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Nickel Defense Carrying Heavy Load for Washington Redskins

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2015

Washington Redskins linebacker Keenan Robinson (52) runs after intercepting a pas by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Tom Brady knew where he wanted to go with the ball. The pre-snap look was just too inviting. As he turned one way, he saw all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski split out wide in one-on-one coverage. When he looked the other way, Brady saw Julian Edelman, his go-to target, aligned in the slot.

With his two best receivers facing man coverage, Brady had everything he needed to dissect the Washington Redskins defense. But what the New England Patriots quarterback saw pre-snap had radically changed once he'd dropped back to pass. Now No. 12 saw both of his premier weapons blanketed in coverage.

Gronkowski was doubled on the outside, while Edelman had been encased by two defenders over the middle. Brady had no choice. He had to attempt that difficult and dangerous throw to the sideline. But his desperate pass toward Danny Amendola fell incomplete and the Patriots punted.

Brady had just met Washington's 3-3-5 nickel defense, the cunning sub-package designed by coordinator Joe Barry that's carrying a heavy load for these Redskins.

Barry's multiple-defensive back package is maximizing Washington's hybrid defenders, particularly a late-round rookie who is proving a matchup equalizer. The 3-3-5 nickel is also letting Washington get its fastest, most flexible players on the field while compensating for the lack of a dominant pass rush.

Rookie Jarrett is developing a niche as Washington's answer to some dangerous weapons.
Rookie Jarrett is developing a niche as Washington's answer to some dangerous weapons.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Those things caused the usually prolific Patriots a host of problems in Week 9. New England's 27 points were a season low. Brady and his offense were also guilty of a pair of turnovers. They routinely found themselves stymied by Washington's three-man front nickel D.

The defense struck in a variety of ways to frustrate the league's best offense, beginning late in the first quarter.

A Flexible Defense for Hybrid Players

A key to the success of Barry's sub-package scheme is the fifth defensive back. Thanks to the rapid progress of sixth-round pick Kyshoen Jarrett, it's become a hybrid position that gives the Burgundy and Gold the ability match up with some of the NFL's most dynamic pass-catchers.

Jarrett, an ex-Virginia Tech product, is a combination of safety and cornerback in the slot. This blend of size and skill helps him hang in coverage with roving tight ends.

On a 2nd-and-8 play in the opening quarter, Jarrett manned the slot against 6'7", 260-pounder Scott Chandler:

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Here's what Washington's three-man line, three-linebacker front looked like to Brady:

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With Perry Riley Jr. and Keenan Robinson mugging inside gaps along the line of scrimmage, the Redskins showed pressure. But the initially aggressive look would soon morph into a densely populated coverage shell that took away Brady's favorite targets.

Once Brady had the ball in his hands, Washington's linebackers bailed underneath. Robinson worked the hook and curl zones in the seam to help double Gronkowski:

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Meanwhile, middle 'backer Mason Foster, a key part of this defensive look, hovered in the middle as a spy. He was able to read Brady's eyes and track the movement of running back Dion Lewis out of the backfield.

With Gronkowski taken away, Brady had no choice but to look toward Chandler. Fortunately, Jarrett had the big tight end locked up in single coverage.

So Brady's pass had little chance. His attempt to thread the needle was denied, putting the Pats in 3rd-and-long:

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Using an eight-man shell let the Redskins utilize combination coverage in front of a single-high safety. With Dashon Goldson lurking over the top, man-coverage defenders like Jarrett were able to lock up their receivers aggressively. There were also extra defenders to create a zone bracket around Gronkowski.

But it's Jarrett's flexibility that's the real key to this defense. He's Washington's contribution to growing innovation in modern NFL defense. Namely, the use of hybrid defensive backs who can play safety deep, work in the box and man the slot. Players such as Dallas Cowboys rookie Byron Jones and Arizona Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu are helping blaze this trail.

Players like Jarrett and Jones are part of a new breed of DBs whose flexibility is essential to modern pro defense.
Players like Jarrett and Jones are part of a new breed of DBs whose flexibility is essential to modern pro defense.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Almost as important as Jarrett's hybrid skills is the contribution made by Foster. The ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter, originally signed to play special teams, boasts the speed and range that make him a natural for the nickel. His ability to thrive in space as a covering defender makes him a useful part of this scheme.

Another key attribute of this sub-package is its ability to let the Redskins double another team's top targets.

Taking Away Their Best Weapons

One play after Jarrett denied Chandler a catch, Washington showed Brady another 3-3-5 look:

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Barry's defense had one remit: take away both Gronkowski (circled) on the outside as well as Edelman, who would motion into the slot.

