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A Little Espionage Shuts Down Westbrook

By Jason La Canfora
Monday, December 22, 2008

To Greg Blache, no player in the NFL has been more dynamic this month than Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, and the Redskins' defensive coordinator went to extremes as he schemed to contain him. There's a danger in that, but his approach worked perfectly yesterday, with the proof coming in just how seldom Westbrook actually touched the ball in Washington's 10-3 win at FedEx Field.

Westbrook, a DeMatha product, was averaging 27 touches a game during Philadelphia's three-game win streak (including 39 in a win over the New York champion Giants), and had 400 combined yards and six touchdowns in those three victories. Westbrook had just 12 carries and six receptions yesterday, with Eagles Coach Andy Reid eventually turning to other options. Westbrook produced but a single big play (a 47-yard catch), but was suffocated by a rotating cast of defenders assigned to spy on him, shadow him and prevent him from running wild on the backside of plays.

"We were going to deny him the football," Blache said. "Westbrook is the guy who makes them go. He does more for his team than probably anybody else in the NFL right now today."

To that end, Blache utilized just a three-man pass rush most of the game, with an extra defender devoted to Westbrook in coverage. End Jason Taylor (playing his best game as a Redskin) was used in a hybrid role, roaming along the line, playing at times as a linebacker, and drawing Westbrook in many coverages. Middle linebacker London Fletcher, end Demetric Evans and defensive tackles Anthony Montgomery and Lorenzo Alexander also dropped into coverage to shadow Westbrook based on the defensive call.

It was a game plan very similar to that used against New Orleans's Reggie Bush in the second game of the season, with Bush as dangerous as Westbrook when isolated on the perimeter on screen passes. This was a stark departure from Blache's approach in the first meeting with the Eagles (Oct. 5), when Westbrook was hobbled by injury. This time, Blache emphasized playing tight coverage with additional defensive backs, and forcing quarterback Donovan McNabb to try to pick up yards with his feet as a last resort.

"We were going to tag the back end with spies to just try to take away that check down, because that's a huge part of their offense," Blache said. "We going to take away their downfield and Westbrook, and make them go to Donovan scrambling the football."

Westbrook picked up 116 combined yards (the Eagles had but 275 in the game with 90 coming on their final drive), but much of it was meaningless. The Redskins negated his draw plays, and limited him to just 3.8 yards per carry. There was a breakdown of over-the-top coverage on Westbrook's 47-yard reception -- Alexander got caught in an impossible mismatch with Westbrook, with no safety or linebacker help -- but Westbrook's five other catches yielded just 24 yards.

"McNabb is good, but Westbrook is their engine," Alexander said. "If we took him away, and they had somebody else who could beat us, then we could live with that."

Blache, a taskmaster who can be devastating in his criticism at times, spent this week building his players up. They have struggled in the fourth quarter recently, getting no scoring support and losing five of six games. "They were walking around like a bunch of losers, because everyone was beating them up," Blache said.

So this week he beat his chest for them, reminding them of their No. 5 overall rating, stressing the positives ("attitudinal Viagra," he called it). Saturday night, at the defensive meeting, he showed them an extended highlight reel of their best moments, hoping to restore a little swagger. It worked.

Yesterday's results were markedly better. Blache demanded better discipline, tackling and execution, and received it in what was the most complete outing by his unit this season.

As much as Blache tried to have zone help for his players, with even the "spy" having a safety or linebacker backing him up as he guarded against screens and check downs, there were times when Westbrook was isolated on a single defender as well. In those instances, it was generally a linebacker who was required to wrap him up.

"Sometimes it was a situation called where you just had to step up the challenge and cover him one-on-one," Fletcher said. "And guys stepped up the challenge. It was a concerted effort to try to take him away."

After watching film of the Eagles' victory over the Giants, when Westbrook had a rushing touchdown of 30 yards and a receiving touchdown of 40 yards, Redskins coaches noticed that New York's linebackers, and former Redskins middle linebacker Antonio Pierce in particular, had been giving Westbrook too much time to get started once he caught the ball, trying to contain him a few yards back rather that being more aggressive.

"We wanted to get behind the offensive linemen, go hard at him and stick with him," said Westbrook's younger brother, Byron, a practice squad defensive back who mimicked his star sibling on the scout team all week in practice. If you wait for him to come out at you, he can hurt you."

Reid also helped the cause. From the midpoint of the third quarter until the game's final drive of the game, he did not call a single run for Westbrook. "I don't ask any questions," Westbrook said. "Coach saw something that dictated we should pass." Reid said of calling 15 straight passes in the second half: "We were trying to get something started any way that we possibly could."

It was no surprise that Reid returned to his feature player when needing a late score to aid the Eagles' playoff hopes, but the Redskins were prepared. Westbrook could work no magic, and Washington's goal-line stop prevented overtime.

"When you're getting the ball and getting in the rhythm of the game, then you make plays," Byron Westbrook said of his brother. "It seemed like Andy Reid will give him the ball, they have some success, but then he will try to go back to the pass. And then he'll try to just give him the ball at the last drive of the game, but it's too late."

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