On the first play of minicamp in March, Gregg Williams -- the Washington Redskins' assistant head coach-defense -- rushed everyone but his reserves against Joe Gibbs's offense. The stunt wasn't that farfetched based on watching the Redskins in preseason -- blitzing on most plays and from almost every angle or position.
Gibbs's return has overshadowed the presence of Williams, who was hired partly to help Gibbs adjust to the modern NFL. Williams oversees a defense that has been revamped since finishing 25th among the league's 32 teams last season. At 46, Williams had head coaching experience with the Buffalo Bills and is known for his creative, versatile and attacking defense. Still, he figures to be tested in the NFC East, with a Murderers' Row of smart defensive head coaches in Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants, Bill Parcells of the Dallas Cowboys and Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Each of the division teams has undergone personnel changes guaranteed to make life difficult for a defensive coordinator. One of Williams's biggest challenges comes because Philadelphia boosted its offense by adding Pro Bowl wideout Terrell Owens to give quarterback Donovan McNabb a top receiver.
"The guy may make 15 plays a game that most people wouldn't make," Gibbs said. "Their whole style of offense is geared around him, which makes it extremely tough. Now they add a great receiver to it."
The Giants traded with the San Diego Chargers to get the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, quarterback Eli Manning, who lost a starting competition with Kurt Warner, an offseason acquisition. Warner has a special target in tight end Jeremy Shockey. Wideout Keyshawn Johnson, reunited with Parcells after leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will catch passes from quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
Despite the infusion of talent, the Redskins say the NFC East is no more of a defensive challenge than other divisions. "Each offense you see, if it's in the NFC East, North, West, it doesn't matter," said Greg Blache, Washington's de facto defensive line coach. "They're all going to have quality athletes. They're going to have their personalities. I don't think there are defensive challenges unique to the NFC East." Willliams's schemes include traces of former Redskins coach George Allen and former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan. And Williams's blitz-happy defense should mesh well in the NFC East, where Dallas and Philadelphia share his kill-the-quarterback attitude. The three teams employ a 4-3 defense -- four defensive linemen and three linebackers -- as a base formation.
"He's going to fit right in with the NFC East," Redskins offensive coordinator Don Breaux said of Williams. "They try to exert their will over the offense. They're relentless coming after you." During Williams's three-year stint in Buffalo, the defense improved each year, finishing as the NFL's No. 2 ranked defense. But turnovers were a problem in Buffalo.
Williams is known for using multiple rotations among his position units to sustain energy and disguising schemes by moving players into different sets, which makes it difficult to detect where blitzes come from.
He uses 16 formations -- an amalgam of groupings in passing situations, specifically third downs. One quirky formation is a 3-3-5 -- three defensive ends, three linebackers and five defensive backs. (In this formation, one linebacker is used as a down lineman -- a role that LaVar Arrington and Marcus Washington will play.) And Williams occasionally gets esoteric with a 2-3-6 or 4-2-5.
Those schemes will have to reverse the Redskins' recent history. They've lost 12 of their past 13 against the Cowboys, five straight against the Eagles and five of their past seven against the Giants.
The Redskins haven't posted a winning division record since 1999 -- the last time the team made the playoffs. Norv Turner's club won the NFC East with a 10-6 record and went 5-3 in the division.) Former coach Steve Spurrier was 2-10 in the NFC East during his two-year tenure, as the defense allowed an average of more than 20 points.
One new weapon at Williams's disposal is rookie safety Sean Taylor, who is expected to play a more expanded role than merely being the defense's last line. Besides frequently blitzing the quarterback -- who doesn't in Williams's schemes? -- Taylor will defend against tight ends and receivers one-on-one. The 6-2, 231-pound Taylor has the size, speed and strength to occasionally match up with the 6-5, 253-pound Shockey and 6-3, 226-pound Owens.
"We think he matches up well," Gibbs said, "against the people we play in our division." Owens -- who has averaged 93 catches, 1,316 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past four seasons -- will be one of Williams's biggest dilemmas. Before acquiring Owens, Philadelphia went without a true number one receiver. Last season, Eagles wideouts combined for only five touchdowns. (Over the past seven years, no Eagles receiver has produced more than 63 catches in a season.) The Eagles run a West Coast-type offense guided by McNabb, whose scrambles add an extra dimension.
"You're going to see West Coast offenses in each division," Blache said. "Philly has a certain personality offensively. The Giants have their own. Dallas has one." The Cowboys -- with one of the NFL's top defenses -- use a ball-control offense and try to manage the game. The offense's most significant change since last year was the release of Quincy Carter and the acquisition of Testaverde.
Because Coughlin has replaced Jim Fassel, New York's offense is evolving, but it likely will be conservative with a mix of styles. It's a safe bet to expect plenty of blitzes from Williams against the Giants, who have one of the league's worst offensive lines.
"Each one of the teams is different," Gibbs said. "Us, everybody is kind of looking at us probably [wondering] what are we going to do? How good are we going to be? Who knows? We're somewhat of a wild card in it. And I think so is New York.
"It's probably a mixed bag there."