For Foes, a Redskins Flaw Exposed
Sunday, November 5, 2006
Two quarters into his first game as a Washington Redskin, safety Troy Vincent is optimistic. His new team leads the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts, 14-13, and he sees an even more encouraging sign: Despite a penchant for giving up big plays this season, the Redskins have surrendered just one long pass to Peyton Manning, the most dangerous quarterback in the league.
In the locker room at halftime, Vincent tells his fellow defensive backs that they can steal this game. If they can just keep the pressure on and not allow big passing plays in the second half, they can beat the heavily favored Colts on their home field.
But with 8 minutes 18 seconds remaining in the third quarter, any hope of victory disappears. Manning, tight end Dallas Clark and running back Joseph Addai line up at midfield. Clark runs a pass pattern up the middle of the field, past Redskins linebacker Khary Campbell. Safety Adam Archuleta notices and takes a fatal step in to help cover Clark. Manning catches Archuleta cheating and throws deep to the spot he has just vacated to an open Reggie Wayne running a post corner, the exact route that all season long has been open against the Redskins defense when the safety is caught too shallow.
The 51-yard touchdown play devastates Washington. By taking that single step inward toward Clark, Archuleta has sacrificed the battle to try to win the war -- and lost on both fronts. The Colts lead, 27-14, and the game is gone.
For days afterward, Redskins safeties coach Steve Jackson was sick about the play. "I can't talk about that play," Jackson said. Although he was unwilling to talk about the particulars of that play, he offered his basic philosophy on playing the position: "All I can say is that when you play safety, you play deep to short. Deep to short. Nothing over your head."
In the days between the Indianapolis loss and today's NFC East matchup with the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field, the Redskins coaching staff painstakingly reviewed tape from the team's first seven games. In all, they dissected 79 series and 436 total plays from scrimmage over seven games.
What assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams and his staff found is disturbing to them. A season-long problem has not gone away: opposing offenses are relentlessly attacking the middle seams of Washington's two primary-zone pass defenses. More than half of the big pass plays the Redskins have surrendered have been to the same fertile patch between the hash marks downfield, between the safeties and cornerbacks. Teams use the same trigger -- usually a play-action fake -- to the same receivers, either a tight end or slot receiver. The receiver runs a post corner, cutting into the seam of the zone, while the tight end streaks down the middle of the field.
Offenses are using the Redskins' aggressiveness -- that of Archuleta especially -- against them by employing the play-action fakes, according to multiple league sources that study Washington's defensive tendencies. Known throughout the league as a feared hitter, offenses also have found success attacking safety Sean Taylor -- not in the running game, where he is a force, but increasingly by testing his pass-coverage skills.
Sources inside and outside the Redskins organization say these vulnerabilities have been apparent since the preseason. Yet, neither the Redskins players nor coaches have been able to do anything about it.
The coaches say stopping this play should not be difficult. Both the Cover-2 zone (the two safeties split the deep part of the field, providing cover to the two cornerbacks to discourage long passes) and the 3-2-6 zone (a formation that uses three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs) are common among NFL defenses. In recent years the Redskins have used both better than most.
But getting them to work this season has proven complicated. Williams and his staff say they have explained what needs to be done, showed it to the players on film and, week after week, been satisfied by the adjustments in practice. "You have to practice it Wednesday. You have to practice it Thursday and Friday," cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray said. "And hopefully it sinks in to where Sunday, you say the stuff that I've seen on film and practice will come back to me."
So far this season, the results on Sundays have disappointed. Being attacked weekly in the same location is vexing a coaching staff that believes it has taught all it can teach. It is forcing Washington's coaches to come to another conclusion: Perhaps they do not have as talented a defensive secondary as they once thought.