On Football - Carlos Rogers Performs Well in New Slot for Redskins in Loss to Cowboys
As he dressed for practice Thursday afternoon, Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers stopped to ponder a question he knew might loom large against the Dallas Cowboys. If Shawn Springs were to miss another game with a calf injury, who would replace him in the slot in nickel situations?
Springs's primary backup, Leigh Torrence, had been released earlier in the week to make room for newly signed corner DeAngelo Hall, and Hall, like Rogers and Fred Smoot, played almost exclusively on the outside. None was particularly comfortable with having to play inside, where life can be exceedingly difficult with quirky routes, pick plays and matchup problems. There is no sideline to use as an extra defender and, in the Redskins' man-coverage scheme, often no help from a safety.
At the time, Rogers had no idea where the responsibility would fall against Dallas's talented pass catchers. ("We're wondering that, too," Rogers said.) As it turns out, Springs was out and Rogers ended up assuming the role. Rogers, having a stellar season as a cover cornerback, spent most of last night matched on Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens, largely shutting him down. In addition, when the Cowboys spread the field and placed a receiver in the slot, Rogers went with that player, whomever it was.
Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett utilized precious few multiple-receiver sets in the Cowboys' 14-10 victory at FedEx Field, and Washington's secondary shined in coverage for much of the night, including two interceptions. But the Cowboys did complete three passes of 18 or more yards to slot receivers in the game, including consecutive plays late in the second quarter that led to the first touchdown.
Garrett utilized a conservative game plan, emphasizing a heavy dose of tailback Marion Barber after handing him the ball just eight times in Washington's Week 4 victory. But quarterback Tony Romo managed to get the ball to playmakers like Owens, wide receiver Roy Williams and tight end Jason Witten just often enough to offset the run-heavy approach.
"I'm very proud of my guys," said defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who blamed himself for not assigning an additional defender to stop Barber sooner in the fourth quarter. "I just wish we could have made a few more plays."
Of Dallas's 198 passing yards, 71 came on three passes to slot receivers, which amounted to what could be considered downfield threats on a night devoid of an actual vertical element. The other 16 completions went for a paltry total of 127 yards, an eight-yard average. No Cowboy had even 40 receiving yards, with Witten, Owens and Miles Austin effectively silent save for their plays out of the slot.
When the Cowboys did spread the field, drawing significant attention from double teams to Witten or Owens, Romo simply looked underneath without a pass rush threat, finding Barber on check downs over the middle, usually without a defender nearby. Barber caught six balls for 39 yards, including a checkdown for 10 yards from a four-wide formation on third and eight with less than three minutes to play that help put the game away.
"They talk a lot about their receivers, but they didn't do nothing tonight," said Rogers, who set up an interception with a hit on Owens. "We took the receivers out, and they kind of ran the ball on us. We've got to step up and stop the run, too."
Still, there were plays the defensive backs wanted back. Dallas struck to the slot receiver for successive gains at the end of the half, and rookie safety Chris Horton had solid position on rookie tight end Martellus Bennett late in the game, but he failed to prevent him from pulling in a 25-yard touchdown catch.
The Redskins led 7-0 just before the two-minute warning in the first half, when Witten (6 feet 5) lined up in the slot to the left side. Linebacker Marcus Washington, who often matched up on the big tight end, was out with a sprained ankle, and H.B. Blades (5-10) played him in man coverage. Witten shoved away from him and broke free on a crossing route for 28 yards.
"I was trailing him," Blades said, "and when you get in that position against that dynamic duo -- Romo and Witten -- they're usually going to make a play."
On the next play, Owens lined up behind Witten in the left slot, went in motion to his right, and came back. The Redskins were playing in zone on that side of the field, with Rogers seven yards off the line and safety LaRon Landry deep. Owens had run vertical routes against them from this formation twice earlier, he said, but this time broke across the field. Landry reacted late, and Owens had a 25-yard gain down to the 2, setting up Barber's score.
"There wasn't nothing I can do on that play," Rogers said. "I have to stay outside of him, and if he gets back in it's the safety there. That time he seen me over the top, and cut right in front of LaRon. That was pretty much the only play they had success on."
That bunch formation is just one of the reasons the nickel cornerback is often under duress. Teams utilize the package most on third down, especially with two to six yards to go, and generally rely on creative plays. Defenders might have to fight other receivers to get in position, or adjust to whip routes -- patterns that look like they are headed inside, then burst to the sideline (Austin beat Rogers for 18 yards from the slot in that manner early in the game).
When playing on the outside, savvy corners often have a feel for certain routes run on certain downs, but in the slot teams run more complex screens and gadget plays. The nickel cornerback also works closely with middle linebacker London Fletcher to make calls, relaying information and try to decipher where the ball is going.
"It's like playing basketball, where they're going to pick you and you have to know where the ball is going," Springs said. "You have to be very disciplined with your eyes in the slot, and you're going to see a lot of crafty [receivers]. Your break points change, and the coverage can be more complex. You've got to study a lot."
It was one of perhaps three coverage breakdowns Blache could recall from the entire game -- "We should have had help underneath there," he said -- unable to even force a grimace or adopt his sometimes grumpy posture after this game. There was a silver lining as well. Springs hopes to be back next weekend, but if he's not, Rogers is eager to line up in the slot again.
"It was kind of fun, actually," Rogers said of the experiment. "I had fun in practice and I had fun in the game with it."