Washington has officially hired Greg Manusky as its defensive coordinator, opting to promote from within instead of hiring an unfamiliar face from another organization. Manusky was the subject of praise from players after Washington fired Joe Barry earlier this month. While the team interviewed a number of candidates, they ultimately settled on the former 49ers, Chargers and Colts defensive coordinator.
With the Colts, Manusky ran multiple defensive fronts, switching between looks and gap principles. Under Manusky, the Colts mixed in both one-gap and two-gap fronts.
The two-gap scheme is what is traditionally associated with the 3-4 defense. The three defensive linemen are all bigger-bodied players who account for two gaps instead of one. The nose tackle lines up either directly over the center, or slightly shaded to one side as he is in the picture above. The two defensive ends line up over the tackles. Their job is to control their respective blockers, rather than just one gap. That clears up the linebackers to roam more freely and fill as they see fit.
Under Joe Barry, Washington ran a one-gap 3-4 scheme. This is, in theory, much simpler and more aggressive.
Instead of the three defensive linemen accounting for two gaps each and the linebackers filling, each defender is given one gap, allowing him to attack from the snap instead of having to pause to read his blocker. This allows the players to be more aggressive, but it also requires an eighth defender, usually the strong safety, to rotate down into the box to account for the extra gap.
Manusky incorporated one-gap schemes in Indianapolis, too, and was on Washington’s coaching staff last year. He could try to bring in some of the two-gap schemes, but I’m not sure Washington currently has the personnel to support that style. He may opt to just retain the system Washington ran under Barry with his own twists on a few fronts and play-calling.
The biggest difference fans will notice is Manusky was more aggressive with his blitz packages with Indianapolis than Joe Barry was in Washington. Manusky’s Colts often copied Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s blitz schemes, particularly the double A-gap package.
On third downs, Manusky would have two defenders, usually two linebackers or a linebacker and a safety, line up in the A gaps either side of the center. Only one would normally blitz while the other dropped into coverage, but it wasn’t predetermined who would blitz. Both A-gap defenders had to read the center once the ball was snapped. Both would begin to rush until the center turned to one or the other. Whichever one the center turned towards dropped into coverage while the other continued his rush.
In this case, the center turns to his left, telling the defender to that side to drop back into coverage while the other rushes.
The idea of this read is to make the center always wrong and force the running back to pass protect. The Colts added a twist on this play, with the A-gap blitzer attacking the right guard, while the three-technique defensive tackle loops around him.
Because of that twist, the running back is left trying to block the defensive tackle while the blitzing linebacker has a favorable angle on the right guard. Meanwhile, the center continues working to his left, oblivious to what’s happening behind him.
The coverage behind these types of blitzes varies. Often, they’ll try to pattern match wherever possible.
The five-man rush leaves six defenders to drop into coverage, with two deep safeties over the top.
With the running back forced to pass protect, the offense is left with just four receiving options. Manusky has his Colts play three-over-two coverage. The inside defender will wall off any receiver breaking inside, while the outside corner will take the first out-breaking route. The deep safety has to stay on top of both routes to take away the vertical option.
There is plenty of variety to these double A-gap schemes. Just about any defender can be sent on a blitz and any defender can be asked to drop into coverage. It can be used as a very aggressive front on obvious passing downs.
On this play, the Colts drop an edge rusher into coverage to be joined by one of the A-gap defenders after reading the center. But the Colts have the edge defender on the opposite side loop inside while also bringing a safety to replace him off the edge.
The center turns to his left, forcing the A-gap defender to that side to drop into coverage with the edge defender to that side. With the center sliding left, the Titans are overloaded to their right, forcing both the tight end and running back to stay in to help pick up the blitz.
But while this package is aggressive in nature, it can also be used as a rather conservative front too.
Here, the defensive end drops into coverage, while the two A-gap defenders read the center to determine which one of them rushes and which one drops into coverage.
The center looks to his left, signaling that defender to drop into coverage with the defensive end, leaving just four defenders to blitz.
Most of the time I saw Manusky use this scheme, he sent five rushers, which should get more pressure than the usual four-man rush that Barry used the majority of the time over the past two years. But the key was the different variations Manusky has within the scheme. Barry’s blitzes were often predictable and took too long to arrive. But with this scheme, the blitzers line up within five yards of the line of scrimmage and the defense can send any variation of blitzers, from three to seven rushers.
Manusky, with this scheme, should be much more aggressive. It’s a type of blitz package that could suit Su’a Cravens very well. He’s a very capable blitzer, but also has the athleticism to drop back from the A gap and get to a tight end running up the seam. Using the three-over-two coverage schemes, which Washington implemented under Barry at times, should also suit Josh Norman, who is excellent at reading routes and matching his coverage to the route combinations of the offense.
Fans might not feel enthusiastic about promoting from within after the defense struggled over the past two seasons under Barry. But Manusky has a more aggressive mind-set and should be willing to blitz more than Barry did. Simply blitzing more won’t solve all of Washington’s problems; clearly the team needs an influx of talent on defense, but that aggressive intent should help get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks who, at times last year, had all day in the pocket to find an open receiver.
Manusky will first have to decide exactly what type of scheme he wants to run. If he wants to use some of those two-gap principles he had in Indianapolis, then Washington will need to look for different types of defensive linemen than they have now. A big run-stuffing, two-gap nose tackle like Ravens free agent Brandon Williams might become a high priority for a two-gap system. But if Manusky opts to stick to the one-gap system Washington has used for the past two years, a more aggressive, penetrating nose tackle like Chiefs free agent Dontari Poe would be a better fit. The system will also affect some of Washington’s own potential free agents. Chris Baker has played in both one and two-gap systems during his time in the nation’s capital, but is more effective as a penetrating one-gap defender than a more-conservative two-gap defensive end. My guess would be that Manusky opts for more of a one-gap system because it suits Washington’s current personnel better and it matches more with his aggressive mentality.
Whichever scheme Manusky chooses to run, Washington has to add talent to its defense. With a scheme in place, the team can now move forward finding fits for Manusky. But without upgrades along the defensive line, at inside linebacker and at safety, it’s unlikely Manusky, or anyone, will be able to do a great deal more with this defense than what Joe Barry was able to.
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