A Pass Rush In the Slow Lane

Tony Romo of the Cowboys, who had allowed 13 sacks in their previous four games, faced little pressure by the Redskins' pass rush on Sunday.
Tony Romo of the Cowboys, who had allowed 13 sacks in their previous four games, faced little pressure by the Redskins' pass rush on Sunday. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; Page E01

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."

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