By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005
On the face of it, Gregg Williams's aggressive defensive style would seem to be the perfect approach to defending against Dallas Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Williams attacks from all angles, favoring dizzying combinations of man and zone blitzes, while Bledsoe is an immobile pocket passer who tends to hold onto the ball until the last second before releasing, a quirk that often results in big plays downfield or momentum-crushing sacks.
"He's my kind of quarterback," said Redskins strong-side linebacker Marcus Washington. "He doesn't move a lot, so you know where he's going to be. It's like military strategy. If we know where you are, we can come and get you."
But in a snowy practice yesterday, it remained unclear just how many defensive weapons Williams will have and what the condition is of the ones who will play Sunday. A day after leaving practice early, linebacker LaVar Arrington did not practice yesterday, and had no comment on his status. Cornerback Shawn Springs was indoors, riding an exercise bicycle, "getting ready for Sunday and the Cowboys," he said. Defensive end Renaldo Wynn did not practice, smiling cryptically when it ended.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss my status. I'm on lockdown, gagged," he said. "But you can bet I'll be there Sunday."
Backup cornerback Walt Harris was outside in the snow as teammates practiced, but without pads.
The result is an intriguing reunion between Bledsoe and Williams, who were quarterback and head coach in Buffalo during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Washington, Wynn and other members of the Redskins defense relish the opportunity to go after Bledsoe, and Williams must decide whether, as short-handed as it appears he will be, to apply the high-risk pressure that is his trademark.
"I will never discuss our game plan," Williams said. "Anyone who wants to see our game plan should come to the game."
Bledsoe, meanwhile, will have ample opportunity to attack the corners of the Redskins defense either underneath with tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, or downfield with deep-threat receiver Terry Glenn. It was in the first meeting between the two teams, on Sept. 19, that Glenn burned Springs and Sean Taylor on a 70-yard flea flicker. Williams has a healthy respect for Bledsoe's ability to find deep man matchups and exploit the cornerback.
"They were able to capitalize on a couple of one-on-one situations and Drew is as good as anybody in the National Football League at making those kind of tight throws," Williams said. "He was very effective."
Bledsoe is hot. He was named NFC player of the week after throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday's 31-28 win over Kansas City. Still, he was sacked four times.
"You have to pressure him," Springs said. "The more time you give him, the better he is. If you let him sit back there, he'll hurt you."
In their first meeting, a 14-13 Redskins win, the Cowboys scored only three points in the fourth quarter, an apparent indicator that Williams's defense held Bledsoe in check. But the statistics in that game did not paint a clear picture. At the half, the Cowboys had scored only three points. Bledsoe was 4 for 12 in a desperate fourth quarter, but 5 for 7 in the third quarter, when the Cowboys scored a touchdown.
Although the Redskins did not sack Bledsoe, he has been sacked four times in five games this season, and only three quarterbacks -- Houston's David Carr, New Orleans' Aaron Brooks and Oakland's Kerry Collins -- have been sacked as much or more than the 32 times Bledsoe has hit the turf.
"He's mobile enough to avoid some things," Williams said. "Is he going to pull the ball down and be a Michael Vick? No, he's not going to do that. But he's mobile enough in the pocket to buy an extra second or an extra clearance to take the ball down the field and he did very well last week on that because the Kansas City Chiefs put enough heat on him that he had to be."
Bledsoe was not intercepted in the September game. He hit Glenn for two big passes -- a 70-yard touchdown and a 43-yarder that led to the field goal that gave Dallas a 13-0 lead. He completed 21 of 36 passes for 261 yards.
Moreover, the Cowboys seemed to move the ball throughout the game. Dallas only had three series in which it punted after three downs, and Bledsoe had a 90.2 passer rating. When the Redskins did appear to slow the Cowboys down, Washington noted, it tended to be a combination of defensive pressure and cautious play-calling by Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells. Once Dallas had taken a 13-0 lead, the Cowboys stopped attacking downfield.
"I think he handled himself pretty well against us," Washington said of Bledsoe. "I think with us, Coach Parcells knows we're capable of turning a game with our defense and so he was a little more conservative with us than he would have been against another defense."
The Redskins defense has been more active of late than it was in the last game with the Cowboys, forcing at least two turnovers in each of the last three games. Defensive end Phillip Daniels believes the reason the Redskins have made more defensive plays recently is because opposing teams have abandoned passing plays in which protecting the quarterback was a priority. Earlier in the season, opposing offenses sent only one or two receivers on passing routes, leaving more blockers to defend against the blitz. Over the past few weeks, Daniels said, offenses have sent more receivers out, leaving themselves more vulnerable to quarterback sacks.
But another reason is the return of defensive lineman Cornelius Griffin, who has played the last three games after missing the previous three. "I've said it before," Williams said. "I'm a much better coach with Cornelius Griffin on the field."
But Wynn recalled the first meeting with Dallas and was frustrated by what he saw. He believes the Cowboys will return to the maximum-protection scheme and force the Redskins corners to make individual plays off the blitz. Williams knows that this approach will put pressure on reserves such as Ade Jimoh and Harris, who will likely play extensively.
"They max-protected against us all game," Wynn said. "That is going to be the challenge for our pass rush because I expect that they'll do it again, especially if they think they can get something downfield. You have to reach the quarterback with pressure. You have to make sure he's uncomfortable."