Observations, analysis and conclusions about the Washington Redskins’ defense after re-watching the TV broadcast of their 27-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Redskins were beaten by a well-designed Pittsburgh offense that exploited advantageous individual matchups in the passing game and thrived because Washington generated almost no significant pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers beat Washington’s zone coverage by effectively putting pass defenders in conflict, and they beat press-man coverage using pick plays and separating from defenders with crisp, well-timed routes. Tackling was problematic for the Redskins’ run defense. Washington, for the first time this season, did not force a turnover to make up for its numerous shortcomings. Breakdowns were not isolated to a small group of players; they were widespread. The result was a rotten game that was beyond Washington’s reach almost immediately.
** The Redskins did not surrender a pass play of 40 yards or longer. That’s quite a low measure of success, but the defense averaged one per game entering Sunday, so it’s a starting point. The Steelers completed only two such passes in their first six games, so the vertical passing game hasn’t been a big part of their offense, but WRs Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are fast enough to beat the Redskins deep.
Washington appeared to play some Cover-3, sometimes with CB DeAngelo Hall as a deep free safety between the hash marks and CBs Josh Wilson and Cedric Griffin on the outsides. On several plays, Wilson crept back from the line of scrimmage before the snap, which would have helped him run with any vertical route. The Steelers countered by hooking up some routes for shorter completions.
** A Cover-0 blitz worked. We’ve seen it backfire against the Redskins enough that it must be noted the Redskins used it to get off the field on third-and-7 from their 12-yard line late in the second quarter.
When Washington positioned nine defenders along the line of scrimmage, the FOX field microphones picked up QB Ben Roethlisberger yelling out, “Zero! Zero! Zero! Zero!” which was cool because we usually don’t hear that stuff. Against the all-out blitz, Roethlisberger threw hot to WR Mike Wallace slanting from the left. CB Josh Wilson immediately made the tackle, limiting the Steelers to a 3-yard gain and forcing them to settle for a field goal.
Recall how Wilson gave up a touchdown in Cover-0 against Cincinnati when he slipped coming out of his break. But Cover-0 works when the quarterback gets rid of the ball quickly and the defender makes a one-on-one tackle.
If Roethlisberger had waited an extra second, he would have seen TE Heath Miller open down the seam for a walk-in touchdown. Miller was free because OLB Ryan Kerrigan initially rushed the quarterback and didn’t recover right away when Miller released on a pass route. But the blitz was successful in that it forced the quarterback to make a hurried decision, as it’s designed to do. Coach Mike Shanahan is a big proponent of that blitz, so we’ll continue to see it.
** The Redskins did manage one sack, albeit of WR Emmanuel Sanders. On the second play of the Steelers’ second drive, they ran an end-around to Sanders with the option to pass. They deployed only one receiver, Jerricho Cotchery, on a pass route, though. CB Josh Wilson stayed close to Cotchery, and before Sanders could tuck the ball and run, OLB Ryan Kerrigan pulled him down. ILB Perry Riley read the play well and helped string it out by sprinting into the backfield as Sanders took the ball. That occupied a blocker and helped free Kerrigan for the sack.
** The Redskins’ pass rush was nowhere near good enough. This problem isn’t going away, either. Washington averages a sack on 4.23 percent of opponents’ passing attempts; that ranks 27th in the league. (They ranked eighth last year at 8.06 percent.)
It’s not that QB Ben Roethlisberger sat in the pocket for ages on Sunday and picked the Redskins apart. Pittsburgh often moved the ball with quick throws that Washington didn’t have enough time to significantly affect with pressure. But the Redskins knocked Roethlisberger down only once, by my count. He stayed in rhythm and made most of his throws without having to adjust his feet or vision, and that’s a catalyst for exposing the Redskins’ secondary in coverage.
OLB Ryan Kerrigan didn’t generate enough pressure against Pittsburgh, and he generally hasn’t in recent weeks. And that’s not just because he’s occasionally double-teamed with OLB Brian Orakpo out for the season. He’s not winning one-on-on matchups, either. Rookie RT Mike Adams did not have much trouble with Kerrigan’s rip move. Kerrigan relies on the rip and the bull rush to get to the quarterback, and midway through his second season, it seems tackles expect that and defend accordingly.
“He was getting the ball away pretty quickly on a lot of them,” Kerrigan said after the game. “Unfortunately, on some of the scramble ones the guard worked back on me and that kind of got me out of my rush lane a couple of times. I just got to get there quicker. So close on so many times. I’ve got to find a way to get off the blocks quicker.”
