Washington Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield and defensive end Stephen Bowen rarely show up on sports-highlight shows. You won’t find their names atop stat sheets. They usually don’t make big plays — and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Wrestling with offensive linemen isn’t the best way to get noticed. But their outstanding work away from the spotlight has made Cofield and Bowen two of the team’s most important players during its stunning late-season resurgence. With a victory over Dallas on Sunday, Washington would win its first NFC East title in 13 seasons. The Redskins know what they can expect from Cofield and Bowen. The Cowboys do, too.
While reviewing tape of the Redskins’ six-game winning streak, Dallas Coach Jason Garrett noticed many potential problems in facing Cofield and Bowen. They are effective at occupying offensive linemen — that’s their top responsibility in Washington’s 3-4 defense — which opens lanes for linebackers to make tackles. They also “affect the quarterback in the passing game,” Garrett said. “In that scheme, typically, you don’t get great pass rush from those interior guys. But they’re good at what do.”
When it comes to harassing quarterbacks, Cofield and Bowen make a difficult job look easy.
During the Redskins’ streak, Cofield (you won’t find a more nimble 318-pounder in the game) has often dominated opposing centers and defeated double-teams. Bowen, quick and powerful, is a matchup problem for many offensive tackles. “I really feel like the game is slow for me right now,” Cofield said. “I just feel comfortable.”
Although quarterback “pressures” aren’t an official NFL statistic, their high totals during the past six games tell the story. Cofield leads the team with 16 pressures. Bowen is second with 11. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, is third with 10.
“For people who really don’t understand football, you wouldn’t have any idea how hard that is for [interior linemen] to get after the quarterback like that in our defense,” inside linebacker Perry Riley said. “You’re taking on all those linemen, you’re getting double-teamed . . . and they’re still making it happen. It’s definitely been a difference for our whole defense.”
The Redskins’ defense has been among the league’s worst from the opening kickoff this season. The biggest problem? Their safeties are awful in pass coverage.
The team ranks 28th overall in defense and 30th against the pass. In large part because of what Cofield and Bowen do upfront, though, the Redskins are fifth against the run.
After Washington dropped to 3-6, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett asked everyone under him to do more. Cofield and Bowen immediately stepped forward.
The Redskins had to improve their pass rush to compensate for the secondary’s deficiencies. Haslett did his part by calling more blitzes than he did in the first nine games. Cofield and Bowen began playing at their highest level of the season. The combination has disrupted the timing of opposing offenses.
It hasn’t been much fun for Haslett to comment on Washington’s defense. But you can’t get him to stop talking about Cofield and Bowen.
“They’re really perfect for everything you want to do in this defense,” he said. “They’re both good against the run and they’re good against the pass. They understand that they’re not going to make all the plays. They also know we can’t make the plays if they don’t do what they do.”
Nose tackle and outside linebacker are the key positions in a 3-4 defense. Nose tackles must engage centers and prevent them from blocking inside linebackers (it’s called getting to the second level of the defense). Defensive ends take on tackles, freeing outside linebackers to rush the quarterback and pursue ballcarriers on outside running plays.
In a 4-3 defense, with four linemen instead of three, defensive tackles and ends can become stars. They have more leeway to freelance and chase the quarterback.
Sure, Cofield and Bowen would enjoy a little star treatment. Who wouldn’t? But they’re most interested in winning.
“We know we’re the workhorses and we’re not going to get all the credit. That’s just the way it is,” Bowen said. “It’s our job is to make sure the linebackers flow easy and make the plays. When that happens, and it’s happening a lot, that’s what you take a lot of pride in. That’s when you know you’re doing your job.”
Cofield and Bowen have done their jobs well since joining Washington in free agency before the 2011 season. This season, they expected to shoulder more responsibility for the defense’s performance. They didn’t, however, envision losing veteran defensive end Adam Carriker for the season in the second game.
Second-year defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, still regaining form after sitting out the 2011 season because of a knee injury, took Carriker’s place in the starting lineup. Cofield and Bowen became mentors to Jenkins.
His improved play (he has nine pressures) during Washington’s surge reflects well on Cofield and Bowen. They have led by example as well as provided Jenkins with hands-on tutoring on how to best use his hands to fend off blockers. Teammates have noticed their effective teaching methods.
“You can just look at what they do, how they approach their jobs, and realize they do it the right way,” outside linebacker Rob Jackson said. “When younger guys have to step up, you want them to learn from the right guys. You couldn’t pick two better guys to do that.”
Every good team needs unsung heroes. That’s what Cofield and Bowen are for the Redskins. And although Cofield and Bowen enjoy the title, there’s a better one they soon hope to add: division champion.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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