By Mike Wise
Monday, October 8, 2007
Viewers at home saw an in-game split-screen displayed with about eight minutes left; Gregg Williams framed in one square, Mike Martz in the other. Two of the premier coordinators of the past decade, sullen and serious, playing chess on opposite sidelines.
After Demetric Evans threw Jon Kitna to the ground and Sean Taylor intercepted the quarterback who came in with the most passing yards in the NFL, Martz looked as pained as Kitna. The mastermind of the Detroit offense -- the brash assistant who receives more TV cut-away shots than Lions head coach Rod Marinelli -- had been trumped by an equally cocksure and talented innovator on the other side.
Score it: Recovering Defensive Genius 34, Egocentric Offensive Wizard 3.
Of all the tests before Williams the past three-plus years, the Lions represented maybe the biggest. Never mind the numbers; Detroit didn't roll into FedEx Field as the most potent or dangerous offense the Redskins' defensive boss had seen.
But Martz has played mind games with so many, daring defensive coordinators to bring the house with a blitz and take his quarterback down before the yards and touchdowns pile up. In a maximum-protection league, Martz is more "mini-pro." No one stays back to block. Everybody and their mom goes out for a pass.
Williams, whom former Redskins tight end Rick "Doc" Walker affectionately refers to as "the Animal Trainer," has the kind of Type A, aggressive personality that would play right into Martz's hands. Martz is a guy who has had Williams's number. In their most high-stakes showdown, the 2001 Super Bowl between the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams, Martz's Rams were better by a foot.
Two weeks ago, the Giants threw and ran on Washington's fatigued defense in the second half -- a collapse that included the return of the big play Williams had worked so hard to eliminate in the offseason through acquisitions such as London Fletcher and the development of young linemen. His reputation slipped as much as Joe Gibbs's last season. He needed to find a way to stop a club that had scored an NFL-record 34 points on Chicago in the fourth quarter, 20 of them from the offense.
So what did Williams do yesterday? He remembered the film on the Lions, swallowed his stubborn pride and all but abandoned the blitz. He could not remember that ever happening in Washington.
"All last year and this year, there is nobody in the National Football League that gets more maximum protections than us," Williams said afterward. "Because they say, 'There goes Williams, blitzing again.' This week we didn't get it."
The Animal Trainer stopped salivating and adjusted. He took what Martz gave him. They relied on their front four to pressure Kitna, who was dropped like a rag doll five times and had to run for his hide many more, and often dropped extra defenders into coverage.
"Those safeties were 30 yards deep," Lions wide receiver Roy Williams said. "You can't throw deep. They just sat back 25 to 30 yards deep and made you run."
This might have been the most complete performance by a Joe Gibbs-led team in almost three years.
Al Saunders took the wrapping off Jason Campbell, who was allowed to win a game instead of being entrusted not to lose it.
Chris Cooley, who caught six passes coming into the game, finally was an offensive weapon again instead of an extra blocker.
Even the special teams were tremendous. Derrick Frost is one of the league's underrated punters who hits these impossibly high, booming kicks that a return man has no choice but to fair catch. James Thrash filled in for an injured Antwaan Randle El in the second half and almost took a punt all the way back.
But Williams's defense set the tone. Staying back, letting his once-maligned line do the work, the Redskins flustered and panicked Kitna.
"That was the first offense we played that didn't disguise who they were," Evans said. "From watching film and everything else, they told us they were going to pass and just about dared us to stop it. If you're a defensive lineman, you can't help but take on a challenge like that."
Martz, who did not speak to the media after the game, basically said, "Come get us," and Williams waited before pouncing.
"It was a glaring stat for us to see that Jon Kitna's quarterback rating versus pressure defense was 102 going into this game," Williams said. "You just gotta take a look at what's the lesser of two evils.
"We tackled very well as a defense today, and we were able to pressure with our front four. I wish I could tell you there was a [heck] of a lot of smart things going on, but there wasn't."
It sounds humble, plain-spoken. But it took a lot of restraint to play that defense against the Lions and not fall into Martz's trap. It took composure not to try and simply one-up the other smart guy in the room.
"I think the most common thread between the two is they don't play scared," said Saunders, who's coached with both men. "There are a lot of coaches who play the percentages and do what's been successful. But Mike and Gregg are innovators. They want to push the game to the next frontier like Sid Gillman or Buddy Ryan at different times."
Whether genius applies to any football coach other than the late Bill Walsh is debatable. But in the Mensa world of the modern NFL yesterday, Williams came across as much more clever and creative than Martz, the man who scripted the Greatest Show on Turf.
The Redskins held one of the most productive quarterbacks this season to 106 yards passing and one completion more than 15 yards. They picked him off twice.
If Gregg Williams's defense is not yet back to the swarming, hellion crew it was in 2004 and 2005, it's certainly getting closer.