Kerrigan late in the second quarter did provide a reminder of what pressure can accomplish. On second-and-9 from the Redskins’ 40, he beat TE Heath Miller by getting his hands inside Miller’s and using the rip move. He got around Miller enough to force Roethlisberger to double clutch and step up in the pocket. Roethlisberger hurried and overthrew an open WR Emmanuel Sanders over the middle. Pittsburgh went on to miss third-and-9 and punt.
DE Stephen Bowen, as part of only a three-man rush, forced Roethlisberger to step up on third-and-goal from the 7 in the second quarter. Bowen got into LT Max Starks’ chest and pushed him back. But Roethlisberger is so good at extending the play with his legs. He pump faked, then ran up toward the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, ILB Lorenzo Alexander lost Miller in the back of the end zone. It took 4.4 seconds from the snap until the throw, which is too long to have to cover.
Speaking of Alexander, the Redskins used him as a rush outside linebacker in their sub package more than Mario Addison (two defensive snaps) or Chris Wilson (none). Keenan Robinson played there some late in the game, but the Redskins miss Orakpo in that role.
** Missed tackles resulted in too many extra yards. The Steelers gained 85 yards after contact on 27 rushes. Pittsburgh gained at least 12 yards after contact on three rushes, totaling 47 yards after contact on those.
RB Jonathan Dwyer is a wide body to tackle at 5-11, 230 pounds, and his stiff arm is effective. Pittsburgh’s longest play of the game was Dwyer’s 34-yard carry to open the second series. He gained 20 yards after stiff-arming SS Reed Doughty in the head. Doughty attempted to wrap Dwyer up low around the waist and thighs - a good form tackle - but Dwyer’s stiff arm prevented it.
Dwyer gained all 12 of his yards on a second-half carry after stiff-arming ILB London Fletcher. Fletcher tried to wrap Dwyer too high, which is uncharacteristic for such a sure tackler. FS Madieu Williams had Dwyer around the ankle two plays later, but Dwyer stepped out of it and gained an additional seven yards.
RB Chris Rainey took a direct snap on third-and-3 on the opening series of the second half and gained 19 yards, 15 of which were after running through NT Barry Cofield’s left arm. In Cofield’s defense, though, the play should have been negated because G Ramon Foster clipped him. More on that below.
** The Steelers used legal pick plays to beat press-man coverage. Pick plays are extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, to defend in man-to-man, especially against a defense particularly mindful of taking away deep passes. Pittsburgh ran them to perfection.
QB Ben Roethlisberger’s longest completion, a 27-yarder to WR Emmanuel Sanders, resulted from a pick. CB DeAngelo Hall lined up over Sanders in the right slot. Hall was on the line of scrimmage, and Sanders was two yards behind it. That six-foot buffer helped Sanders get a free release. TE Heath Miller was lined up to the right of the right tackle, also two yards behind the line of scrimmage. ILB London Fletcher, who was responsible for covering Miller, lined up over Miller three yards off the line.
Sanders and Miller began the play running straight up the field, but Sanders cut behind Miller after only a couple steps. They were so precise that Sanders’ right shoulder brushed Miller’s back. As Hall broke inside to run with Sanders on the shallow cross, he had to drop an extra yard to avoid running into Fletcher. That created all the separation Sanders needed. Roethlisberger hit him in stride across the middle, and Hall couldn’t catch up. What’s worse, CB Josh Wilson wasn’t available to help Hall with the tackle near the left sideline because he turned and ran deep with WR Mike Wallace on a vertical route. The play was perfectly designed to beat the coverage.
The Steelers later scored their third touchdown with the help of a similar pick. On second-and-goal from the 1, FB Will Johnson lined up offset in the I-formation. TE David Paulsen motioned down from near the right sideline, bringing ILB Kennan Robinson, who was in man coverage, with him. When Roethlisberger faked a handoff, Paulson engaged Robinson and pushed him back into the path of Fletcher, who was trying to run to the flat to cover Johnson, who had slipped out on a pass route. Fletcher was impeded by Robinson, and Johnson was wide open for the catch.
Those plays are legal as long as the offensive player doesn’t contact the defensive player, and they’re difficult to defend. Defenders have to be aware of them and react accordingly.
**Pittsburgh beat the Redskins’ zone coverage at times with stacked routes that put defenders in conflict, in addition to some quick screens. The Redskins mixed coverages, but the Steelers had the answer.
On their second touchdown drive, for example, Roethlisberger completed an 18-yard dig to WR Antonio Brown on the right. Washington showed its typical nickel defense with a four-man front – two D-linemen and two linebackers as standing defensive ends – two inside linebackers; three corners, including DeAngelo Hall in the left slot and two deep safeties. What might have looked like Cover-2 was actually Cover-3. After the snap, S Jordan Pugh came forward and Hall dropped to the sideline outside. They and the two inside linebackers effectively divided the field into quarters at a depth of about five yards. S Madieu Williams rotated to the deep middle, and the outside cornerbacks (Josh Wilson and Cedric Griffin) dropped to make three defensive backs over the top.
