Washington Redskins will have hands full with Philadelphia Eagles' blitzing defense

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 1:23 AM

In their first three games, the Washington Redskins' offense faced a variety of defensive fronts and blitz packages. In each game, they knew several different looks were coming, but they didn't necessarily know which ones.

"Every week, what we seeing is not what we were really preparing for," running back Clinton Portis said of the opposition's blitz packages.

At least with Sunday's opponent - the Philadelphia Eagles - the Redskins have a good idea of what to expect. The bigger question: Will they be able to stop it?

"They're an aggressive front, no doubt," said center Casey Rabach. "Their front seven, they can bring pressure at any time out of multiple looks, from multiple people."

The Eagles' defensive coordinator Sean McDermott took over for the late Jim Johnson prior to the 2009 season, and he's enjoying a lot of the same success thus far. The Eagles' defense is ranked No. 2 in the league, averaging nearly four sacks per game.

"It's still early in the season to get a big tendency on them and what they're doing, but it seems like they're true to form with how they've played," Redskins offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. "They're very good, and they do it well."

The Redskins could again be vulnerable on the offense line Sunday. Left tackle Trent Williams, who missed the team's Week 3 loss to St. Louis, practiced Friday but will be a game-time decision Sunday at Philadelphia. Stephon Heyer would likely start in his place. At left guard, Kory Lichtensteiger will likely get his second career start, and at right tackle, Jammal Brown is still adjusting to his new position and the team's new blocking scheme.

The numbers for this group don't look bad thus far. The Redskins have allowed five sacks in three games (ninth-fewest in the NFL), and quarterback Donovan McNabb has suffered 12 quarterback hits, which ties for 11th in the league.

While Portis says the Redskins' first three foes installed new blitz packages prior to facing Washington, at least this Sunday, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can safely guess what he'll see. While the Philadelphia pass-rushers come from all angles, they'll most definitely be charging up the middle. The double A-gap blitz is used throughout the league now, but it was authored in Philadelphia by Johnson, and McDermott still leans on it heavily.

As West Coast offenses carved up defenses in the early and mid-1990s, Johnson went to work on an answer. The result was the double A-gap blitz, in which two linebackers charge up the middle on either side of the center. It's the quickest path to the quarterback and if an offense isn't ready, it can be the most effective, as well. That's why it spread so quickly throughout the league.

"Teams are attacking up the middle a lot more, just scheme-wise," Redskins inside linebacker Rocky McIntosh said. "That's the way they like to come a lot more now."

It challenges an offense to adjust. To secure the middle, teams often leave themselves vulnerable elsewhere. Teams must shift their offensive linemen or hope the running back can pick up one of the rushers.

"Every protection obviously has rules, every run has rules," Foerster said. "Somebody is responsible for it all the time. You just have to make sure everybody's on their assignments and understands exactly what their rules are on every single play."

Johnson died of cancer in July 2009. His defenses were a big reason the Eagles played in five NFC conference title games, and the double A-gap blitz will forever be an important part of his legacy.

"What Jim Johnson started there a number of years ago, he wasn't afraid to bring pressure from anywhere, drop ends into coverage and bring five weak, four weak," Rabach said. "It's a complicated kind of blitz scheme that we have. As long as we follow our rules in pass protection and run blocking, we have answers for all of it."

Staff writers Jason Reid and Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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