A week after failing to contain a quarterback making his fifth NFL start and a reserve receiver with only four previous catches, the Washington Redskins' once-dominant defense will face a quarterback with Super Bowl experience and a five-time Pro Bowler who is considered one of the best receivers in the game.
Only two weeks ago, the Washington Redskins ranked first overall in the NFL against the pass, with the run defense conceding huge plays, but Philadelphia and, last week, Tampa Bay relied almost entirely on the passing game and attacked with considerable success. The Redskins' next opponent, the Oakland Raiders (3-6), is a franchise long enamored with the long ball under owner Al Davis and one even better equipped to give the cornerbacks and safeties fits Sunday at FedEx Field.
"We can't give up the big play," Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "That's what we do, and we have to stop that. That's got to be part of our maturation process."
The 5-4 Redskins, now ninth in the league against the pass, may be without two of their premier defensive players again, with defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, a key to the pass rush, and strong safety Sean Taylor, hindered by lingering injuries. Without them, Tampa Bay's 21st-ranked passing game thrived, even without top receiver Michael Clayton. The Redskins must now adjust to an Oakland passing attack that is ranked sixth in the league and was buoyed by Randy Moss's return to health last week. He is expected to start Sunday alongside receiver Jerry Porter, a Washington native.
Cracks in the pass defense had appeared against the Eagles, who lacked a running game and turned to quarterback Donovan McNabb, who threw for 304 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown to rookie receiver Reggie Brown, in Washington's, 17-10 win. Similarly, the Buccaneers failed to muster a run of any consequence the following week, and were forced into repeated obvious passing situations, yet prospered despite the inexperience at their skill positions.
Washington's pass rush, which included a host of cornerback blitzes, left the rest of the secondary undermanned, and the Buccaneers capitalized on those situations to win.
The Redskins remain ultra-aggressive under defensive coach Gregg Williams, but have slipped considerably with opponents adjusting to their schemes and scoring 36 points in two of the last three games. Washington has just 14 sacks through nine games (only three teams have fewer), only four interceptions (tied for third-worst in the NFL) and seven takeaways, tied for worst overall.
The Redskins have a host of strong defensive linemen, but lack a dominant pass-rushing end and do not generate much pressure with a four-man rush. Generally, they need to involve linebackers and defensive backs to create pressure on the quarterback and Williams is at the vanguard of the league-wide trend of "fire-zone" blitzing, the very scheme that gave Washington's offense so much trouble in 2004.
Various players give the appearance that they will be leaving their position to attack the passer, but only some are actually doing so, with disguise the key. When safeties, corners or linebackers rush, linemen and other players drop back into the zone the blitzer would normally fill, taking away the short-range passes most teams use to counter the blitz. But if the offense identifies the correct areas of attack, adjusts by using more tight ends and backs to block, deploys only a receiver or two and goes to a quick, three-step drop with the quarterback -- as opponents have recently -- then the Redskins are susceptible downfield, as the Tampa Bay game illustrated.
"You try to go within reason," Coach Joe Gibbs said., "and to make sure you're doing smart things. And you take a long, hard look at a game like this and say, 'Okay, what can we do to improve ourselves?' But I think we need to stay aggressive, and I think we all want to be aggressive."
Last season the Redskins confounded passers for the better part of 16 games, and offenses could not function against repeated cornerback and safety blitzes. Cornerback Shawn Springs tied for the team lead with six sacks -- the only defensive back in the NFL with that distinction -- while the secondary totaled nine sacks overall (23 percent of the 40 overall sacks). This season, despite routine blitzing, the backfield does not have a sack, with teams bracing for the onslaught and capitalizing on it, in some cases.
"The blitz is designed to get there and when it doesn't get there, you're in trouble," said defensive end Phillip Daniels. "Teams adjust on that."
Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms had been sacked 11 times in his previous two games, looking confused with little time to make plays. Williams, who speaks to the media only on Thursdays, aimed to exploit that tendency, but the Redskins never sacked him. Simms altered his pre-snap routine to try to detect the origins of the oncoming assault, and passed for 279 yards and a career-best 119.8 passer rating, about 40 points higher than ever before.
"On film we saw them just come up and snap the ball," Daniels said. "But [Sunday] he was going into a cadence and when everybody comes up there and he sees blitz, then he throws it deep downfield. Maybe it's because of all the big plays we gave up the weeks before, and they used that to their advantage."
Springs attacked from the left side early in the game, leaving linebacker Marcus Washington and backup safety Pierson Prioleau (who lacks Taylor's speed) in zone coverage with wide receiver Joey Galloway; Galloway's wide open 34-yard reception down the sideline set up the first score. "Early in the game, they blitzed a few times and we picked it up," Simms said. "We made a few plays downfield and I think it scared them away for a little bit."
But late in the third quarter, with the Buccaneers trailing 28-21, Williams went for the kill. He blitzed on third and nine, leaving rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers to defend Edell Shepherd with no safety help, and Shepherd had a 46-yard catch on a drive that led to the tying touchdown.
"We were in an all-out blitz," Rogers said, "and we were banking on them not having time to throw it. We've got to tighten our coverage up, because at times we can't rely on the blitz getting there ."
Simms, a third-round pick in 2003, and Shepherd, a third-year undrafted free agent, shared their greatest professional moment with 65 seconds left and the Buccaneers trailing 35-28. The Redskins blitzed from the secondary again on second and 10, leaving corner Walt Harris without support on Shepherd and the receiver got behind the defense once more for a 30-yard touchdown catch.
"It's really tough, no matter who you are," Harris said. "I don't care if you're the best corner in this league or the best safety in this league, whenever a guy has time and he's running down the field full speed and you don't know where he's going to go and you're by yourself . . . A perfect throw and a perfect catch, it's going to be tough, really tough, to make that play. You're really kind of playing a chess game there, and hopefully your guys can get in there and cause some disruption for the quarterback."