To put the plan into practice, all three linebackers dropped underneath:

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It was Foster who helped cornerback Will Blackmon bracket Gronkowski on the outside. In the middle, Robinson drifted to undercut Edelman's shallow crossing route:

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Over on Edelman's side of the field, the Redskins gave a terrific example of passing receivers off in zone. Robinson picked up Edelman once Jarrett let Minitron go so he could shadow Amendola in the flat:

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Zone instincts and technique like this are the best features of Jarrett's game, according to Mark Bullock of the Washington Post: "Jarrett has been exceptional in zone coverage, particularly as a curl-flat defender in the Redskins’ base Cover 3 scheme. He does an excellent job challenging seam routes while he works to the flat."

Robinson's positioning was a great combination of pattern reading and spot dropping. The latter meant the linebacker kept his eyes firmly on Brady and read the quarterback's throw:

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Because he locked onto Edelman's route, Robinson was perfectly placed to take away the in-breaking slant pattern and steal the ball:

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This takeaway showed how effectively Barry's nickel can fool quarterbacks. It can also be adjusted to take away an opponent's favorite concepts. Against the Pats, a team that loves attacking inside zones underneath, this was the perfect defense.

In this example, the Redskins had only doubled up on Gronkowski. But on a 3rd-and-6 in the third period, Barry's group took things one step further.

They again showed Brady a three-man nickel front. Only this time, two of the three 'backers were outside rushers Preston Smith and Trent Murphy. Barry had essentially adjusted his base 3-4 personnel by swapping an inside linebacker for an extra defensive back:

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With extra pass-rushers on the field, this look initially screamed pressure defense. It looked as if the Redskins had prepared a sophisticated blitz to get to Brady.

Yet, once again, all three of Washington's linebackers dropped to crowd the passing lanes and help double Brady's premium targets. In this case, Murphy and Smith played the vital roles:

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Murphy (93) and Blackmon (41) sandwiched Edelman over the middle. On the outside, Smith and corner Bashaud Breeland doubled Gronk:

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The interesting part of this play is while two of Washington's underneath defenders took zone drops, there was still room for some man coverage. It was Robinson's responsibility to track running back Brandon Bolden.

Playing combination coverage is a great way to eliminate a host of versatile weapons and confuse quarterbacks post-snap.

With his top two receivers taken away, Brady had no choice but to throw to the outside. But his risky pass Amendola's way had no chance. Jarrett once again made the play:

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A signature of all of these plays is how this defense affords Washington the option of rushing three and dropping eight into coverage.

Throwing Into Eight

While dropping eight behind three-man pressure is the classic vanilla, prevent-style defense, it still presents obvious advantages. For instance, with an offense only allowed to attack with a maximum of five eligible receivers, the defense has a clear numbers advantage.

For a more specific bonus, this defense offers a boost to a Redskins unit that is struggling to generate consistent pressure. The Redskins have just 13 sacks through eight games, with five of those coming in Week 4. If you can't get to the passer, obscuring his throwing windows with more men in coverage is the next best thing.

Washington offered a great example of this theory in practice on 3rd-and-10 in the fourth quarter.

Here's what Barry's 3-3-5 nickel looked like pre-snap. The linebackers were the underneath defenders in front of a two-deep zone shell:

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This look morphed into a four-under, four-deep coverage bracket:

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Washington had the perfect defense for a long-yardage down. Faced with this dense a coverage look, Brady was forced to check the ball down short to Bolden.

Once he had, the advantage of playing so much zone became clear. With all eyes on the ball, the Redskins were able to swarm to the receiver and take him down after a minimal gain:

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This sub-package defense provides a ton of advantages for Washington. It's letting the Redskins get their best and most flexible athletes on the field. They help neutralize the trickiest mismatches every week.

Being able to drop eight into coverage is a great way for Barry to mitigate his unit's struggles pressuring the pocket. If just one member of Washington's three-man front wins his matchup, the Redskins have the ideal rush and coverage mix.

All of these things will prove useful in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints. Taking away underrated and resurgent tight end Benjamin Watson will be a priority for the Burgundy and Gold. So will confusing points-binging quarterback Drew Brees and challenging him to throw into crowds.

Keeping Watson quiet will be vital in Week 10.
Keeping Watson quiet will be vital in Week 10.Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It's easy to be critical of a lot of what Barry has been doing this season. His unit can't stop the run, the decisive factor behind defeat in New England. His pressure schemes are bland enough to be stale.

Yet, credit where it's due, Barry's 3-3-5 nickel is a sub-package that's giving the Redskins defense an edge in many situations.

All statistics and player information via NFL.com

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