The Washington Times - October 17, 2012, 12:33AM

ANALYSIS/OPINION

A review of the best and worst performances by the Washington Redskins’ defense and some observations after re-watching the FOX telecast of their 38-26 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

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GAME BALLS

ILB LORENZO ALEXANDER: The One Man Gang capitalized on the opportunity coaches gave him in sub packages and made a major impact. When role players such as Alexander play as well as he did, it contributes to a winning formula.

When ILB Perry Riley blocked RB Adrian Peterson into QB Christian Ponder in the second quarter, and Ponder threw with an empty hand, Alexander located the ball and caught it at the Vikings’ 13 to set up Washington’s second touchdown.

On the next series, he made two big plays to preserve the Redskins’ 8-point lead entering halftime. On second-and-11, he chased down WR Percy Harvin from behind on a screen and tackled Harvin two yards short. Alexander isn’t known for great change-of-direction ability, but he was excellent in reversing course to pursue Harvin after taking two steps the other way as the Vikings faked an inside draw.

On the ensuing third-and-2, Alexander’s perseverance was why he split a sack with DE Stephen Bowen. Alexander rushed Ponder from the left side of the defense inside OLB Ryan Kerrigan. Alexander first engaged RG Brandon Fusco. Alexander pushed his way up the field into RT Phil Loadholt, who was occupied by Kerrigan. When Alexander knocked Loadholt back, Kerrigan looped inside and engaged Fusco. Loadholt, meanwhile, was off balance, so Alexander redirected to Ponder for the sack.

In the second half, Alexander recorded a full sack on a stunt with Bowen. Veteran LG Charlie Johnson didn’t switch off when Bowen slanted outside. When Alexander looped underneath Bowen, he had a clean run at Ponder.

In the second quarter, Alexander knocked Ponder down by getting around the right edge. He leaned into the cut to get around LT Ryan Kalil quickly and sharply.

ILB LONDON FLETCHER: The captain was as active as he has been in any game this season. He was credited with a sack in the fourth quarter because he closed on QB Christian Ponder in a flash when Ponder decided to keep the ball on a bootleg and slide. Fletcher came up so fast that Ponder slid at the line of scrimmage.

His best play might have been the block he threw on FS Madieu Williams’ interception return. Ponder inexplicably overthrew WR Michael Jenkins on a short checkdown. After the ball sailed over Jenkins’ head and Williams dove to catch it, Jenkins immediately became a tackler and went after Williams. Fletcher, though, turned himself into human missile and launched himself into Jenkins as Jenkins was about to touch Williams down by contact. The block allowed Williams to get up and return the interception 24 yards for a touchdown that increased the Redskins’ lead to 31-12.

Fletcher saved a touchdown on Minnesota’s final possession. RB Adrian Peterson ran from the backfield across the goal line, stopped and tried to post Fletcher up. But Fletcher was in his back pocket and batted Ponder’s throw away. Two plays later, CB DeAngelo Hall’s interception clinched the victory.

Fletcher benefited from some quality defensive line play in the running game. He made several tackles by dodging linemen whom the Redskins’ front slowed.

FS MADIEU WILLIAMS: Williams’ 24-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter gave the Redskins an insurmountable lead. QB Christian Ponder’s throw was abysmal. He wasn’t pressured on a short checkdown to WR Michael Jenkins. The throw sailed high because Ponder’s front shoulder flew open and he awkwardly came through with his right (plant) foot. Williams was in the right place in zone coverage to make a big play. He dove and got both hands underneath the ball to secure the catch, and then got up to return it. He used CB Josh Wilson’s block to get around the edge and made an athletic play in diving for the pylon.

His discipline in coverage helped the Redskins hold the Vikings to a field goal on their first drive. On second-and-goal from the 5, the Vikings tried a play-action pass to WR Devin Aromashodu, who ran to the post from Williams’ side of the field. Williams didn’t bite on the play fake, though. He maintained inside position in coverage to prevent Armoashodu from catching the pass in the end zone.

While the Redskins rotated strong safeties depending on whether the base or nickel defense was on the field, Williams was a mainstay. He played 81 of 84 defensive snaps, according to the league. He tackled well in the secondary, which helped the Redskins limit to one Minnesota’s pass plays of more than 20 yards.

ILB PERRY RILEY: As Riley approaches a full season’s worth of career starts, we have learned what to expect from him. He’s a sure tackler. He’s also extremely aggressive against the run, which can be positive or negative. It’s one reason why the Redskins enter divisional play this week ranked in the top half of the NFL (15th) in rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.95), but also a reason why they have given up so many big plays. In other words, Riley has proven susceptible to misdirection. On Sunday, nothing negative hurt the Redskins enough to outweigh his many positive contributions.

