In four NFL seasons spanning 54 games, Washington Redskins safety Matt Bowen had never sacked a quarterback. The drought was so extreme that Bowen could not recall its exact origins, knowing he had thumped a quarterback or two in his senior season at Iowa in 1999, but unsure of the time and place.
"It was in a Big Ten game, I know that much," he said with a mild degree of assurance.
Yet last Sunday, with the Redskins' defense stifling Tampa Bay for a 16-10 victory in its first game under Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, Bowen was a pass-rushing dynamo. He sacked Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson twice, coming from the outside in the first quarter to force a fumble that led to a Washington field goal and blazing up the middle in the fourth quarter to stop a critical drive with the Redskins clinging to a three-point lead.
Bowen was the defensive star of the afternoon at FedEx Field, providing an immediate example of the unpredictably disruptive defensive tactics that Williams plans to unveil on a weekly basis this season.
'Every week a new hero' is the mantra of the Redskins' defense, which plans to apply the same principles that allowed Bowen to break free into the backfield game after game: putting defenders in one-on-one matchups designed to allow anyone -- lineman, linebacker or defensive back -- the chance to be that Sunday's most valuable player. Undoubtedly, Bowen will not be such a defensive fulcrum today when Washington faces the Giants at the Meadowlands -- New York's more diverse offense will prompt Washington to adopt different defensive schemes than last week. But the Redskins are committed to forcing opposing offenses to prepare for pressure from anywhere on the field in passing situations.
"If a defense has something like that on their side -- the unexpected -- then that gives us the advantage," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "And to know that somebody who hasn't had sacks in that long can go out and get two and force a fumble and be the leading tackler, now we've got to focus on Matt Bowen? We've got to stop Matt Bowen? . . .
"So this week, who will step up? And it'll be somebody you guys least expect to step up and now it's like, 'Okay, now we have to account for him too? Geez, what's next?' And that's how a defense becomes very dominant -- everybody doing what they're supposed to do, everybody making plays and the focus has to be on the whole 11 players on that team."
The safety blitz is a staple of Williams's repertoire, which he honed in his years as a defensive assistant in Tennessee and head coach the last three years in Buffalo. But the degree to which the high-risk call is made depends on such things as the tendencies of the offense, the score, the down and distance to go for a first down and the personnel on the field. A safety must be smart, strong and swift to execute the play and get to the quarterback in three or four seconds before he releases the ball.
Bowen, 27, said he tries to block out the rush of adrenaline that comes once the play is called and focus on his mental cues. He has an instant to study the exchange between the center and quarterback and make sure it will be a passing play. He must read the offensive line to see is anyone is shifting toward him. In his first sack Sunday, the 6-foot-1, 207-pound safety detected fullback Mike Alstott midstride and picked his plan of attack, taking an outside route and pushing Alstott aside.
"You've got to think," Bowen said. "Gregg Williams always says, 'Slow your heartbeat down and make a decision, because it's going to be there.' You've got to know what you're going to do; you can't just run in there out of control or you're not going to do anything. Then you might as well just stop at the line of scrimmage and watch the play."
Blitzing a safety is better suited to a short-to-medium range passing offense like Tampa Bay's. The Giants have more deep weapons at receiver, a game-breaking tight end, Jeremy Shockey, and a former NFL most valuable player, Kurt Warner, at quarterback. But for Williams the goal is always to get to the passer, a strong contrast to the team's defensive philosophy last season.
Washington was poor defending the run and the pass in 2003, ranking 25th overall in defense and finishing with a 5-11 record, and rarely unleashed anyone from the secondary after the quarterback. Bowen said he spent almost all of last season, during which he started every game, hanging back in pass coverage. On most running plays he was a non-factor and blitzing was not part of his job description.
