By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006
Either because of his own curiosity as a defensive coach or because for so much of this season it has been the central trouble spot for his defense, Gregg Williams has been forced to focus on the center of the football field.
Williams, the Washington Redskins' assistant head coach-defense, isn't exactly sure of it, but he believes the high number of big plays executed in the middle of the field, between the linebackers and safeties, may represent an important but disturbing trend: After years of confused quarterbacks being forced into mistakes, offenses may have caught up to and figured out vulnerabilities in the cover-2 zone defense, and its Tampa-2 variation, made popular by Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
The result is that Williams is faced with potentially reinventing portions of his defense, since a good deal of his philosophy relies on aspects of the cover-2 and Tampa-2 defenses.
In the offseason, Williams said, he will study defenses around the league to try to determine if offenses have indeed found the trick to beating the cover-2, a zone defense designed to take away deep passes by having the safeties split the deep part of the field.
"Those are things we're going to have to address," Williams said. "That will be one of our projects in the offseason."
It may well be one reason why Williams's defense has struggled. Washington is 30th in giving up pass plays of 20 yards or more, and 29th in giving up pass plays of 40 yards or more.
The idea of the cover-2 is to force the quarterback to settle for short-yardage passes in the hopes of goading him into mistakes. Should a quarterback want to throw down the sidelines, he would have to contend with a cornerback who is covering the short zone, and the safeties, who are deep. Traditionally, throwing to the sidelines against the cover-2 is too risky.
Correcting Tampa-2 and cover-2 vulnerabilities are especially important to a Williams-style defense, for he asks more of his defensive backs in run support than most defensive coaches. The Redskins' safeties are vulnerable because Williams demands that safeties and cornerbacks tackle. In turn, offenses have attempted to draw in the safeties with play-action fakes. Once the safety takes a few steps in to help with the run, the quarterback throws deep down the middle into the exposed area.
One remedy is for the defensive backs -- in five- and six-defensive back formations -- to jam the receiver and slow his progress downfield, giving the middle linebacker time to cover the slot (inside) receiver.
"You need to work with other defenders as far as getting jams. That makes a big difference," middle linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "If you're going to let someone just run free, that's going to make it difficult for the Mike [middle linebacker] and the safety. Everybody has to work together. If you get that jam at the line, it takes a lot more pressure off of the Mike. But you need to find ways to close that middle."
But, as defenses have found out this year, the one vulnerability in the cover-2 is the deep middle, where the safeties are asked to cover a great deal of ground. The middle is especially vulnerable in the Tampa-2 variation because it asks the "Mike backer" to line up against and cover a slot receiver on deep routes.
"There was a time when cover-2 was your safety net," Redskins safety Vernon Fox said. "You knew where the weakness of the defense was, but because of the innovativeness of the defense with a linebacker covering the middle of the field, it was difficult for teams to find that opening. Right now, it looks like teams are able to find those gaps."
The center of the field has been where the Redskins have given up some of their biggest plays, plays Williams would care to forget. Twice in a 36-22 loss Oct. 22 at Indianapolis, tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Reggie Wayne beat the Redskins in the middle for big gains. Wayne's was a backbreaking, 51-yard touchdown pass.
In Week 3 at Houston, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson lined up in the slot and caught a 53-yard pass that set up a touchdown.
In the Redskins' 22-19 win Nov. 5 against Dallas, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten caught a 28-yard pass in the seam that set up a possible game-winning field goal. The kick was blocked, and the Redskins went on to win in bizarre fashion.
For much of the season, the Redskins were first in the league in big plays allowed, but in recent weeks, Williams said, he has noticed that the Redskins are not the only ones vulnerable in the middle of the field, leading him to wonder if offenses may have found a new move. Middle linebacker Khary Campbell watches a fair amount of game film and sees the same thing. In studying game film of the St. Louis Rams for this Sunday's game, he noticed the Rams attempting to exploit Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher in coverage.
"That middle is now the spot they're looking for," Campbell said. "You have to be able to disguise it a little more and jam receivers better. Otherwise, that is the big hole."