Pittsburgh had Brown wide to the right and TE Heath Miller next to the right tackle. Miller’s short route attracted ILB London Fletcher and Pugh at the shorter depth. When Fletcher moved to cover Miller, that opened a passing lane to the deeper Brown. Brown won to the inside at the line of scrimmage against Griffin, ran Griffin up the field and then broke inside behind where Fletcher used to be. If Fletcher had dropped to take away Brown, Roethlisberger could have hit Miller on the shorter route. The design of the play gave him options depending on how the Fletcher played it. It helped that Roethlisberger had time to throw and Brown made a leaping catch. When scheme meets talent, that’s the result.
**CB DeAngelo Hall’s meltdown. Hall lost his composure and was ejected for berating an official. He also received two 15-yard penalties for it. The outcome was decided by that time, but it’s still a losing football play.
I agree with coach Mike Shanahan’s assessment that WR Emmanuel Sanders should have been penalized for the takedown that enraged Hall. Brown grabbed Hall around the head with both hands, hooked him under the helmet (which is a penalty) and flipped him forward. The irony is that Hall helped Brown up from the turf after they blocked each other during a Pittsburgh run in the third quarter.
You can’t help but wonder if Hall’s time in Washington is nearing its conclusion. His scheduled base salary of $7.5 million next season is too much for the level of production the Redskins are getting. Twice on Sunday, Hall was beaten in man coverage twice because his change of direction wasn’t sharp enough to stay with a receiver. He did save a touchdown twice on the opening series with good, physical tackles at the goal line. But in evaluating the total package, the Redskins need guys who can cover at a high level and don’t cause the occasional headache for management.
** OLB Ryan Kerrigan trailed the receiver on two play-action passes on which the tight end blocked down on him and then released on his route. The play designs were brilliant, really.
TE Leonard Pope caught a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the opening series. From the right edge of the line, he blocked Kerrigan inside as part of selling a run fake. And in blocking Kerrigan, he pushed off to gain separation on a pass route to the right flat. It doesn’t take much separation to be open from only 1 yard out, and Kerrigan didn’t recover until it was too late.
TE Heath Miller had a 12-yard reception in the second half using the same concept. He blocked Kerrigan inside on play-action and pushed off as part of the block. That gave him enough separation to make the catch. That concept takes advantage of Kerrigan’s priority to stop the run.
** Pittsburgh’s 19-yard run on third-and-3 in the third quarter should have been negated by a clipping penalty. The Steelers ran a direct snap to RB Chris Rainey down to the 2-yard line, positioning them for their third touchdown. It was a well designed play (notice a theme?) with C Maurkice Pouncey and RT Mike Adams pulling around the right edge, and TE Heath Miller capturing that edge by blocking OLB Ryan Kerrigan inside.
However, NT Barry Cofield nearly made the tackle. He recognized the direct snap quickly and pursued it. RG Ramon Foster tried to run with Cofield. They were shoulder-to-shoulder when Foster turned his back and fell backwards onto and up Cofield’s legs, bringing Cofield down. That’s a textbook clipping penalty, and it’s no wonder Rainey ran through Cofield’s arm tackle.
Instead of taking a 27-9 lead two plays later, the Steelers should have been penalized 15 yards and had third-and-18 from Washington’s 36 with the score 20-9. That’s a big difference.
** RB Jonathan Dwyer had too big of a cutback lane on his 34-yard carry in the first quarter. It was similar to the sift play Michael Turner scored on in the Atlanta game earlier this month.
When TE Heath Miller motioned to the right before the snap, FS Madieu Williams came down to the line of scrimmage next to LOLB Ryan Kerrigan. After the snap, Kerrigan crashed inside, as did Perry Riley, the inside linebacker on Kerrigan’s side. Riley actually ended up with his hands on Kerrigan’s back, a position unlikely by design. Meanwhile, Williams pursued Roethlisberger wide in the backfield to snuff out the possibility of a play-action. Someone was out of position.
Dwyer cut back between Williams and where Kerrigan was. SS Reed Doughty missed the tackle in the secondary, and the resulting gain was Pittsburgh’s longest of the game.
** Sav Rocca’s 12-yard punt was his worst of the season. The Steelers took over at their 45 and turned the good field position into a field goal before halftime. Coach Mike Shanahan said Monday that Rocca is playing through a torn meniscus in his right (kicking) knee. That’s worth monitoring the rest of the year.