After Failed Blitz, Secondary Education Is Needed
Leigh Torrence was the most obvious culprit, languishing at the end of a trying route, attempting to pry the ball away from St. Louis wide receiver Donnie Avery long after the rookie was down, having just outleaped Torrence for the prize.
The Redskins were about to lose to a previously winless opponent, as Avery's 43-yard reception put the Rams within range for a game-winning kick in the final minute of regulation yesterday, silencing 90,376 fans at FedEx Field and snapping Washington's four-game winning streak. The Redskins had just scored a touchdown to take the lead, seemingly overcoming a flurry of turnovers and mistakes; but this, the final breakdown of a sloppy outing, negated that.
All eyes were on Torrence (who left the locker room without speaking to reporters), his mistake impossible to miss, though in reality he was one of several defenders -- in particular, rookie safeties Kareem Moore and Chris Horton -- who did poorly on the sequence. Defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who called more blitzes Sunday than he had all season, had the team in a dime package (six defensive backs), wanting Moore and Horton to attack quarterback Marc Bulger on this third-and-13 play from the St. Louis 41. They never came close to reaching him, the one-time Pro Bowl passer had too much time to deliver the football and Avery had ample opportunity to slip free of Torrence long enough to haul it in.
"The bottom line in our business is you either make a play, or you don't make a play," Blache said. "There's no half-pregnants; you're either pregnant or you're not. . . . We didn't make the play, and it's not just Leigh. Leigh should have had help. The ball should have had to come out sooner."
For the first time all season, Blache called an aggressive game in the mold of Gregg Williams, his predecessor, regularly bringing corners and safeties. Washington has lacked a strong pass rush and this game plan involved heavy pressure, particularly on third down, with the Rams' offensive line in flux (tackle Orlando Pace was hurt during the game), and the Redskins believing they could overload the edges and hurry Bulger. They registered two sacks and stifled St. Louis for much of the day, but got burned on this exchange, the Rams' only play over 15 yards.
"It was a defense where we were going to bring more [blitzers] than they could block," middle linebacker London Fletcher said. "The plan was to bring pressure. Pressure. Pressure. Pressure."
Blache's gamble -- with just a single defender deep -- was increasingly dangerous given the lack of depth in the secondary. Reed Doughty, his most experienced safety, was out with a back injury, meaning Moore was on the field in critical junctures despite playing sparingly thus far.
The Rams ran "999," one of offensive coordinator Al Saunders's favorite plays, with three receivers running "go" routes, which are essentially deep sprints. "It's the same one we threw to Isaac Bruce in the  Super Bowl with two minutes left to go in the game and he ran it in the end zone," said Saunders of his previous stint in St. Louis. "It's exactly the same play." Saunders was fired in January after two unsuccessful years running the Redskins' offense.
In this case, wide receiver Torry Holt was on the left side, with corner Carlos Rogers playing him with an eight-yard cushion. Wide receiver Eddie Kennison was in the slot to the right -- with corner Shawn Springs pressing him at the line, and Torrence lined up on Avery wide to the right, about 10 yards off the line. The tight end released off the line, running a fly route down the seam, and Fletcher went with him, as designed.
Washington's four linemen all pushed off to their right on the pass rush, steering blockers to that direction, away from the blitz. Horton was lined up to the left of left end Andre Carter, near the tight end, and assigned a direct blitz. Running back Steven Jackson, to the right of Bulger in the shotgun formation, picked him up easily.
"My assignment was to get the quarterback, and I didn't get there," Horton said. "If we could have executed on that play, that pass wouldn't have ever happened."
Moore was stationed five yards behind Springs, charged with reading the play. A screen pass to Jackson would have been Moore's responsibility, otherwise he was to attack the passer. Moore did neither. Had he blitzed he could have come free, with no Ram to Jackson's right. He was effectively frozen about 10 yards off the line, the ball eventually sailing over his head. He was left to chase the play feebly.
"It looked like [Jackson] was coming out [for a pass], but then he stopped and I was stuck in between," said Moore, a sixth-round pick from Nicholls State. "I can't make excuses. One man messes up and that can cost you the game, like today."
With no one around Bulger, he dropped back to the 30, rolled right, and unloaded a pass. The Rams flooded the middle of the field with deep routes -- and LaRon Landry, the only safety playing deep in the secondary, was diverted that direction. "That's another issue," Blache said. Bulger scanned the field and saw that Torrence, a reserve corner who does not play much, was locked on Avery, a second-round pick, with no help.
Ideally, Bulger would look for an inside route here, but he jammed a finger earlier in the game, and had difficultly making those throws, he said. With no safety on Avery's side, he heaved the ball 53 yards in that direction. "They gave me a one-on-one match-up, so why not?" Bulger said.
Avery, who missed most of training camp with an injury, had chatted with wide receivers coach Henry Ellard on the sidelines earlier in the game, after fading to the outside at the end of a 9 route. Ellard, once an elite wideout, reinforced that he come back inside the next time that route was called, with Washington's defensive backs turning their backs to the play slightly.
Sure enough, Bulger's pass hung in the air, dangling inside. Torrence was right with Avery, but the wide receiver adjusted first, cutting inside and diving, while Torrence's back was still to the play. By the time Torrence twisted inside, it was too late.
"I saw [the] ball in the air for a long time," Avery said. "I knew I was behind the cornerback and I had to come back for the ball."
Avery caught the ball, Torrence cringed in frustration, and the Redskins had let a game slip away.