All NFL systems look good when you draw them up. But every scheme is ultimately only as successful as the sum of its parts. It's a timeless football truth Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry can't ignore any longer.
Barry's only 10 games into his tenure, but he's already past the point where he needs to face facts. His scheme isn't working, and it's time for a change.
Changes are needed for two reasons. First, Barry just doesn't have the players to make his vision of defense a success. For a reminder of his vision, think a regular three- to four-man rush in front of a loose Cover 3 with off coverage at every level.
It's a fairly vanilla way to travel, one designed to limit big plays rather than create them. Barry's approach can work. Or rather, it could with elite edge-rushers, super-speedy linebackers and defensive backs who can tackle. Namely, all the things Barry currently lacks.
So Washington's defensive coordinator already finds himself at an intriguing crossroads. If he waits, he must be prepared to toil through the remainder of his first season calling a defense hemorrhaging yards and points every week. Washington ranks 25th in the former category and 22nd in the latter. Barry can wait until general manager Scot McCloughan uses his second free-agency cycle and draft to recruit the pieces this defense needs.
If McCloughan acquires a standout pass-rusher, along with a middle linebacker who can win a track meet, Barry's heavy diet of zone coverage and simple pressure can work.
Without those things, teams are routinely picking Washington's defense apart. Barry's is a scheme totally predicated on forcing an offense to throw short. The problem is short passes aren't being kept to short gains because of a marathon-length gallery of missed tackles. It's an ongoing issue for a defense allowing 116 yards after the catch per game, according to Sporting Charts.
With defenders slow to swarm to the ball and unable to wrap up when they get there, opponents don't mind checking the ball down, confident they will still manufacture big gains.
The question is whether Barry's system is worth the wait. In the long term the answer may be yes. Week 9's 27-10 road defeat to the New England Patriots actually offered a glimpse of how effective this scheme can be.
The Redskins held the undefeated Pats to their third-lowest points total and forced a pair of turnovers on the road. Barry's 3-3-5 nickel frustrated Tom Brady and the New England offense in key situations.
Yet a pass-rusher who could win up front would have turned a few of the Pats' nine successful third-down conversions Washington's way. Some cover men who can hit for keeps would have limited Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to short gains instead of big plays after the catch.
Linebackers who can chase down plays would have kept LeGarrette Blount under wraps. Instead, his 129 rushing yards proved decisive.
Against the Panthers, Jonathan Stewart became the fifth runner to top 100 yards against Barry's 30th-ranked rushing defense this season. Not surprisingly, poor tackling has been at the root of the problem, something Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch lamented during the loss in Carolina:
Adding active D-linemen capable of playing behind the line of scrimmage, as well as linebackers who can flow and fit, is a must this offseason. Until then, though, Barry can either keep preaching fundamentals or change his approach to a more creative and daring philosophy.
He should choose the latter. Here's what Washington's new defensive plan can look like.
Nobody should expect Barry, a coordinator deeply rooted in the fairly conservative Tampa 2 school of defense, to swap bend-don't-break for all-out blitz. Yet it's not unreasonable to ask for a few precise and aggressive riffs on the formula.
For instance, there are things Barry can do to improve the run defense beyond merely working more on technique. Stacking inside linebackers on the line, at the strength of a formation (tight end side), on early downs would create blocking mismatches in the running game.
Speaking of causing mismatches, Barry should move massive nose guard Terrance Knighton around. Shifting Pot Roast over a weak blocker or to the side of the line an opponent usually runs behind would put his best run-stuffer in position to make more plays.
When it comes to generating pressure, Barry can apply more by altering alignments up front. Stacking a pair of pocket-collapsing linemen like Chris Baker and Jason Hatcher together on one side and having them run a stunt, a rarity in this defense, would cause havoc for blocking schemes.
If Barry is loath to blitz, he can at least create the illusion of sending extra rushers. Filling the A-gaps on either side of a center and threatening blitz is the best way to do it. The look puts blockers in a bind, often leaving gaps for fortunate linemen to exploit.
