A Pass Rush In the Slow Lane

By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

At times Sunday night, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo must have felt like he was still at a preseason practice, where defenders risk being cut if they hit the passer, and even inadvertent contact is forbidden. Romo was playing for the first time in a month, trying to protect his broken pinkie finger, operating behind an offensive line that had given up 13 sacks in the previous four games. Yet he rarely came under duress in leading a 14-10 victory.

Since assistant coach Greg Blache's arrival five years ago, the Washington Redskins have had a mostly strong defense whose one weakness has been its pass rush. It's true again this season with the Redskins fourth overall in total defense but tied for 27th in sacks with 15.

The reason for the discrepancy can partly be found in the strategic approach favored by Blache, the former defensive line coach who is now coordinator. Blache espouses stopping the run above all else, with his linemen free to fire on the snap and attack upfield generally only in nickel situations. Blache is willing to sacrifice pressure for run awareness, a formula that has been quite successful and limited Dallas to just two touchdowns Sunday night.

"You look at a team like Indy, and they play pass first and then react to the run," defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery said. "Here, when we come off [the snap] a big part of our job is to keep the offensive linemen from getting to our linebackers, so you've got to flatten the linemen out and get your hands on them and it kind of slows you down from just going.

"It's harder to do, and it definitely would be easier if we were just able to get upfield and pass rush the whole time, but that's also why Indy can't stop the run, because their line is caught upfield and their linemen are on your linebackers and if they miss it's a big run. But we've got to do a better job of converting from run to pass. It's tough to do, but we've got to do it."

The Redskins blitz regularly under Blache, but rarely in a swarm. They no longer attack the quarterback by overloading personnel on a particular side or with exotic fire-zone blitzes -- dropping ends into coverage and using the secondary to attack the passer -- the way they did for the four years Gregg Williams ran the defense. But even under Williams, sustaining pressure was a problem.

"We blitz a lot, we really do," Montgomery said. "It's not so many different blitz schemes like we used to have, but I'd say 80 percent of the time we bring a fifth guy."

For much of the season, linebacker Marcus Washington or safety Chris Horton has been that fifth pass rusher, but Washington has been injured often and has been easily rerouted by blockers. Horton, a seventh-round pick, has been a revelation as a rookie but is still honing his blitzing technique.

Washington -- who is sidelined because of a sprained ankle -- and Horton have one sack between them, while right defensive end Andre Carter, signed to a big free agent contract in 2006, has been stifled even when not double-teamed and has just two sacks this season and 18 1/2 in 42 games with Washington. Considered a tweener end-linebacker by scouts, Carter lacks the frame to truly bull rush and is unable to translate his speed into making plays.

"Somebody has to win the one-on-one matchups," middle linebacker London Fletcher said, "and we aren't winning that one-on-one matchup whether we bring pressure with the fifth guy or a sixth guy."

No one has seemed more hindered than left defensive end Jason Taylor, the perennial Pro Bowl pick who has been injured at times and seemed lost at others. His struggles have transcended knee and calf injuries.

The Redskins, in Vinny Cerrato's first year as executive vice president of football operations, passed on a bevy of elite defensive tackles on the trade market, including Shaun Rogers and Kris Jenkins, and later dealt two picks, including a second-rounder, for Taylor, 34, who fell out of favor in Miami while participating on "Dancing With the Stars."

Cerrato also dealt a seventh-round pick for oft-injured pass-rushing end Erasmus James, who has barely played and whom Blache said he does not expect to be a factor down the stretch (he was inactive Sunday).

At a time when rivals such as the New York Giants have risen to Super Bowl champions with a dominant pass rush, the Redskins have not selected a defensive lineman before the fifth round of the draft since taking defensive end Kenard Lang 17th overall in 1997.

Taylor's $8 million salary has translated to one sack. At the time of the trade in July, when Phillip Daniels suffered a season-ending injury, several NFL executives wondered whether Taylor (11 sacks last season; 118 for his career, second among active players) made sense for this defense. Run stopping is hardly his forte.

The lack of synergy between scheme and personnel has been apparent through this awkward transition, as Taylor faces more double-teams now manning the strong side (the tight end is usually next to the right tackle). He was reduced to playing almost exclusively on third downs against Dallas, with longtime reserve Demetric Evans, a stout run stopper, starting ahead of him.

"It's a really different situation here," Taylor said. "I'm playing tighter alignments and being more run conscious."

"Even playing on the left side is an adjustment mentally as well as technique-wise, having to be leery of people like Tony Romo who can run outside if you take an inside move too early. I did play with more, I guess you could say, reckless abandon in Miami, particularly being on the backside of things. It's an adjustment. Everything about it is an adjustment."

In Miami, Taylor also played outside linebacker, a position in which he was allowed to roam, granted the kind of privileges LaVar Arrington enjoyed here before the Williams-Blache regime began in 2004.

"There's so many things you can do when you're moving around," Taylor said. "I had a lot more freedom to just pin my ears back and go."

With Washington injured, Taylor said he would like to get more reps at linebacker, but Coach Jim Zorn indicated that was highly unlikely. Still, several players are hopeful adjustments are forthcoming. Taylor did play in an upright stance and stunt inside a few times against Dallas, and Blache could continue that technique. Giving Taylor more time back on the right side -- especially considering Carter's problems -- makes sense to several teammates.

"Did we really get Jason Taylor to stop the run?" one veteran quipped.

With cornerback Shawn Springs healthy and willing to play free safety, players believe safety LaRon Landry, the best athlete on the defense, warrants more snaps around the line of scrimmage, acting as the fifth pass rusher. Landry has spent much of the season in a deep position with few other proven coverage options at free safety.

And some players wonder if at some point Blache must call a few more all-out blitzes on certain third downs, gambling for a big play with the offense seemingly incapable of providing a sizable lead or scoring more than a touchdown or two.

"I'd always like to get more pressure on the quarterback," Blache said after the loss to Dallas. "We had some opportunities to get there, but we couldn't take advantage of it."

Defying Blache and going outside the scheme to make a play, however, is not an option, and the time to bolster the roster has passed.

"Coach G.B. has his philosophy, and that's what we do," defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander said. "If you try to break around that and get to freelancing, you won't be here too long."

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