Two rivals, two games, two different seasons and two Monday nights. At the heart of them, one assistant coach baffled by the blitz.
In Week 8 last season, it was the Washington Redskins taking it to Bill Callahan's star-studded Dallas Cowboys' offensive line with the blitz. The Burgundy and Gold swarmed in for five sacks to key a 20-17 road win—their sole highlight in a dismal season.
Fast-forward to Week 13 of the 2015 NFL season and Callahan is now coaching against the Cowboys. Now he and another Monday Night Football audience got to see his old team beat up his new offensive line with the blitz, en route to a season-damaging 19-16 defeat for the Redskins.
Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli completely flummoxed Callahan with a bevy of blitzes, something warned against here. In the process, he targeted the inexperience along a young and injury-depleted Washington O-line.
Marinelli sent pressure right from the first snap. Linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks all came through untouched to attack quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Everything the Cowboys did was about bringing pressure. Everything like the myriad line stunts they ran to launch a laser-precise assault against the Washington front five's inexperienced right side.
The tactic worked a treat on the game's opening drive. End Demarcus Lawrence and tackle Tyrone Crawford ran two straight tackle-end games, with Crawford crashing outside and Lawrence wrapping around to bolt through the interior.
The idea was to confuse rookie Brandon Scherff and second-year tackle Morgan Moses. A big night followed for Lawrence, per Gil Brandt, a senior analyst for the league's official site:
ESPN's John Keim noted how those stunts consistently plagued Washington's offense in both phases all night:
But it was the blitz calls that really hurt. They hurt because Callahan's blockers had no answer for them. Not only that, but Cousins had few answers for what he was seeing pre-snap.
What he was seeing was an assortment of three- and four-man fronts with linebackers crowding the middle and defensive backs creeping on the edges.
Marinelli made particularly devastating use of a 3-2-6 dime package. On one of the first occasions he used it, the Cowboys attacked Cousins with a seven-man pressure that sent both inside linebackers, Sean Lee and Rolando McClain, through the middle. Safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox rushed behind them.
It was Wilcox who hit Cousins as he threw, forcing his long heave toward the ill-fated DeSean Jackson to flop incomplete.
The Cowboys were sending more blitzers than Washington had blockers. Mike Jones of the Washington Post detailed how this often resulted in free rushers getting in Cousins' face as he threw:
Marinelli consistently attacked the short-on-experience interior trio of rookie Scherff, little-used center Josh LeRibeus and second-year left guard Spencer Long.
Lee got a sack when he blitzed through the A-gap. As Jones pointed out, Long and Scherff weren't reacting to the looks and the pressure:
Another first-half blitz look involved Lee's fellow middle 'backer McClain and safety Church blitzing the right side, while Lee and end Greg Hardy bailed into underneath coverage.
The onus was on Washington's big-ticket coaching hire to solve the problem, according to CSNMid-Atlantic.com's Rich Tandler:
But Callahan never found the answers. Even as late as the final quarter, the Dallas blitz was still getting home.
On 2nd-and-8 during a pivotal drive in the fourth period, Lee came through the A-gap unblocked. His rush was superbly timed and forced Cousins to hurry a panicked throw to tight end Jordan Reed, a wobbly pass that fell to the ground.
It was McClain's turn on the next play. He came through an A-gap, and Cousins again failed to connect with his receiver. Dustin Hopkins missed his field-goal attempt to compound the woes.
Washington hadn't adjusted to the Cowboys' blitzing linebackers, as Jones pointed out:
The result of all the blitzing was just what Marinelli wanted. Namely, a stale Redskins offense, hindered by a particularly shaky performance from the man under center.
Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch noticed how Cousins lacked the composure that had defined his recent performances:
The fact is, Cousins' inexperience was just one of many things the Dallas blitz-happy game plan exploited.
Marinelli hoodwinked a QB who has made just 21 starts—a passer who'd never seen blitzing on this scale before. But No. 8 has to learn from it. He's got to get better at reading pressure and adjusting to it.
Speaking of learning, rookie running back Matt Jones needs to revisit his notes from the school of blocking. He missed a block on Lee that gave up a sack. He was too deep to keep McClain at bay in the fourth quarter.
Jones missed a blitzing 'backer against the New York Giants last week. Marinelli and his staff surely took notice.
Washington head coach Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay have three running backs. They have to find one who can block in passing situations. It's one more reason why fullback Darrel Young should be on the field more. He'd be the safest lone back by Cousins' side when defenses send pressure.
Yet, what would really help Cousins and his backs is Callahan teaching his linemen a few adjustments. In fairness to the respected coach, he's working with some rough pieces.
A-gap blitzes challenge a center to make quick and smart adjustments. LeRibeus, a natural guard with just eight career starts, is struggling to make them.
Similarly, Long, Scherff and Moses are too raw to instinctively and smoothly counter a varied stunt package. But the fact the Cowboys ran so many twists and games indicates they've seen a weakness on film—a coaching point showing the Redskins are oblivious or slow to react to stunts.
Callahan doesn't have all the talent he needs, and injuries certainly haven't helped, despite the progress he's made at times with this group. But if he's merely been papering over the cracks through 11 games, the Cowboys tore down the foundation this week.
No matter who he is working with, Callahan has to come up with better answers for the blitz. The remaining schedule is an ominous motivator.
Next up is a Chicago Bears defense Vic Fangio and John Fox run. They haven't been afraid to blitz this season due to their own lack of premium playmakers. Then it's Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills—owners of one of the more sophisticated pressure schemes in football.
If Callahan can't fix the protection issues, Washington will be out of the NFC East hunt by the time the rematch with the Cowboys takes place in the season's final week.
Dealing with pressure was an issue in Dallas on Callahan's watch. Now it's proving the same for the Redskins, who learned a painful lesson on Monday Night.
A young O-line, protecting an inexperienced quarterback and dealing with a bevy of blitzes is a recipe for disaster.
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