,'" including denying 18 straight third-down plays.
But Lange also notes how the Redskins have been above-average as a third-down offense this season, "converting at a 44.6 percent rate, sixth in the NFL."
Something's got to give. Sadly, recent history suggests it will be Washington's starting quarterback.
Using natural coverage beaters like rookie receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Chris Thompson more often can make the Jets pay for sending Skrine and linebackers on the blitz.
It would also really help to have "joker-style" tight end Jordan Reed back in the fold. His move skills were certainly missed against the Falcons, according to ESPN.com's John Keim. Unfortunately, Reed is still locked in concussion protocol despite being able to watch practice recently, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's Tarik El-Bashir.
The bigger help for Cousins can come from Callahan's O-line. It's a group that has surrendered six sacks through five games, a pretty respectable number. But it may increase if Callahan can't get his players better prepared for the blitz than he did at times last season.
When Washington beat the Dallas Cowboys on the road in Week 8 last year, a complex array of blitzes completely baffled Callahan's marquee line. A week later, intense pressure from Bowles' Cardinals shut down a vaunted Cowboys running game and forced Tony Romo into a pair of interceptions.
Smarter adjustments must be in place for this week.
One riff on the current formula should be to limit the number of times head coach Jay Gruden has his offense align in empty backfield sets. Bowles has myriad ways to overwhelm protection in the numbers game, so Callahan's group is going to need the help of a backfield blocker or two.
Beating Bowles and the blitz will demand precision at several levels of Washington's offense, not just under center. The ground game has to be more productive, while the O-line must stay switched on.
Ultimately though, it will be Cousins who lives and dies with both the stat sheet and the result. Welcome to the life of a starting NFL quarterback.
He's the best fit for this team, but Cousins won't justify that status for long if his predilection for game-wrecking turnovers persists. Unfortunately for No. 8, Bowles and the Jets defense are built to force quarterbacks into costly blunders.
If Cousins can limit those in Week 6, he'll take a step forward as Robert Griffin III's replacement. But if the blitz reigns supreme, the off-field pressure on Cousins' position, as well as Gruden's, will reach boiling point.
It's the toughest test Cousins and the Redskins have faced this season.
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