The potential solution to at least some of the Washington Redskins' problems with rushing passers was discovered four months ago, in a series of staff meetings.
The coaches of the defense remembered how well young linebacker Larry Kubin had played in practices last year when he was impersonating Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. They began searching for ways to exploit Kubin's obvious ability to rush the passer.
"We wanted to find a way that we could best use Larry while he also was learning to play a position (middle linebacker)," said Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator. "One of the things we felt might fit his talents was using him in our nickel package and letting him go after the passer."
Those discussions resulted in the development of what the Redskins call their "33 nickel" package.
"It's still in the experimental stage," Petitbon said. "But off what we saw the first time we used it, we like its possibilities, we like them a lot. It's got an awful lot of potential. If it keeps working well, you'd be foolish not to utilize it."
The Redskins unveiled the 33 nickel in Tampa Saturday night. After unsucessfully trying to rush the quarterbacks in Miami in the preseason opener, they had remarkably good results against the unprepared Buccaneers.
Working from 33 nickel, defensive end Dexter Manley caused one fumble, recovered by nose guard Darryl Grant. Kubin had a sack, which was nullified by a penalty. The Redskins also put pressure on the Buccaneers even when they failed to get a clean tackle of the quarterback.
"What we like about it," said Petitbon, "is it allows us to generate a rush without needing an all-out blitz. That lets us play our normal coverages instead of using a cover guy to rush the passer. Once you start blitzing with everyone, you are vulnerable to a big play."
Previously, on long yardage situations when an opponent could be expected to pass, the Redskins would use a four-man front line, two linebackers and five (nickel) defensive backs. This is how the 33 nickel works: They use three down linemen, one a nose guard who lines up opposite the center. Instead of a fourth lineman, a third linebacker becomes a stand up rushman. His assignment usually is to go after the passer, even if he is shuffled from one end to the other. The other two linebackers, usually Monte Coleman and Rich Milot in the nickel, and the five backs have normal assignments.
"Why use it? Because we don't want to give the quarterback nine hours to throw the ball, like what happened against Miami," Petitbon said. "We are trying to find the best way to get our four best pass rushers into the game at the same time. If one of those four happens to be a linebacker, then the 33 nickel is a possibility.
"We also still have our regular nickel package (with four down linemen). We'll see which works best."
The 33 nickel probably is the closest the Redskins will come this season to using a 3-4 defense. Petitbon and his staff believe the team doesn't have the right players to use that alignment on running downs, but no one has ruled out a switch to the 3-4 if the standard 4-3 is ineffective.
The success of the 33 nickel depends in large part on Kubin's blitzing ability, although Petitbon said he would consider using Coleman in that position.
Against Tampa Bay, Kubin showed promise, although neither Petitbon nor Coach Joe Gibbs was, as Petitbon said, "overly impressed with the way Kubin rushed. But the potential is there, no doubt about it. I think he is going to be a good rusher, he just needs more work. This is all new to him."
"I really haven't just stood in there and gone after the passer for two years," said Kubin, who was a stand up pass rusher at Penn State. "But it brought back some good memories. I love to be able to go after the passer.
"I know I began the game a bit wobbly, but I got smoother as it went along. The coaches said I was tentative. Maybe since this was the first time in the role, I was feeling my way a bit. This has to work to my advantage. Most of the time, I'll just be confronted with a one-on-one situation . . . I beat one block and I'm at the quarterback."
If Kubin doesn't meet expectations, Petitbon always can turn to Coleman. He also has to settle on the three down linemen.
Manley, the team's most talented rusher, has one spot locked up. The nose guard most likely will be Grant, especially if he builds on his performance against Tampa Bay, when he was very active. The third position remains open.
The 33 nickel could be Grant's salvation this season. He has been struggling to make the difficult transition from offensive guard to defensive lineman, but lately his pass rush has improved considerably. The Buccaneers had trouble controlling him, which encouraged Petitbon.