He changed the game in the second quarter with a powerful left-edge rush that drove RB Adrian Peterson back into QB Christian Ponder and knocked the ball out of Ponder’s hand as Ponder tried to throw. Riley was not credited with a sack – Washington was credited with a team sack – but he is the reason why ILB Lorenzo Alexander had an opportunity to snatch the ball out of midair to position the Redskins for their second touchdown. Riley was so fast coming around the edge that Peterson didn’t create enough space to withstand Riley’s push and stay clear of Ponder. Riley exploded up into Peterson with a lower pad level and pushed Peterson back.

With 3:36 remaining in the game, Riley broke up the Vikings’ 2-point conversion attempt to preserve the Redskins’ 5-point lead and afford them a bit more breathing room. TE Kyle Rudolph tried a stop-and-start crossing route just inside the goal line. Riley wrapped his left arm around Rudolph when he stopped, and Rudolph couldn’t break away when he wanted to. It probably should have been penalized, but it wasn’t, so Riley gets credit for making the play.

Riley’s biggest run stop helped Washington hold the Vikings to a field goal on their third drive. On third-and-4 from the 10, he dodged LT Matt Kalil’s block attempt on the second left and tackled RB Toby Gerhart, who took an inside handoff.

Minnesota’s longest pass play – a 23-yard dig to WR Percy Harvin on second-and-10 from the Redskins’ 37 in the first quarter – is an example of Riley’s aggression affecting a negative play. CB DeAngelo Hall covered Harvin wide to the right. The Vikings ran play action, as Harvin pushed up the field. Hall stayed off Harvin, ostensibly to defend against a go route. When Harvin cut in to the middle of the field, Hall didn’t cut sharply with him. Perhaps that’s because Hall was looking in at the quarterback, or it might have been because Hall expected Riley to help him underneath. On the other side of the play, ILB London Fletcher dropped to take away the dig. Riley, though, rushed up to the line of scrimmage when the Vikings faked a handoff. He recovered to make the tackle, but not in time to defend the throw.

GASSERS

No gassers for the defense this week after its most complete game of the season. The Vikings scored only two touchdowns, and they occurred after the Redskins began protecting a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter. When the score was close in the first half, Washington stood firm on three consecutive drives in the red zone. The defense gave the offense time to get going by holding Minnesota to three field goals. The Redskins also finished the victory with an interception.

The defense was not perfect, and Minnesota did plenty to beat itself, including dropped passes and several unforced, inaccurate throws by QB Christian Ponder. But the Vikings’ 94 rushing yards were their lowest total of the season. The defense limited big plays, scored a touchdown and set up another. A job well done.

OBSERVATIONS

Washington limited the Vikings to field goals on their first four drives inside the 20-yard line. Because the Redskins’ offense is averaging 25 points per game (that excludes the 28 points scored by defensive touchdowns), this is part of a winning formula going forward. Without several injured starters, including OLB Brian Orakpo, DE Adam Carriker and SS Brandon Meriweather, the “bend-but-don’t-break” approach has merit.

Of course, not “breaking” means making plays inside the 20, and that’s what the Redskins did.

The overriding principle is that these stops are a full team effort. It’s linemen and linebackers shedding blocks and pressuring the quarterback. It’s linebackers making tackles in space. It’s defensive backs staying disciplined in coverage. When the Redskins put it all together, the results are positive, as they were Sunday.

On Minnesota’s first series, FS Madieu Williams helped prevent a touchdown pass on second-and-goal from the 5 by maintaining his depth on a play-action fake on second down. On third-and-goal, NT Barry Cofield was low and powerful off the ball and pushed the pocket by driving RG Brandon Fusco back. QB Christian Ponder was quick to give up on the pocket and try to extend the play rolling to his right, and he had to throw short of the end zone.

On the Vikings’ second trip inside the red zone, SS Reed Doughty tackled RB Adrian Peterson from behind for a loss of 2 on first-and-10 from the 14. Doughty was unblocked on the backside, and he got down the line to make the stop. On third-and-12, rookie LB Keenan Robinson did an excellent job of avoiding TE Kyle Rudolph’s block in space on a screen and diving to trip up Peterson five yards short of a first down. Peterson might have scored on the play if Robinson hadn’t been so agile, although ILB London Fletcher was closing in.

On Minnesota’s third push inside the 20, OLB Ryan Kerrigan and RDE Stephen Bowen got off their blocks on first down to tackle Peterson for a loss of 1. After a checkdown pass got the Vikings into third-and-4, they ran an inside draw to RB Toby Gerhart. LB Perry Riley dodged LT Matt Kalil’s block and made the stop. Minnesota had WR Percy Harvin lined up against CB David Jones on the play, with S Jordan Pugh over the top. Why the Vikings didn’t try to exploit that matchup, I have no idea.