"I played center field a lot last year," Bowen said. "And when you do that you have the opportunity to make some plays in the passing game, but a lot of the time you're not involved as much in the running game as you want, and I think in this defense Gregg has given me the opportunity to be in the mix, and whatever happens from that now is up to me. . . . They put you in a position to make those plays and then it comes down to a one-on-one matchup. I think NFL football is all about one-on-one matchups."
Williams could not agree more. He said he strives to get his players lined up in a gap or against a blocker that puts them in the best position to reach the quarterback. He deploys multiple blitzers in many cases and it is incumbent on the players to beat the man blocking them. "That's what we've tried to sell from the time we got here," Williams said. "There's no excuse for not winning in a one-on-one situation in the pass rush."
Even in the cases when Bowen got his sacks last Sunday, the plays were not created solely for the safety to do so. There were other players blitzing from other lanes and other positions on the field at the same time -- "If you've got a heartbeat and a jersey you get a chance to pressure," safeties coach Steve Jackson said -- and their success is not only measured in sacks, but in doing anything they can to disrupt the timing of the offense.
"Everybody has got to know where they fit within the scheme on any call that comes up," defensive lineman Joe Salave'a said. "Matt Bowen happened to be the guy last week, but there were other guys not too far away from having the kind of game Matt did, and that's the luck of the draw. You take what the offense gives you and you run with it and try to exploit them as much as possible."
Warner said: "They do a lot of different things and they have guys that can win one-on-one matchups across the board, and that's what you love to see, because it allows a defense to attack from a lot of different angles and do a lot of different things. And they've got some great personnel so far in what I've seen. I've noticed them flying around making a lot of plays -- a lot of big plays -- and putting guys in one-on-one situations and those guys are playing very well and winning those matchups a lot."
The Redskins blitzed on 70 percent of Tampa Bay's offensive plays, an extraordinarily high ratio even for Williams. "I've never been in a game where we've pressured that much before," he said.
But those decisions were based on the Buccaneers' offensive formations and their refusal to bring in extra tight ends and blockers to protect the quarterback. Having watched that tape, lacking talent on the offensive line and knowing that Warner has a history of concussions, the Giants place more of an emphasis on protecting the quarterback.
"We'll have to adapt when teams max protect more," Williams said. "For whatever reason Tampa chose not to max protect, and New York might, and if that happens then we're going to have to adapt."
Despite holding Tampa Bay to 169 total yards and three points (the Buccaneers defense scored Tampa's touchdown), last Sunday's debut for the defense was far from perfect.
Williams believes his team's effort and enthusiasm covered up some mistakes. Washington was nearly burned on a safety blitz in the first quarter, for example; Bowen came after the passer and rookie Sean Taylor, the free safety, took a bad angle on wide receiver Joey Galloway as he raced toward the end zone, Williams said. Taylor did well to recover however, and Galloway failed to grab a sure touchdown pass.
"Sometimes you've got to be lucky," Williams said.
The first game was also the smallest of windows into what Williams has in store. The defensive coaches revealed little, using the same formations repeatedly while relying heavily on four or five calls. "We were able to get through that game and not actually show too much of what we have," Arrington said. There was an occasional bit of trickery and rotation, with cornerback Shawn Springs lined up along the defensive line at times and linebackers shifting around, but far less motion than will be prevalent once the players get more settled in the system.
By that time, under Williams's plans, safeties will align as linebackers and vice versa in a maze of activity that will end just moments before the ball is snapped. The true formation will be disguised for as long as possible. Substitutions will be frequent -- "We're going to use as many different people as we can and as many different packages as we can," Williams said -- and the Redskins believe the opposition will often be left guessing as to where the blitz will originate.
"You have to be concerned, is Lott coming?" Jackson said, referring to Redskins' free safety Andre Lott. "Is Taylor coming? Is LaVar coming? Is [linebacker] Marcus [Washington] coming? Are the tackles dropping? Are the ends dropping? They all work together in unison on those things and last week it was Matt. This week it could be 'Big Stick' [Fred] Smoot. It may be Coach Williams coming off the sidelines. You never know."