Wrinkles Changed Playoff Complexion
Friday, December 28, 2007
When the defensive game plan was unveiled for last week's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins middle linebacker London Fletcher quickly noticed it was unlike any this season. Although he figured Washington's strategy would focus on the Vikings' NFL-best rushing attack, Fletcher did not expect the new wrinkles devised by Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense.
The aggressive, run-oriented scheme called for the juggling of personnel and sweeping substitutions throughout the game. Washington often would play with five linemen or four linebackers, leaving only three defensive backs in pass coverage. The plan was among the most ambitious that Fletcher, who also played under Williams while with the Buffalo Bills, had seen in 10 seasons in the NFL. And it proved to be one of the most effective, too.
Washington stuffed the Vikings' running game in a 32-21 victory on Sunday night at the Metrodome, limiting Minnesota to only 70 total yards in the first half in taking a commanding 22-0 halftime lead. The defense did its job as part of the team's most complete performance of the season in a game that the Redskins (8-7) had to win to keep their NFC playoff hopes alive. With a victory over the Dallas Cowboys (13-2) on Sunday at FedEx Field, the Redskins would qualify for the postseason for the first time since the 2005 season. Williams's work against the Vikings inspired more confidence in the defensive players, who are eager to see what he comes up with next.
"As far as all the time I've been with Gregg, that [game plan] may have been the best one ever," Fletcher said yesterday at Redskins Park. "Gregg and the staff . . . they just did a great job with the way we approached them."
Led by an offensive line that excels at run blocking and the formidable 1-2 punch of running backs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the Vikings average a league-leading 164.1 rushing yards per game. Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, however, only has a 68.6 passer rating, and Williams gambled that Jackson could not exploit his three-man secondary.
"Being with Gregg over the years, I know he's got at least 12, 13 different personnel groups he can use, so what he did didn't surprise me," defensive lineman Phillip Daniels said. "I knew he would pull out his best against Adrian Peterson to get him stopped."
In developing his scheme for the Vikings, Williams relied on many of the aggressive principles he learned from his mentor, Buddy Ryan, the kind that are rarely practiced throughout an entire NFL game these days. And fortunately for the Redskins, the Vikings "cooperated on what they played," Williams said. "They played the packages that allowed us to play a couple of new packages. . . . I thought our defensive line and our linebackers and our safeties did a really good job on not giving [them] a chance to get their running game started. We didn't allow the space they wanted to have those great backs cut back on us, be able to juke us in the open field. We made the young quarterback have to beat us."
The Redskins limited the Vikings to only 87 yards on 25 carries (a 3.5-yard average). Peterson had nine carries for 27 yards (a 3.0-yard average) and Taylor rushed six times for 14 yards (a 2.3-yard average). Peterson leads the league with an average of 100.4 yards rushing per game. His 5.7 yards per carry ranks first among players with at least 100 carries.
Jackson, 24, completed 7 of 11 passes for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the first half, when the Redskins took control of the game. He had a 63.1 passer rating overall.
"All of our defense was focused on stopping the run," defensive back Leigh Torrence said. "Whatever we needed to put in, whether it was more linebackers, whatever, to stop the run, well, then that's what we did. I don't know what they were thinking, but I know what we were thinking: We needed to get [Nos.] 28 [Peterson] and 29 [Taylor] down in that backfield."
Torrence, in his second season, is among a group of first- or second-year players who are making major contributions in the Redskins' playoff push. Defensive linemen Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery, versatile lineman Lorenzo Alexander, linebacker H.B. Blades, safeties Reed Doughty and LaRon Landry and pass-rush specialist Chris Wilson also had prominent roles in Williams's scheme.
"Coach definitely thought outside the box last week, as far just trying to do something new that they hadn't seen yet," Golston said. "There were a lot of different players in the huddle that weren't normally in there at the same time."
Williams has given many inexperienced players opportunities this season in an attempt to compensate for the loss of first-unit performers, and "he's done a great job of getting guys on the field in the right situations," Torrence said. "If that means we're going to bring in guys on first down and then have a whole new group on second down, that's what we're doing. I've definitely been excited about Coach's willingness to mix things up."
Of course, having more players involved increases the chances for miscommunication and blown assignments. Williams dedicated much of his time in practice last week to coordinating every unit's placement in the scheme.
"We got in our gaps up front and the linebackers filled in behind us in the other gaps," Daniels said. "We knew where they're going to be and they know where we're going to be. That's the key."
It is unclear what the Redskins will face against Dallas. The Cowboys have clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and are expected to rest many of their regulars. Pro Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens -- who scored four touchdowns in the Cowboys' 28-23 victory over the Redskins on Nov. 18 -- will be inactive because of a left ankle injury.
"We've got to be able to prepare for what they're going to do offensively," Williams said. Dallas offensive coordinator "Jason Garrett has an offensive system. You've got to be able to handle the play structure, the concept structure, the packages that come in there. And what we have to do is, we have to concentrate on us.
"No matter who they place out there, they're an outstanding football team. They've got more Pro Bowlers than anybody in the National Football League. They can't sit 'em all down. Somebody's got to dress out and play."