By Jason La Canfora
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Conventional wisdom dictates that teams don't spread the field too often against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL's top-ranked defense tends to punish poorly protected quarterbacks, and the more receivers an offense sends into pass routes, the fewer players there are at the line of scrimmage to block.
Redskins Coach Jim Zorn challenged that thinking last night, opening the game in a four wide receiver set and attacking with similar formations the rest of the contest. After weeks of more conventional play-calling, riding the running game and the occasional deep pass to a 6-2 record, Zorn gambled more often with protection in his "Monday Night Football" debut as a head coach, and quarterback Jason Campbell often paid the price in a brutal, 23-6 loss at FedEx Field.
Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a master tactician and play caller, grandfather of the Fire Zone Blitz. He is as astute as any coach in the NFL at exploiting weakness in a quarterback protection scheme. Last night, he stymied Zorn's offense, negating Washington's superb field position early in the game and repeatedly thwarting Redskins drives on third down by pressuring Campbell. Pittsburgh, which is second overall in the league in sacks, sacked Campbell seven times and hit him while he was throwing on five more plays. The Redskins quarterback was sacked more than three times in a game this season only once prior to last night and had been sacked only 16 times through the first eight games.
The interplay between Zorn and LeBeau -- an up-and-coming play-caller against a defensive mastermind -- was the preeminent backdrop for the game, and by early in the second half merely keeping Campbell upright proved difficult as the Steelers delivered at least one crunching hit on drive after drive.
"They play what they want and just throw it right in your face and say, 'Deal with this!' " Zorn said when asked about the chess match with LeBeau. "So I can't say it was fun after a while, but it was challenging."
LeBeau concocted the Fire Zone blitz in 1984 to counteract the rise of the West Coast offense at that time. It is a high-pressure package that deploys defenders from unexpected places, dropping a lineman into coverage to protect an area vacated by a blitzing linebacker or defensive back. The goal is to negate the quick timing and spread formations of the West Coast offense. It was a mismatch last night.
Campbell was sacked four times in the first half, then again on the opening drive of the third quarter, and once the Steelers built a second-half lead it was open season on the Redskins quarterback as Washington was forced to throw the ball.
"They kind of put their little warrior bandanas on, and here they come," Zorn said.
Campbell's franchise record of 271 attempts without an interception dating back to last season came to an end late in the third quarter, and he was intercepted again late in the game. Zorn never got into a play-calling rhythm, the Redskins failed to establish the pass or the run, and Campbell rarely had the time to throw the ball deep. Zorn did not call a reverse or option pass to force the Pittsburgh defense to react, rarely had Campbell roll out on a bootleg -- to ease the pressure in the pocket -- and the running backs were not used as safety valves for Campbell to pass the ball to when he was under pressure.
"They were playing two safeties 20 to 25 yards deep, taking away the deep ball, and they had two linebackers playing coverage underneath," Campbell said. "If you don't get anyone open then you're stuck with all that pressure."
Washington's offensive line is better suited to power run blocking than pass protection, and the Redskins entered the game with the most productive ground attack in the NFL behind Clinton Portis. But Zorn ended up calling 15 passes to just 10 runs in the first half with no success (66 net yards) and 42 passes to 15 runs in the game. "I tried to stick with [the run] as long as I could," Zorn said after running the ball 18 times fewer than his average this season.
The Redskins went 0 for 8 on third-down conversions in the first half and 4 for 16 in the game. With Zorn rarely using maximum pass-blocking schemes and rarely running the ball, Campbell was the victim.
Campbell was sacked for the first time on Washington's third possession, and two of the following three drives would end with sacks as well. Each time the Redskins were in three wide receiver sets. Pittsburgh's linebackers combined for five sacks alone (linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison had combined for 16 sacks coming into the game).
"They were coming from places where we didn't have people," guard Pete Kendall said.
Zorn went with a maximum protection scheme for one drive -- using two tight ends as blockers -- but when the Redskins fell behind, 16-6 in the third quarter, it was essentially check mate for LeBeau.
"It's not as vertical-friendly, if you will, as three wide receivers or four wide receivers," Zorn said of abandoning the two tight end set.
Just a week ago Washington's NFC East rivals, the New York Giants, beat the Steelers at their own game, running 35 times with several running backs and keeping extra players in to block. Quarterback Eli Manning was not hit once. In Week 3, Philadelphia beat Pittsburgh, too, but at a cost; the Eagles stuck to their West Coast scheme, threw the ball 38 times (often with three or more wide receivers on the field), to 23 runs, and quarterback Donovan McNabb was hit seven times. He nursed a painful sternum injury for a month afterward.
"I think we need to keep it simple and lull them to sleep," one Redskins veteran said last week, when asked how to combat Pittsburgh's blitz. "We need to see a lot of two tight ends, play physical, run the ball. If we try to open it up like Philly did, someone will get hurt."
Those words proved nearly prophetic, with Campbell often needing a helping hand to get to his feet, and a long date with an ice bath awaiting this morning.