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Redskins remain committed to blitz despite early struggles against the pass

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 11:12 PM

With the Houston Texans trailing by seven points and facing fourth and 10 late in the fourth quarter Sunday at FedEx Field, Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett made another aggressive call in an attempt to all but seal a victory.

The Redskins lined up in their "fast nickel" package, which includes only one defensive lineman, and Haslett instructed linebackers Brian Orakpo, Andre Carter, Rocky McIntosh and Lorenzo Alexander to blitz. But quarterback Matt Schaub avoided the pressure and connected with wide receiver Andre Johnson on a 34-yard touchdown pass that helped the Texans tie the score at 27. Houston won in overtime, 30-27.

"It's definitely different than what we did before, a lot different than what we did last year with all the blitzing, and Has [Haslett] is always going to get after it because that's what Has does," top cornerback DeAngelo Hall said after the game. "Are there going to be some plays where they [opponents] get us? Yeah. But we just have to get 'em more. I know that's what we're planning to do."

Coach Mike Shanahan and Haslett envision big things from their 3-4 scheme, and blitzing is a major component of their approach. Shanahan scrapped the team's longtime, successful 4-3 philosophy in an effort to produce more turnovers. The Redskins are unified in their commitment to the exciting strategy. The results through two games, however, are mixed, and the transition could be rough.

Washington (1-1) blitzed frequently after halftime as it squandered a 17-point, third-quarter lead. The Redskins are last in the 32-team league, giving up an average of 453 yards per game. Opponents have averaged 372.5 yards passing - putting the Redskins 31st in the NFL in that department.

And Washington has produced only two turnovers. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who provided the model for Washington's defense, lead the league with seven forced turnovers.

"The numbers . . . that's what the media does," Haslett said recently. "They like those numbers. 'Oh, they were number one in the league.' But they got to look at the big picture. What's your offense doing to help ya? There's a lot of things that go into that.

"More importantly for the defense, don't give up points and get the ball back for the offense, so they can score points. And if you can get a lot of turnovers and you don't give up a lot of points, that's a heck of a defense."

Although the Redskins gave up 23 points after halftime against Houston, they limited the Dallas Cowboys to seven points in a 13-7 season-opening victory. Washington is tied for 16th in scoring defense at 18.5 points.

"Well, you're going to give up big plays in any defense when you're just kind of getting started," Shanahan said the other day. "It's a learning curve. We just got to keep getting better, and go back and take a look at the mistakes we made . . . from a scheme perspective relative to the technique perspective. . . . Hopefully, as time goes on, we keep on getting better."

In fairness to the Redskins, the talented Texans might have produced big plays Sunday against any form of defense.

Schaub is a Pro Bowler and Johnson is widely considered the league's best wideout. The Redskins' game plan focused as much on impressive second-year back Arian Foster as it did on Schaub and Johnson, players said. And Washington limited Foster to 69 yards and a 3.6-yard average (he also had three receptions for 69 yards). In a Week 1 victory over Indianapolis, Foster rushed for 231 yards and three touchdowns.

Schaub found numerous holes in Washington's zones in a 497-yard passing performance. On the late touchdown, Johnson out-jumped safety Reed Doughty in the end zone, but Doughty should not have been alone in coverage against the taller, bigger and stronger Johnson.

Haslett called a two-man coverage in which nickel cornerback Phillip Buchanon should have stayed with Johnson, players said, but Buchanon mistakenly released Johnson too early in the pattern. On other plays, though, perhaps the Redskins would have benefited from a more conservative approach.

"I think there were a couple of times where we might have wanted to play coverage," said Alexander, a vocal proponent of the new defense. "Has loves to blitz . . . and we definitely believe in what we're doing. But sometimes you might want to play a little cover and get off the field. Just make the quarterback hold it and allow Rak [Orakpo] and Dre [Carter] to do their job and put some pressure on 'em."

Since the 2000 season, the Redskins have boasted a top-10 defense eight times. The team ranked lower than 10th only in 2003 and 2006 (25th and 31st, respectively). During that span, however, Washington never was higher than 10th in turnover differential.

"We've got to get more turnovers," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, whose interception against the Texans was his first since the 2008 season. "What Has is doing, the defense we're playing, the way we're blitzing, the turnovers gonna come."

Players privately expressed frustration the last two seasons because former coordinator Greg Blache rarely blitzed. "It's just not what he did," said strong safety LaRon Landry. "That's just the way it was."

Now, the Redskins are all about the blitz.

"In the past, you were able to predict, pretty much, who was coming [on blitzes], and last year it was really just Rak," Alexander said. "Now, it's corners, safeties, inside linebackers, outside linebackers, so it throws guys off."

Of course, it's dangerous to blitz when a team struggles to score as Washington did under former head coach Jim Zorn. Shanahan is among the best offensive coaches in NFL history. Haslett often should have leads to protect, providing him with a comfort zone to continue attacking throughout games.

"You know, it's not going to be perfect overnight, but we're going to make it work. Has going to make it work," Hall said. "Believe that."

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