Cowboys' 3-4 Adds Up to a Challenge
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The last time the Washington Redskins faced a 3-4 defense, Coach Jim Zorn was less than pleased with the results. It was back in the preseason, and the game against the New York Jets seems pretty meaningless now. But Zorn ruminated over the implications of the game for several days, after quarterback Jason Campbell and the offensive line struggled to read New York's blitzes and adjust protections.
On Sunday, the Redskins face one of the NFL's premier 3-4 schemes, under far less hospitable conditions, with significantly more on the line.
Washington and Dallas will play the latest edition of one of the league's storied divisional grudge matches for the final time at Texas Stadium. There have been no lack of highlight-reel plays from these meetings, but for all of the theatrics, Redskins-Cowboys games usually come down to simple brutality at the line of scrimmage, and which team manages to harass the quarterback with greater frequency.
Washington's veteran blockers are familiar with the challenges Dallas's front seven present: the three down linemen and four linebackers are a collection of girth, size, speed and strength fitted into a versatile defensive scheme. The Redskins may be forced to change their starting right tackle, with veteran Jon Jansen in line to replace Stephon Heyer, who has a shoulder injury.
"There's a lot of variation in 3-4 teams, it's just inherent in the defense when you've got certain personnel," said Jansen, the longest-serving Redskin. "Their 3-4 is different than, say, Pittsburgh or New England, and it all comes down to personnel. What kind of linebackers do you have? What kind of defensive ends do you have? How stout of a nose tackle do you have? Because there's a lot you can do.
"New England's 3-4, a lot of times they don't even go with three down linemen, they use a lot of linebackers, and Dallas's 3-4 is very stout up front. They've got two guys outside who are pretty special [outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis], and obviously Ware is probably the better of the two. But you've got to account for basically five defensive linemen against Dallas at all times."
Linebacker Zach Thomas, the former Miami standout, is the smallest of the Dallas front seven at 5 feet 11, 228 pounds. The size of Ware (6-4, 252), Ellis (6-6, 265), and linemen Jay Ratliff (6-4, 298), Marcus Spears (6-4, 305) and Chris Canty (6-7, 299) rivals any defense in the NFL. In some sets the Cowboys use five defensive ends (their outside linebackers are essentially ends for the most part, anyway), and pose matchup problems.
For all of tailback Clinton Portis's courage and abandon in pass protection, the physical disparity between him and this group might mean he can't get enough of a chip block to derail the pass rusher. Tight ends are often forced to block more in the running and passing games to help neutralize Dallas's power at the line.
"It's kind of like a who's who of defensive players out there," said center Casey Rabach, who must adapt to having a nose tackle lined up against him all game, rather than offset to one side. "We'll definitely try to fan some protections and put our big guys on their big guys and keep them off the backs. Otherwise, it comes down to one-on-one matchups."
Zorn has been using more two-tight end sets in recent weeks, and Washington's recent effectiveness throwing out of the I-formation could be a vital tool in keeping the Cowboys' front off balance. Chris Cooley (6-3, 249) and Todd Yoder (6-4, 253) could be called on to block initially, then release into routes to serve as safety valves for Campbell.
"You know that you're going to have to, even in the run game, block out on a guy," Yoder said. "And in the pass game you'll be asked to stay in and block that guy. They're all good players over there. You look at them in person, and they're all just big, strong, big dudes. So you've just got to prepare for a physical battle."
Jansen said the fluidity of the 3-4 requires greater communication among the blockers, who need to make sure they identify how many ends and linebackers are on the field. Dallas can run lots of stunts and delayed blitzes to disguise its intentions and try to force Campbell into his first turnover of the season. Washington's plus-5 turnover margin is the best in the NFL, and the Redskins are the only club in the NFL without an offensive giveaway this season.
Ware is the key cog in the Dallas front group, and a player who can line up seemingly anywhere; given Jansen's woes in pass protection, Dallas could move Ware frequently to get him away from Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels.
"They try to move Ware around to get one-on-one matchups," said reserve guard Jason Fabini, a former Cowboy. "You don't know where he's going to be all the time."
Ware leads Dallas with three sacks through three games, and Dallas is tied for fourth in the NFL with 10 sacks. Ware has a sack in four straight games against Washington, and the Cowboys have registered 18 sacks in five meetings with the Redskins at Texas Stadium since 2003, when former coach Bill Parcells arrived and began to construct the Cowboys' defense.
"No doubt about it, Ware is the guy," Samuels said. "Last year, he beat me in both games for a sack. He's definitely the key player in their defense we have to watch. They move him around. I think he's the best player on that defense, and of course they're going to try to create mismatches and try to keep us unbalanced."
The Redskins have enjoyed little success running on Dallas -- Portis has averaged 3.9 yards per carry and 73 yards per game in seven career games against the Cowboys -- while the Dallas secondary is often spotty and susceptible to big plays.
Campbell's improving ability to alter the offense's pass protection scheme and read the defense will be tested, and allowing him time to get the ball downfield will require plenty of help from his friends along the offensive line.