Ravens Use Familiar Blueprint to Stop Redskins
Monday, December 8, 2008
A month ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers created a template for beating up the Washington Redskins at the line of scrimmage, using the variations of their 3-4 scheme to confuse and bludgeon Washington's beleaguered offensive line.
It worked so well that Dallas copied it in Washington's next game, using its hybrid ends/linebackers to manhandle quarterback Jason Campbell with similar results. The New York Giants did the same last week, and the Baltimore Ravens' aggressive defense pounded away on the theme last night at M&T Bank Stadium, taking control of the game on the opening drive. The Ravens suffocated the Redskins with zone blitzes and overloads, winning 24-10 with Campbell (60.4 passer rating) hit or hurried all night.
When the Ravens, who overcame an atrocious offensive performance, stationed defensive end Terrell Suggs next to an equally nimble safety, it often resulted in a big play for Baltimore's defense. Suggs (a sack, two tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits and two passes defensed) played the role of game-changer in the same manner as outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware (Dallas) and James Harrison (Pittsburgh) have in recent weeks, and Washington's only scores came when the defense gave them the ball deep in Baltimore territory. Safety Ed Reed added two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble return for a score. That was more than enough, with the Ravens' flood of pre-snap movement sending Washington to its fourth loss in five games.
"We were seeing that circus type of rush where they're lining up all over the place, and then at the snap finally getting to their areas," said Coach Jim Zorn, whose protection schemes were lacking several times in the game. "Our biggest problem in the first half was our communication on how to slide. Who's staying put or who is jumping?"
The Ravens (with 18 takeaways in the past seven games -- as many as the Redskins have had all season -- and five defensive touchdowns in that span) quickly led 14-0. The first score was set up by Campbell's deflected pass being intercepted by Reed, and the second came on Reed's fumble return. It was already too much for the offense to overcome, and Washington had to get away from its emphasis on the run to chase the game, which created more problems.
Baltimore (9-4) was willing to sacrifice fewer bodies in the interior of the defense -- believing nose tackle Haloti Ngata is about as effective as two players, anyway -- in exchange for creating outnumbered situations on the perimeter. With Ngata and the tackles stuffing the run, the outside defenders feasted on Washington's aging and porous offensive line.
"When you've got a circus look like that," guard Randy Thomas said of the Ravens, "you've just got to try to protect what you can. . . . We're not playing well at all right now. We're making everyone look good."
Zorn was slow to adapt to the crush, and Washington (7-6), which lacked any semblance of a pass rush, did not begin going to the screen game to catch the Ravens upfield until just before the half, but that was hardly enough. The talent mismatch between Baltimore's athletes and Zorn's offensive line was most pronounced on third downs (Washington was 3 for 14), and Zorn opted to use fullback Mike Sellers instead of an ailing Clinton Portis in pass protection; Portis is smaller but better and Sellers often attacked the same blitzer as tackle Chris Samuels.
It all began on the third play of the game, with Suggs -- who alternated between the left and right side -- sprinting around Samuels and hitting Campbell as he threw; Reed dived to catch the ball and the Ravens drove in for the first score. Campbell was drilled on third down on the next drive, with Samuels and Sellers going to block the same defender, and safety Jim Leonhard coming free.
"This was personal for me," said Suggs, who was angry with Washington fans after recently being booed when he attended a Wizards game. "I said I was going to make them pay on December 7."
Reed's fumble return for a score ended the next possession, and Sellers was not enough to help the offensive line on the next drive, either, with middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Leonhard converging on Campbell. Of Washington's first 20 offensive plays, 11 were for zero or negative yards, and 13 were for two yards or fewer. When Campbell did get the ball off, it was routinely knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
The usual confusion reigned on key drives, with the crowd and pass pressure rattling the Redskins. Washington had to take a timeout on one occasion after just being assessed a delay of game penalty. The Redskins were whistled for consecutive false starts deep in their own territory before the half, then followed it up with a hold.
It all had a been-there, done-that feel.
Like other teams in recent weeks, the Ravens were generally willing to play the run in cover-2, not having to put additional manpower at the line. They alternated between doubling receiver Santana Moss, the only true deep threat, and also playing tight press-man coverage on the smallish outside receivers when they wanted to allocate more defensive backs to the blitz. Campbell was hit 23 times in the losses to Pittsburgh, New York and Dallas, and seven times last night.
When the Redskins finally began a drive at the Baltimore 26 as a result of an interception, they were without both tackles (Samuels and Jon Jansen were injured; fringe center Justin Geisinger entered at left tackle, of all positions). And on third down, the Ravens called a blitz and Suggs tore through Geisinger, who was without tight end help, and thrashed Campbell for a 13-yard loss, forcing a field goal.
"It was probably the worst situation that could have happened, on third down, against a speed rusher," said Geisinger, who had not taken a snap at tackle since college. Suggs gestured to the Redskins' sidelines as Geisinger entered the game, sensing the outcome.
"I actually pointed at Jim Zorn and said, 'You can't do this, you're going to get your quarterback hurt,' " said Suggs, who praised Geisinger's effort under such stark circumstances. "I was like, 'I don't think this guy is supposed to be here. You've got a mistake.' "
Geisinger was shifted to less-demanding right tackle on the next drive, and a screen pass keyed Washington's lone touchdown on fourth down -- a rare time when Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan did not blitz. Washington did not muster a drive of more than 47 yards all game.