Getting more aggressive also extends to the back end. Barry has shown an unhealthy fondness for off-coverage, a technique that helps keep the ball in front of the defense to limit big plays through the air. Remember, no quarterback has thrown for over 300 yards against this defense in 2015.
Yet, Washington's passive coverage shell is still susceptible to big plays in key moments. ESPN.com's John Keim detailed one such moment from an early Carolina touchdown drive:
Rolling up the corners would not only create a nine-man front against the run. It would also suit the natural instincts and playing styles of starters Chris Culliver and Bashaud Breeland. Both are hands fighters at their best roughing up receivers at the line.
Barry can use these tactics to get more aggressive against both the run and the pass without bringing the 46 defense to D.C. But taking a few more chances with personnel and alignments isn't the only change the Redskins can make to produce more impact plays on defense.
A philosophical overhaul for a system play-caller can also do the trick.
Becoming a Game-Plan Defense
There are system coordinators and game-plan tacticians. Barry belongs in the former category. He's a coordinator whose professional life lives and dies based on the success of his scheme.
To Barry, his defense has its hallmarks, and that's how it travels. It's up to different offenses to try to solve the familiar puzzle week to week.
Think of the Seattle Seahawks as a prime example of a system defense. The NFC West club plays its tight Cover 3 zone, with press coverage mixed in on the outside, behind a four-man rush. How about the Denver Broncos? Wade Phillips and his league-leading unit is going to line up in a one-gap 3-4 and send five- to six-man pressure on most plays with man coverage supporting it.
There might be the odd wrinkle from game to game, but neither of these defenses will deviate wholesale from their plan, nor make special adjustments for a particular opponent. They'll simply line up and do what they do.
Barry's been trying to do the same, but in a left-handed way. He doesn't have a Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor or Michael Bennett. Nor does he have a Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware or Aqib Talib.
So Barry should adopt the game-plan approach. It's a hybrid formula that shifts from week to week, reacting to different threats and maximizing changing personnel. Consider the Patriots the finest example.
New England head coach Bill Belichick will change his defensive philosophy, from X's and O's to players, just for a specific opponent.
If the Patriots face a pass-happy offense, expect the snap counts to be high for rush ends and flexible cover men. Forget the 3-4 with its house-sized trench warriors. Expect to see the Pats in a nickel as their base. Flip the script, and Belichick will answer a run-heavy foe with beefy fronts that load the box.
A star one week for the Patriots defense is likely to spend the next watching from the sidelines if the new matchup doesn't favor him.
Belichick's defense isn't a system. It's a shape-shifting chameleon designed to eliminate a different threat each week. The Redskins could do the same.
For instance, as good as Knighton is, does he even need to see the field that often against the New York Giants in Week 12? Why employ a premier run-stuffer against the league's 26th-ranked rushing attack?
Instead, against quarterback Eli Manning and pass-catching running backs as prolific as Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen, Barry needs flexible pass-rushers like Ryan Kerrigan and rookie Preston Smith to pressure the pocket and peel off in coverage.
Slowing down a deeper-than-you-think receiving corps led by Odell Beckham Jr. demands playing nickel as the base defense. Making life uncomfortable for Manning means taking Beckham away, even if space is left for others. Barry has to trust the younger Manning will always look the Madden cover boy's way when it counts.
This is how a hybrid play-caller rolls. Game-plan defenses can be stingy giving up points even without premium talent. They also often deliver in pressure-packed games. Consider every one of Washington's games pressure-packed given the congested nature of the NFC East division race.
The best way to win those games is Barry skewing his preferred system, one he lacks the talent to make work, at least this year, for a defensive hall of mirrors that shifts focus each week.
Cobbling together a defense effective and miserly enough to improve Washington's 4-6 record demands more creative aggression from the man calling the plays. Until he has the players to make his grand design work, Barry must lean on a more fluid philosophy, starting against the Giants.
Statistics and player information via NFL.com unless otherwise stated.