In his second regular season week at the helm, Greg Manusky ramped things up another notch. Like a tactical general, he went at the Los Angeles Rams with multiple looks, situation-specific player pairings and diverse pressures.
Players shuttled on and off the field. One safety on, another off. Second safety off, extra cornerback on. Linemen off, extra linebackers on. And on and on.
The Washington Redskins aren't unique in their frequent substitutions. And Manusky certainly isn't the first aggressive defensive coordinator. The Redskins still need improvement on third downs and in overall consistency. But Manusky's philosophy and the improved depth and versatility in Washington's defensive ranks give the Redskins a better chance to field that opportunistic, game-changing unit they have long lacked.
"We have some versatile guys out there, especially defensive linemen," Coach Jay Gruden said. "They can play nickel and base, which is important. You've got to be able to stop the run, even in sub packages, and they do a good job. And our linebackers are athletic enough that they can play both. Then our safeties and corners, they're pretty good. [Manusky] does a good job, matching personnel, playing personnel, whatever he wants against whatever personnel is out there because our guys are athletic and they are versatile. . . . That speaks well of the people that we have on defense."
The days of 11 defensive players playing in all situations ended a while ago. With offenses constantly deploying complex alignments and groupings, defenses must come equipped with variations of their core unit, using different formations and personnel to better align with the opponent's offensive weaponry.
Maybe it's rookie safety Montae Nicholson sharing the defensive backfield with veteran D.J. Swearinger for a particular set of plays because Nicholson offers better size as a pass-rusher or coverage range on the back end. Or it could be Deshazor Everett at strong safety instead of Nicholson because he offers better experience facing another play type.
Or perhaps Manusky will go with the traditional two outside linebackers and three down linemen in base packages to better stop the run, or two edge rushers and two linemen in nickel packages designed to defend the run and get more pressure on the quarterback. Or Manusky might mix it up further by aligning those two edge rushers (Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith) on one side of the line and defensive end Jonathan Allen on the other, flanked by a third outside linebacker (Junior Galette) to get even more speed on the field to pursue the quarterback.
It's all about keeping the offense guessing.
"The packages we each run played to our strengths," said Nicholson, the fourth-round pick who played more snaps Sunday in nickel packages after playing almost exclusively on special teams in Week 1. "I'm a little taller. I have range. But [Everett] is fast, can hit and has experience. . . . It definitely throws [the offense] off. They're seeing guys on film, but they're not always seeing what every guy can do. It creates the unexpected. They're expecting one thing but get something else, and it gets harder for them."
Manusky displayed a preference for rotating pass rushers last season when he served as outside linebackers coach before receiving the promotion to coordinator this winter. He started Kerrigan and Smith, then rotated in Trent Murphy to give one of the starters a breather but also throw off an offensive tackle who was figuring out how to fend off the first guy. The new foe would throw the opposing tackle for a loop. That approach enabled Kerrigan to record double-digit sacks despite logging a career-low number of snaps, and Murphy (lost to injury this season) offered 8½ sacks off the bench.
Now the Redskins have Galette and rookie Ryan Anderson to sub in for Kerrigan and Smith or play alongside them if Manusky sees fit.
The approach extends to the defensive line where the rookie Allen and veterans Ziggy Hood and Stacy McGee start but still split snaps with Matt Ioannidis and Terrell McClain.
Of improved freshness, Hood said: "You feel like you have a little step faster than they do. You're a step quicker and able to do more at a certain part and time."
Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula used all of his players at multiple positions during the preseason, but narrowing the focus of second-year pro Ioannidis (playing him at defensive end only and not nose tackle as well) has led to drastic improvement. Ioannidis has played primarily with nickel packages and had a hand in a sack while recording three hits on the quarterback.
The Redskins will need as much diversity and aggression in their game plan Sunday as they can muster. They face an Oakland Raiders offense that boasts a big, powerful offensive line, so freshness and effectiveness are a must for the defensive linemen.
Quarterback Derek Carr, wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper and running back Marshawn Lynch lead an offense that has scored a league-best 35.5 points per game in the first two weeks of the season.
"These are the games you want. You want to go with the best of the best," defensive end McClain said. "You're going up against a No. 1 offense, and you can show the world what you're made of. It's going to be bloody. I can't wait for the matchup."
Note: Tight end Jordan Reed joined his teammates on the practice field Thursday despite rib and sternum injuries that sidelined him for contact drills the previous day. Reed joined the wide receivers for pass-catching drills under the supervision of position coach Ike Hilliard rather than work with fellow tight ends on blocking and receiving drills. It was not a padded practice.
"He did more today," Gruden said of Reed, "so I think the pain is becoming manageable, we hope. We'll see how he does" Friday.