You get the point, though. Success in the red zone (and its close cousin, third down) takes a wide variety of contributions and contributors.

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Credit the Redskins coaches for coming up with an effective rotation at strong safety. SS Reed Doughty’s strong suit is run defense, and his relative lack of speed is a reason why others are better in coverage. So the Redskins used Doughty in the base defense and brought in Jordan Pugh in sub packages. They effectively benched DeJon Gomes, who replaced Pugh when Pugh suffered a head injury in the fourth quarter.

According to the league, Doughty played 44 of 84 snaps (52 percent); Pugh played 36 (43 percent) and Gomes played six (7 percent). Because it worked Sunday, it wouldn’t be surprising for the Redskins to continue the rotation until Brandon Meriweather comes back from his sprained knee in about three more weeks.

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And speaking of effective rotations, coaches went away from OLB Chris Wilson (only 2 defensive snaps) and tried to generate pressure by using newly-signed OLB Mario Addison (11 snaps) and ILB Lorenzo Alexander, who has experience at outside linebacker. They also occasionally rushed ILB Perry Riley off the edge.

“Just confusion,” Riley said. “We needed to get more pressure on the quarterback. I think Coach Haz (defensive coordinator Jim Haslett) and the defensive staff did a great job coming up with a scheme that caused a lot of confusion. A lot of different people was going at a lot of different times. They didn’t know who was blitzing, who was dropping back. We was able to cause a lot of confusion and get a lot of pressure. Sometimes they called the wrong person, and you knew you had their protection. Other times they’d just let people go free because they didn’t really know.”

Addison showed some burst as an edge rusher. He applied some pressure in matchups against a heavy-footed LT Matt Kalil, who was drafted two spots after Robert Griffin III in April.

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WR Percy Harvin finished with a quiet 11 receptions for 133 yards. The Redskins never let him get behind the defense, and they did well rallying to tackle him when he caught the ball in any amount of space. Redskins corners took turns matching up with Harvin. OLBs Ryan Kerrigan and Rob Jackson checked him on a couple plays. Kerrigan jammed him at the line; Jackson stayed underneath him in a zone. Perhaps the most impressive was CB David Jones, who was released at the end of the preseason. One play that stands out was Jones running stride for stride with Harvin on a slant, and Harvin didn’t get the ball.

Speaking of Jones, he played 40 snaps, according to the league, while rookie CB Richard Crawford played only one – after CB Josh Wilson left the game for one play after being kneed in the chest. It was another personnel tweak coaches made to try to improve the defense.

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CB DeAngelo Hall played a few snaps at safety. They were mostly running situations in which could play deep as a last line of defense against the pass. On one play, the Redskins appeared to be a in a Cover 2 defense, and the Vikings hit a corner route. A safety in that defense usually has to help cover that route, but I’m not sure if it was Hall’s responsibility.

Hall missed tackling RB Adrian Peterson on a 32-yard run – Minnesota’s longest play from scrimmage - on the first series when he tried to hit him low with his shoulder instead of wrapping up. After that, Hall tackled much better. He wrapped up and was not afraid to stick his face into his opponent.

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I thought the pass interference against CB Josh Wilson in the end zone in the fourth quarter was a good call. It appeared to me as though Wilson pushed WR Devin Aromashodu in the chest with his left hand after the ball was in the air. That Wilson had his back to the quarterback and hadn’t found the ball yet did not help his cause.

Overall, this was one of the better matchups for Washington’s corners. WR Percy Harvin was by far the greatest threat in the bunch. Beyond him, Redskins corners physically could stay with Michael Jenkins and Aromashodu. Then add the fact that QB Christian Ponder was inaccurate and missed some open throws, and this was the secondary’s best game.

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Teams continue to attack ILB London Fletcher with high throws. TE Kyle Rudolph caught a successful 2-point conversion on an out-and-up past Fletcher. QB Christian Ponder lobbed a high throw to Rudolph, who at 6-6 has an eight-inch height advantage over Fletcher. Fletcher mistimed his jump, and Rudolph caught it easily. New Orleans and Atlanta exploited the same height advantage.

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Lastly, WR Niles Paul deserves mention in the defense’s review because of two plays he made covering punts. He caught a punt at the 4-yard line. All the Redskins did on the ensuing series was return an interception for a touchdown.

He also provided a candidate for second-best highlight of the game when he nearly decapitated punt returner Marcus Sherels in the fourth quarter. Paul ran through Sherels at full speed, knocking Sherels’ helmet off. After watching the replay, I still believe Paul’s hit was helmet-to-helmet, but it should not have been a penalty because Sherels was not defenseless. He defended himself by turning his body slightly after the catch. Paul timed the hit perfectly.