By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Not long after the Detroit Lions set an NFL record with 34 f ourth-quarter points last Sunday to stun the reigning NFC champion Chicago Bears, Lions quarterback Jon Kitna proclaimed that Detroit's burgeoning offensive juggernaut was based on passing the ball, consequences be damned.
"The reality of the fact is we are a pass-first offense," Kitna said after the 37-27 Detroit victory. "Point-blank, it's who we are. It's what we do best is throw the football. It's what I do best is come out and put the pressure on the defense of having to defend us in the passing game."
That statement quickly made the rounds at the Washington Redskins' training facility in Ashburn as the Redskins prepared to play the Lions and their multiple-receiver formations at FedEx Field today. The Lions, who lead the NFL with 313 passing yards per game, will test Washington's rebuilt secondary, which ranked last in yards allowed per pass in 2006. And a trio of other top passing clubs await the Redskins in the following three weeks -- Green Bay, Arizona and New England.
The Redskins' ability to nullify, or at least mitigate, those air attacks could have much do to with how the first half of the season unfolds, and whether they can surpass last year's 5-11 record. The Redskins' next four opponents are equipped to expose pass-defense weaknesses. They have bold offensive schemes that often deploy five receivers at a time and have coaches willing to run the shotgun offense and throw the ball regardless of the down and distance.
"We're going to attack and make the defense have to defend every inch of that 53-yard-wide and 100-yards-long field," Kitna said.
Green Bay and New England are led by two of the top quarterbacks in the NFL -- Brett Favre and Tom Brady. And each of Washington's upcoming opponents has at least one dominant wide receiver and, in most cases, several outstanding wideouts with height, skill and speed. Detroit has Roy Williams (6 feet 3, 211 pounds) and Calvin Johnson (6-5, 239).
The measure of Washington's offseason attempt to buttress its secondary with free agent cornerbacks Fred Smoot and David Macklin and rookie safety LaRon Landry will be taken by the end of October.
"Teams that throw the ball, we welcome that," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "We look forward to the challenge. That's why you play the game; it's not really fun for us if you run the ball 40 times and pass 10 times as far as the secondary is concerned. That's why we added [defensive backs] in the offseason. More teams are now going to more spread offenses, and you've got to have the right situational guys to cover the field."
Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense, is keenly aware of the talents of Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who led the St. Louis Rams offense that bested the Williams-coached defense of the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl following the 1999 season. In meetings this week, Williams explained how unconventional Martz is, players said, and how he is willing to sacrifice sacks, turnovers and, for much of the game, running the ball in the name of a quick-strike approach.
The subtle interplay of adjustments between Martz and Williams creates a compelling subplot to today's game.
"We understand their offense," Williams said. "The big thing is, do you have the players to be able to stop them in the matchups? It's going to come down to some critical-play matchups. Is our athlete as good as their athlete? Can we get two athletes on their one athlete at times? All that type of stuff. Hopefully our guys understand our plan well enough that we'll have a chance."
Deploying four and five wide receivers with regularity, as do the Lions and the Redskins' subsequent three opponents, leaves fewer tight ends and backs in the backfield to help protect the quarterback. The offense is predicated on the quarterback taking three- and five-step drops and quickly delivering the ball. Tempo and timing carry the scheme. With little extra protection for the passer, the pass rush often comes down to four defensive linemen against five offensive linemen because the multiple-receiver sets force linebackers into pass coverage duties or off the field in exchange for extra defensive backs.
If the Redskins' line is unable to pressure Kitna, Brady and Favre, then trouble looms for Washington.
"When they spread it, our chances go way up," Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "If they send three, four, five guys out, then the emphasis is on us to get the quarterback and make something happen."
Washington's pass rush has suffered in recent years, and Williams is using more four-man rushes this season to try to improve it. The Lions have allowed 22 sacks already, and 15 over the last two games.
"We could max-protect everything and just hope that two guys win on a route," Kitna said during a conference call with reporters. "But I've done that before and you get hit in that, too, because they just drop coverage. I don't mind it at all."
While the defensive line is trying to get to Kitna, the corners, safeties and linebackers in pass coverage must establish a physical dominance off the snap. Disrupting the timing of pass routes was a primary emphasis in Washington's practice last week. The Redskins, with just one defensive back taller than 6 feet, will give up height to receivers such as Detroit's Williams and Johnson or New England's Randy Moss (6-4, 210) or Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (6-3, 226). Bottling them up at the line of scrimmage and preventing them from getting into their routes can disrupt a passing play, though it can be risky.
"Look at the New England Patriots when they won the Super Bowl [after the '01 season] and played the Rams" when Martz was their head coach, Redskins cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray said. "They were really physical. They wouldn't let them get off the jam and did a lot of good stuff. And you've got to figure out what works for you and adjust your game plan if that fits for us. But you can't just let them dink and dunk down the field."
The Redskins have played a lot of cover-3 zone defense this season, with the two cornerbacks dropped back from the line of scrimmage. But with the coaches demanding the elimination of the big play above all else in practice, players expect to play a cover-2 zone defense more frequently today, with two deep safeties. The Redskins also worked on shifting to man-to-man coverage.
"You have to mix up your coverage, your disguises and things like that," said middle linebacker London Fletcher, who won a Super Bowl with Martz in St. Louis and has flourished in Williams's system as well. "However you approach it, you have to try to throw off their rhythm, and hopefully you can get some pressure with your four-man rush."
Williams has been less likely to call for cover-0 (an all-out blitz with no safety protection) this season and it's particularly risky against a dynamic offense like Detroit's. Players doubt it will be called much today.
"We'll have to pick our chances and pick our times," Williams said.
The tactic has been particularly dangerous against Detroit. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kitna has a passer rating above 100 even against the blitz.
The Redskins say their objective is to force the Lions to drive methodically rather than score points in bunches. The odds of Detroit allowing a turnover have risen dramatically on drives of more than seven plays this season -- another number that was noted during Washington's preparations last week. The Redskins' defensive backs have combined for just six interceptions since the start of the 2006 season (safety Sean Taylor is the only one with more than one in that span). As a team they ranked last in sacks per pass play and interceptions per pass play last year, and remain in the bottom third of the NFL again this season.
"We've got some tough teams we're going to have to cover, some good receivers," cornerback Shawn Springs said. "Those teams are not going to stop doing what they want to do. They're going to put the ball up and they're going to throw it around."