Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, taking a look at the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team:
With the Redskins on a bye last week, we had no new video to review and discuss. So instead, I looked back at the defense over the first four weeks of the season. The huge talking point coming into the season on defense was the state of the secondary. Sixth-round rookie Bacarri Rambo was named the starter at free safety after an up and down preseason. In the opening two games, Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett seemed to want to ease Rambo into the role, keeping a second safety deep alongside Rambo to cut the field in half for him.
The problem with that is that you lose the extra defender in the box against the run. Normally a safety would come down and be the eighth defender in the box. But 3-4 defenses can cope without the eighth defender because they use three defensive linemen who cover two gaps. However, the Eagles and Packers both run a high percentage of plays with three wide receivers on the field.
The Redskins were forced into their nickel package, which sacrifices a defensive lineman for an extra defensive back. Washington wanted to avoid giving up big plays, so it kept both safeties deep and matched up three corners on three receivers. Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly loves to play a numbers game with the defense. During his time at Oregon, Kelly would often spread out a defense to gain a numbers advantage on the inside and run the ball.
That’s exactly what happened here. In order to cover all three receivers and still play two deep safeties, the Redskins could only have six defenders in the box. Without the third defensive lineman on the field, there are fewer players who can take on double teams and cover two gaps. Philadelphia has six blockers, meaning that if every blocker is able to block (or at least cut off) one defender, there is no extra defender to tackle the runner.
Green Bay was able to do the exact same thing. Backup running back James Starks took full advantage of this, particularly on his 32-yard touchdown run.
Again, Washington is in its nickel package and keeping both safeties deep.
The Packers get the same look that the Eagles did, six defenders against six blockers.
Barry Cofield is able to occupy two blockers, but it doesn’t matter. The Packers fullback is able to block Perry Riley Jr. in the hole.
Starks runs untouched into the secondary through no real fault of the defensive front. Rambo is blocked by wide receiver Jordy Nelson, which leaves just Reed Doughty to make the play. When Doughty is unable to bring him down, Starks walks into the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown.
Haslett had to make a change to stop the run. The secondary was always going to be a problem for Washington this season, but if they gave up yards on the ground as well then they had no chance. Having given up 402 rushing yards over the first two games, Haslett made a key change. He moved Rambo to the bench and played Brandon Meriweather as the only safety. The Lions attempted the same thing that the Eagles and Packers had, bringing a third receiver on to the field. But this time, Washington kept three defensive linemen on the field and played Josh Wilson in a hybrid corner/safety role.
Against Detroit, Meriweather played as a single-high safety for a lot of the game, with Wilson rotating from a safety position down to cover the slot.
That allowed Jim Haslett to deploy his base front seven defense to stop the run. This time the Redskins have seven defenders in the box, including three defensive linemen, against Detroit’s six blockers.
The Redskins went from giving up 402 yards on 73 rushes in their opening two games, to just 63 yards from 23 carries against the Lions. Detroit still went on to win the game, but only by a touchdown.
Having seen this improvement from the Redskins, Oakland opted to play from their base package. That allowed Wilson to move back to his corner position. Reed Doughty came in at strong safety.
This is what the Redskins would ideally like to see. Their base package is solid against the run and made stronger when they can bring a safety down into the box.
This gives Washington the numbers advantage with eight defenders against seven blockers (The Raiders’ No. 8 in the above photo would be the ballcarrier). Against the Raiders, the Redskins gave up just 3.4 yards per carry (not including the 19-yard run on Oakland’s fake punt).
The Redskins’ secondary issues have been obvious since last season. The addition of rookies David Amerson and Bacarri Rambo along with free agent E.J. Biggers weren’t going to fix everything. But keeping two safeties deep in nickel packages was causing the Redskins problems up front without really benefiting the pass defense that much. Washington can’t afford to give up both the run and the pass if they want to have any chance of success on defense, so Haslett was forced to make a change. They simply had to slow down the opposition’s rushing attack. While they continued to give up yards in the air, the Redskins did see an improvement in run defense. That, at least, gives the Redskins something to build on coming out of the bye week against Dallas.
Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesday.
● More from Mark Maske at the NFL owners’ meetings.
More on the Redskins and NFL: