Aggressiveness, Inside Knowledge Help Washington Redskins Shut Down Seahawks on Third Downs

By Jason La Canfora
Monday, November 24, 2008

SEATTLE When Jim Zorn met with his defensive coaches early last week to share insights gleaned from his years as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback coach, he made one suggestion in the game plan above all else. The Redskins had to be aggressive with their blitz packages, particularly on third down.

Zorn told his staff how the Seahawks had evaluated Washington's defense before the teams' playoff meeting in January and shared his perspective on how Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck reads the game. On Sunday, after a 20-17 victory at Qwest Field, he gave credit to a pass rush that has been much maligned in recent years. Defensive coordinator Greg Blache used more seven- and eight-man blitzes than he had all season, and where in the past the Redskins often kept two safeties back on third-and-long situations, Sunday they attacked Hasselbeck in droves.

"Coach Zorn told us how Seattle looked at us, especially on third down," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "So we figured we'd vary the looks this time, and see if they could adjust to it. It worked, and we got the win."

The Redskins (7-4) registered two sacks, but unlike in their last loss, to Dallas, the opposing quarterback was under constant pressure. Several of the biggest plays in the game -- a sack that moved the Seahawks out of field-goal range; a momentum-shifting interception from safety LaRon Landry -- came as direct results of frequent blitzing. The Seahawks failed on their first six third downs of the game (they finished just 3 for 10), and the only times they had success at all on third down came when Blache dropped more players back in coverage.

Zorn feared Hasselbeck's ability to carve out chunks of yards if allowed too much time to sort through his secondary receivers -- as Tony Romo did with precision a week ago -- particularly if he faced a zone defense. The coaching staff believed that they could bully Seattle's receivers in press-man coverage, team sources said. The Seahawks have been crippled with injuries at the position, and the Redskins believed they could sufficiently cover them without much safety help much of the game, freeing up linebackers and safeties to rush with more abandon.

"We had to try to improve our pressure game on the quarterback," Zorn said after beating the team he had served as quarterback and a coach. "We had to put a time limit on the quarterback, and we did. I think it was the key on our defensive side."

Seattle's failures on third downs led to its defense being on the field for 38 minutes 27 seconds, and prevented the Seahawks (2-9) from generating the tempo their West Coast offense demands. Their first six third-down plays? Incomplete, intentional grounding, six-yard pass (on third and 13), incomplete, sack (forcing a missed 53-yard field goal attempt), interception.

"They gave us some looks early on that we had never seen them do," Hasselbeck said. "It gave us some problems. It gave me some indecision."

Hasselbeck's first third-down conversion pass came on the final play of the third quarter. He threw for 21 yards on another third and long on that same drive, when Blache gave the look of a five-man line, then shifted to just four. Wide receiver Bobby Engram had too much time to run a long, looping route around cornerback Shawn Springs, and Hasselbeck could easily step up in the pocket to make his only completion of more than 15 yards all game.

"People might say, 'Why couldn't Shawn cover him there,' " Zorn said. "But that was a broken route, a longer-developing route. That's what Matt can do if he's given time."

That's what Zorn most hoped to avoid, and Blache and his staff adapted.

Blache allowed struggling defensive lineman Jason Taylor much more freedom, often letting him stand up as a linebacker, with him mugging the interior of the line early in the game, and even dropping back into coverage at other times. "We had a few new wrinkles out there," linebacker London Fletcher said. Taylor also played more on his natural right side.

The cornerbacks were much more involved in blitzing than usual, safety Chris Horton and linebacker Rocky McIntosh (one sack) often overloaded the same side on the blitz, and Blache even went with a cover-0 look on a few plays, with no player deeper than five yards off the line of scrimmage. Hasselbeck ended up calling a timeout the first time Blache called up that package.

"Me and Blue [Springs] came in off the edge sometimes," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Our linebacker was coming in and he thinks we're playing coverage, and then we started blitzing. Those things are key on third downs, switching up looks and playing tight coverage. And then once we get that pressure we can sit back" and read the passer.

Blache juggled personnel as well. On some series, starting cornerbacks Rogers and Fred Smoot rested, with Springs and DeAngelo Hall on the outside. Blache was already without tackle Anthony Montgomery (Achilles' tendon), and lost end Andre Carter (foot) and tackle Kedric Golston (ankle) in the game as well. Washington suffered on its run defense without them, particularly on the perimeter.

But at pivotal moments, the Redskins received more pass rushing thrust from the inside of the line than usual, with Demetric Evans, Cornelius Griffin and reserve tackle Lorenzo Alexander (one sack) preventing Hasselbeck from stepping up in the pocket. "Coach Zorn helped us out a lot as far as what [Hasselbeck] is thinking and his mind-set," Alexander said. On third and 11 from the Seattle 37, with just seven minutes remaining, Hasselbeck had to hurry his errant pass, and he ended up on the turf with Horton and McIntosh among those pressuring him.

Some players had been hoping for more aggressiveness in the blitz game, and Blache drew rave reviews afterward. The coordinator won't always have such a direct portal into the opposition every week, of course, but some of these general principles might need to continue to apply as the Redskins try to overcome a pedestrian offense in this playoff push.

"We're a much better team in those key situations when we're applying pressure than we are sitting back in the catbird seat," Jackson said. "And that goes with everything we do."

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