By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006
Of the 61 offensive plays the Washington Redskins ran against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, one run most vividly captured what the team wants to be, and what it will take to get there. Trailing 6-3 late in the third quarter, the Redskins executed one of the linemen's favorite calls -- 80 Crease -- to perfection.
On second and eight from the Carolina 24, tailback T.J. Duckett rumbled 19 yards to set up Washington's first touchdown in its 17-13 victory. The play displayed two facets of the running game the team is reemphasizing -- relying on more zone blocking and felling defenders with cut blocks -- and allowed the linemen and tight ends to outmuscle the Carolina defense.
"That play typifies everything for us," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "You put a hat on everybody, and it's a hustle-type play."
After talking about the need to pound the ball on the ground and return to their 2005 style of play on offense, the Redskins rushed 37 times for 143 yards against Carolina. And the Redskins played with a nasty edge -- left guard Derrick Dockery in particular repeatedly left his feet to dive at the lower bodies of defensive linemen with potentially dangerous cut blocks.
"We had chips on our shoulders," right guard Randy Thomas said. "We had some things we needed to do, going back to playing the type of ball we've been playing since I've been here."
The linemen met as a unit following the 20-17 loss at Tampa Bay Nov. 19, agreeing they were not being physical enough, and lobbied the coaches for more plays like 80 Crease, a wide-zone stretch play employed by many teams that allows them to attack the defense. Virtually every lineman on the team said he hopes the zone blocking scheme, including cut blocks, will be a staple for the rest of the season. A year ago, a reliance on the run game -- then it was more outside pulling plays -- carried the Redskins to the playoffs with five straight wins after a 5-6 start, and although few would give the Redskins (4-7) much hope to make the playoffs, there is at least a glimmer.
"The offensive line, they ask for those zone runs," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "It's something we talk about constantly. All our guys love to do it."
A deeper look at the seven-second span last Sunday revealed why the 80 Crease is a favorite. The Redskins were in a jumbo package in an I formation, stationing reserve offensive lineman Mike Pucillo as an eligible receiver at the right end of the line, and with tight ends Chris Cooley and Todd Yoder (filling in for briefly injured fullback Mike Sellers) and Duckett in the backfield. James Thrash, the lone receiver, was wide to the left.
All the keys pointed to a run play, and the Panthers reacted with essentially a 5-5-1 defense, with four linemen and a linebacker at the line of scrimmage, two linebackers and two defensive backs five yards off the line and strong safety Shaun Williams, the eventual tackler, deep in the secondary. Cooley went in motion outside left tackle Chris Samuels, and off the snap the entire line, save for Dockery, shifted to the right; in zone blocking, linemen are not responsible for a man, but rather an area, and when they slide laterally, in unison, gaps open.
"It's everybody kind of moving in the same direction, and everybody kind of steamrolling together," center Casey Rabach said.
While the other linemen shifted to the right, Dockery dropped to the ground and upended 6-foot-4, 340-pound right tackle Kris Jenkins with a cut block. Dockery had been cutting Jenkins all day -- the Redskins are likely to use a similar tactic on Atlanta's Grady Jackson -- and while it can cause significant injury to a defender, it is legal as long as it is not from behind and the offensive lineman does not roll up on the defender's legs. Players as large as Jenkins and Jackson get fatigued from having to constantly get up and down, and getting cut repeatedly causes mental exhaustion as well.
"Once you cut a lineman, now he's thinking about it," said 20-year offensive lineman Ray Brown, a consultant with the Redskins. "Once you cut them a couple of times, it really slows them up, and Dock had some amazing cuts Sunday."
"I never used to believe in the cut, but I think it's almost necessary now," Bugel said. "But when you play against those big guys, and we've got a 400-pounder this week [Jackson], you've got to get under the pads and cut them."
Jenkins was effectively eliminated from the play, and Samuels was able to race all the way from left tackle to right tackle unimpeded in the gap created by Jenkins's fall, eliminating left outside linebacker Na'il Diggs. The key to zone blocking is allowing the linemen to get to downfield after sliding to one side, and Rabach was four yards off the line when he plowed into middle linebacker Chris Draft, eventually pushing him back well behind the original line of scrimmage.
"Casey and Chris had deep linebackers they had to cut off, and they did a great job of hustling over there to get 'em," Bugel said. "That's a rare thing in the NFL because a lot of those fat guys can't run that far and that fast."
Right tackle Jon Jansen, after sliding right, cut off star end Julius Peppers, stood him up, and forced him to the left, one of many plays in which Jansen won that individual battle. "I keep hearing that I'm washed up," Jansen said, "but that was a matchup I've been looking forward to all year." Thomas was adjacent to Jansen, doing the exact same thing to massive tackle Maake Kemoeatu. Pucillo had kicked outside linebacker Thomas Davis well to the right and when Yoder came out of the backfield as a lead blocker he darted to Pucillo's right, and sent left cornerback Chris Gamble toward the right sideline.
There was now a huge gap around the right offensive tackle position -- where 80 Crease is designed to press -- between where Thomas/Jansen and Pucillo/Yoder were doing their jobs, and Duckett, who thrived in a zone-blocking scheme in Atlanta, did his part. He charged to his right along with his linemen off the snap, then cut back hard to his left, bursting inside through the gap then heading toward the right sideline, dragging Williams for several yards before finally going down.
"When you design that particular play and get that type of blocking action up front, there is no doubt that play Sunday was as pretty as it gets," Byner said. "The only thing that would have been prettier is if T.J. gets in the end zone. If T.J. tries to cut that back too early, that hole is not there. You've got to have the patience to stretch it out and let it come to you, and that's exactly what happened."