By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006
Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell knows what's coming. He saw it in his first game against Tampa Bay when the Buccaneers blitzed effectively in the Redskins' 20-17 loss. The Carolina Panthers tested Campbell with the blitz the following week and paid the price when Campbell faced down a heavy pass rush and hit tight end Chris Cooley for a 66-yard touchdown pass that wound up being the difference in a 17-13 Washington win.
The pressure brought by the Atlanta Falcons in last Sunday's 24-14 defeat of the Redskins seemed to affect Campbell and the Redskins' pass-protection scheme.
After three games as the Redskins' starting quarterback, Campbell knows the Philadelphia Eagles and blitz-heavy defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will come after him again on Sunday.
"He's a guy that brings a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Campbell said of Johnson. "He has great athletes that make a lot of plays over there and play his defense well. It will be a tough challenge. As a young quarterback, I just have to go out and manage the game as well as I can."
Said Redskins safety Troy Vincent, who played for Johnson in Philadelphia: "It's all pressure. He doesn't hide it. . . . Obviously, Jim applies pressure from every angle: up the middle, safety pressure, corner pressure."
How Campbell deals with the blitz for the remainder of the season will be the first major test in the next stage of his development. Campbell's coaches know what he can do. They've seen Campbell, at 6 feet 4, 228 pounds, escape Tampa Bay's pressure and make plays. They've seen him run for first downs when pressured. They've seen him use his strong arm to hit Cooley against Carolina and wide receiver Santana Moss for a 42-yard touchdown Sunday against the Falcons.
Coach Joe Gibbs said Wednesday that reading and reacting to the blitz is the hardest thing a young quarterback must confront, both because of the speed of the game and because of the nature of defensive coaches who exploit weaknesses.
"Today in football, the hardest thing and the biggest change has been for quarterbacks and what to do under pressure. If you get good protection, everyone will look pretty good," Gibbs said. "Teams up here are going to force the issue. It used to be 12 or 13 years ago that when you blitzed it was man coverage. In man coverage, you know what to do and where to go with the ball."
Today's defenses, Gibbs continued, are much more creative and can disguise the fact that they are in zone coverage. It is difficult, Gibbs said, for a young quarterback to learn this in practice.
"The single biggest change is if you are in practice, the tempo is a whole step up in the game. It is going much faster. There is nothing like game conditions to get a guy ready," Gibbs said. "That comes with experience. The guys that are good at it make it look easy because it is almost like it slows down for them. You have to get to that point where you know where you are going with everything and you have a feel for it. I think that Jason has that feel in the pocket."
In Campbell's first start against Tampa Bay, the Redskins' offensive game plan was aggressive but conservative. The coaches called long pass plays, but usually sent out only two or sometimes three receivers. Carolina was not as aggressive as Tampa Bay, and Campbell made the Panthers pay. The Falcons appeared to design their blitzes especially for third downs.
"Jason is very bright. It is just a matter of experience with him and letting him see all of that. Most of the quarterbacks that wind up being great in the league it took a little bit," Gibbs said. "Jason has had some tough teams to go up against and this one is one of them. I am hoping that his learning curve each week picks up."
The Redskins' play-calling against Atlanta did not help Campbell much. Despite rushing for 177 yards as a team, the Redskins passed on 13 of 14 third-down plays, passing 13 consecutive times until running back Ladell Betts was stopped for a two-yard loss with 51 seconds left in the game. Down and distance, usually the chief barometer for play calls, did not matter. Of the 13 consecutive third-down passes, seven came with the Redskins facing third and five or less -- in a game when the team averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
That level of predictability created problems for Campbell. In addition to trying to bring down Campbell, the blitzing Falcons -- safety Lawyer Milloy in particular -- seemed determined to get into his passing lanes and jump at him as he threw the ball. In the secondary, Atlanta did not blitz and rely on man coverage. On Campbell's second interception, when Atlanta linebacker Demorrio Williams blitzed the right side and Betts went left, leaving Campbell vulnerable, Falcons safety Chris Crocker stood in zone coverage and waited in the end zone for Campbell's errant pass.
"The game has progressed that way. It is much more aggressive and much more gap control and go. It is not sit and read," Gibbs said. "There are some teams still doing it well. Dallas is an example. Almost everyone up here is going to come at times. Philadelphia has been tough on us. We have had a tough time offensively against them. They have a good scheme, are well coached and are very aggressive as far as how they play."