Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry has come under heavy criticism by fans, media and even players for being too conservative, particularly on key third downs. He tends to send just three or four players on the pass rush more often than he blitzes with five or six. But against the Bengals, Barry was more aggressive: He designed and put together a blitz package built around rookie linebacker Su’a Cravens.
Barry used this package on just about every third down and any other obvious passing situations. While Cravens was a safety in college, he still displayed good potential as a pass-rusher on the blitz. Now, having moved Cravens to inside linebacker in the NFL, Washington has more opportunities to make use of that potential, which is what it did against Cincinnati. Its first idea was to run a “game,” or stunt, with Cravens and one defensive lineman.
Early in the first quarter, Washington gets its best pass-rushers on the field, withRyan Kerrigan and Preston Smith lining up on the edge while Trent Murphy kicks inside. Murphy and Cravens run a game, with Cravens attacking the inside shoulder of the right guard and Murphy stunting in behind him. The play is designed to get Murphy against Bengals running back Giovani Bernard in pass protection.
Cravens executes his role well, enabling Murphy to work inside. Yet Bernard, to his credit, does well to peel off Cravens and pick up Murphy long enough for quarterback Andy Dalton to get his throw away.
Later on, Washington came back with a similar look.
However, here the stunt changes slightly. Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood crashes inside, allowing Cravens to work in behind him to take on the running back.
Hood takes the guard inside, forcing Bernard to slide back outside to pick up Cravens. Cravens packs a punch as he initiates contact, but Bernard absorbs it well. Cravens then gets a second push and starts to work inside toward Dalton, butBernard again holds the blocker off just long enough for Dalton to fit a throw in a tight window.
In the second quarter, Washington again made a slight twist on the rush package.
This time, defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois aligns himself more inside, as a one technique between the center and left guard. Off the snap, he works outside to the guard, allowing Cravens to work inside into the A gap between the center and guard.
The two defenders execute the stunt perfectly. Cravens takes a few steps to the outside, getting the running back to step up into the wrong gap. Jean Francois then works his way to the back, leaving Cravens free to cut back inside. Cravens comes right up the middle and forces Dalton to get rid of the ball in a hurry, taking a hit in the process.
Washington even ran a game with Cravens and Preston Smith on the edge.
On this play, Cravens attacks the inside shoulder of the left tackle, with the intention of Smith stunting back inside behind him.
Cravens does his job on the play, landing a big hit on the left tackle while also occupying the running back. Perhaps Smith didn’t hear the call correctly or never had his assignment communicated, but he failed to work back inside. If he had, there was a good chance he would have been able to at least rush Dalton’s throw, if not get the sack.
Those were all five-man rushes involving Cravens running a game with one other defender. But Barry had more in his game plan than just that.
Here, Washington sends both inside linebackers, Cravens and Will Compton, as part of a six-man blitz. On the previous plays, Compton had lined up close to the line of scrimmage, acting as if he would blitz, but bailed out into coverage as the ball was snapped. On occasions, though, Washington sent both him and Cravens.
A key thing to notice on this play is the protection by Cincinnati. Notice how the tight end stays in to block Kerrigan initially, allowing the rest of the offensive line to pick up Compton. Also notice how Bernard, the running back, takes his first step outside, as if he intended to run to the flat, before he spotted Cravens blitzing and came back inside to pick him up.
I think this was a key part of the game plan. By sending Cravens on so many blitzes, they wanted to test out the running backs, particularly Bernard, in protection. But Bernard is a very dangerous check-down option too; the blitzes forced him to stay in to pass-protect, making him a rare option for Dalton as a check-down target. Bernard only had one catch in the game; he had entered averaging more than four receptions per.
Bernard does well on this occasion to block Cravens, but other defenders break through the protection and force Dalton to scramble. He manages to find his tight end, who peeled off from Kerrigan after an extended jam at the line of scrimmage, in the flat.
With the threat of both Compton and Cravens established as potential blitzers, Washington began to dictate protection schemes.
On this play, Washington lines up both Cravens and Compton in the A gaps on either side of the center.
Both Cravens and Compton drop into coverage, but the Bengals don’t know that pre-snap. Dalton motions for Bernard to step forward, closer to the line of scrimmage, to help him pick up the blitz. This not only told Washington that the Bengals were passing, but which protection scheme they were using as well, with Bernard in the A gap to the left of the center. Cravens and Compton sink to their coverage landmarks and adjust to the spot routes from the outside, taking them away. Dalton does a good job working to his receiver on the outside.
As the game went into the fourth quarter and overtime, Washington began to run more-elaborate blitzes, all from the same package centered on Cravens.
This is just a five-man rush, with Compton dropping into coverage again. But Cravens, Smith and defensive tackle Chris Baker all rush inside, while Trent Murphy stunts all the way around from the right guard to outside the left tackle.
Cravens bursts through the line of scrimmage quickly, forcing the back to pick him up quickly. Baker and Smith do a good job of working inside and giving Murphy space to work behind them. Kerrigan wins his one-on-one with the right tackle, and Cravens begins to drive the back towards Dalton. Murphy comes free off of the left edge, while Smith works off the block from the left tackle. Dalton has nobody to throw to and nowhere to step up in the pocket, and Kerrigan is the first to get to him and bring him down for the sack.
Barry also added more complex six-man blitzes late in the game.
Here, both Cravens and Compton blitz from the same side of the offensive line. Hood, at defensive tackle, works inside, forcing the right guard towards the center, while Kerrigan rushes wide to take the right tackle outside. The play is designed to leave the back against both Cravens and Compton.
Cincinnati does a good job of sliding the offensive line to the right, meaning the center works to his right off the snap and takes on Hood. That frees up the right guard to help the back with Cravens and Compton. Compton arrives first and takes the guard wide, opening up an inside lane for Cravens to take on the running back. As Cravens engages with the back, he gets his eyes on the quarterback and spots Dalton beginning his throwing motion. Cravens alertly gets his hands up and tips the pass, deflecting it away from its target, incomplete.
For the majority of the snaps he was on the field, Cravens was used as a fifth rusher. Rarely did he drop in coverage. Only occasionally did Washington fake a blitz and have Cravens drop back, but when it did, it succeeded.
This time, Washington switches up the roles of Compton and Cravens, Compton getting his turn to blitz while Cravens drops back into coverage. Washington also rotates a safety down over the slot and sends slot cornerback Kendall Fuller on the blitz.
Cravens has a tough assignment, faking a blitz look before dropping back and picking up a slot receiver running down the seam. But that’s the advantage of having a converted safety playing linebacker: Cravens is athletic enough to get back and pick up the receiver. Dalton appeared to lock on to that receiver and is surprised by Cravens getting back to pick him up. With pressure arriving, Dalton is forced to scramble up the middle and picks up a solid gain.
All told, this blitz package had varying levels of success. Washington managed to pressure some throws and get a few sacks, though the Bengals also did a good job of picking up some of the stunts and giving Dalton time to find open receivers. Regardless, the package shows that Barry is willing to mix things up and get creative. Basing it around Cravens was a clever idea both because he has potential as a pass-rusher and because it took away Bernard as a check-down option for Dalton. As Cravens continues to develop and progress, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of these types of blitz packages in Washington’s game plans over the second half of the season.
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