Rush four linemen or bring six pass rushers? Keep the safeties back in coverage or creep them near the line of scrimmage to give the quarterback something to ponder? Throw a fastball and rush the cornerbacks or three linebackers via a delayed blitz? Rush three and have the star defensive tackle backpedal into coverage? Or disguise everything and play things straight up?
Before every snap, these are the questions Gregg Williams asks himself. And for the better part of two-plus seasons as the Washington Redskins' assistant head coach-defense, Williams has taken the aggressive approach.
"People want to know if I like Las Vegas," he said. "I'm not a gambler with money and those kinds of things. All you have to do is come to the game, see us on third down and first down, and that's the [gambling] fix I get from a competition standpoint."
Although Williams didn't acknowledge it directly when approached yesterday after practice at Redskin Park, it's clear that his all-in philosophy has been tempered through two games, undoubtedly due to Shawn Springs' absence. With Springs -- the team's top cover cornerback -- on the field, Williams can blitz a safety or linebacker because he's confident Springs can handle his one-on-one assignment. But without Springs, who will not play Sunday at Houston because of a groin injury, the Redskins have rarely blitzed.
The Redskins' two sacks are tied for the second-fewest in the NFL. And, they have no interceptions.
A review of the Redskins' losses to Minnesota and Dallas confirms their emphasis on coverage. They have rushed four players on 46 of 71 drop backs. Against the Vikings, the Redskins rushed more than four players only three times; that number jumped to 16 vs. Dallas and it could rise against the Texans, who have given up nine sacks.
Williams said the Redskins used primarily a four-man rush during last year's five-game winning streak, during which they recorded 17 sacks and seven interceptions.
"We can be better at it," cornerback Kenny Wright said. "We have confidence in what we're doing. If it's disguising more, getting into [an alignment] quicker to make a play, that's what we have to do."
But giving credit to the opponents, Minnesota and Dallas both had veteran quarterbacks (Brad Johnson and Drew Bledsoe) who used short drops and quick throws to combat the Redskins' pressure.
Against Dallas, the Redskins were aggressive early, blitzing on the first four snaps.
"Even when you're not going to get there, what you try to do is effect how fast the ball comes out because you affect the read of the quarterback," Williams said. "In boxing, they have body blows. Defenses have the same thing. You want those body blows to have a cumulative effect."
Said Houston coach Gary Kubiak: "It's one thing to have a sack, it's another to have a ton of hurries. We played Peyton Manning last week and you're not going to sack him -- he's going to get rid of the football. You hope you can come out of the game with 10-12 pressures where he has to do something he doesn't want to. [The Redskins] with their package and the various blitzes that Gregg will bring at you, they'll find a way."
Kubiak will be scheming against Williams on Sunday, but the Redskins' offensive coaches play the same kind of chess game each week, running down numerous scenarios and what looks a defense will present.
When he puts together the game plan on Tuesdays, associate head coach Al Saunders first looks at how an opponents' safeties recover after showing a certain coverage.
"I'm seeing if the safeties get too close when they disguise and whether they can then get back into position at their normal depth," he said. "If I see they have a problem with that, I like to use a quick count -- they'll be faking a blitz and when they turn around to go back, you snap it."
Last week, Dallas rarely hid when it was blitzing. On a third-and-18 play in the second quarter, the Cowboys had at least eight defenders at or near the line of scrimmage. At the snap, they rushed six. Mark Brunell threw quickly and hit Mike Sellers for a 14-yard gain.
Redskins quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor said some opponents are like the Williams' defense -- they disguise often; others would rather be in the right spot from the get-go.
"Some teams are very purposeful and choreographed in their disguising -- their safeties and linebackers work together and communicate to move around," Lazor said. "Other teams have guys kind of randomly move or don't move. The teams that spend time disguising and know what they're doing, can be the most challenging."
On the third-down play, the Cowboys showed blitz, which Lazor said is "good and bad. It's good because it gives you the idea that it's coming. It's bad because it's on you faster. They're giving up disguise to gain timing and pressure."
Brunell, who will make his 144th career start on Sunday, still has a reputation of being able to slide around the pocket so all-out blitzes against him are rare.
"I'm rarely surprised because defenses can do anything with their corners and safeties," he said. "Play long enough and you've seen a lot."
The veteran Bledsoe also was ready for the Redskins' change-ups in coverage. But Houston's David Carr has been sacked 217 times in 62 career games. If the Redskins can force third-and-long, they might be more aggressive because of the Texans' suspect offensive line.
"We're doing an adequate job of hitting the quarterback," Williams said. "But you're never satisfied until you're getting multiple sacks every week and putting a team in a down and distance where you can really rush the passer."