- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A review of the best and worst performances by the Washington Redskins‘ defense and some observations after rewatching the TV broadcast of their 17-10 win over the St. Louis Rams.

GAME BALLS

ROLB BRIAN ORAKPO:Orakpo deserved the NFC defensive player of the week honor he received for this performance. Afterward, he said it was reminiscent of his four-sack game against Oakland in his rookie year. There were stretches last Sunday when LT Rodger Saffold simply couldn’t block him.

Orakpo had 2.5 sacks, all of them on bull-rushes and 1.5 from a 4-point stance. He beat Saffold twice by staying low and exploding up into his pads. On the half-sack he shared with DE Stephen Bowen at the end of the first half, Orakpo drove into Saffold so powerfully that he lifted Saffold onto one leg. Orakpo got his hands into Saffold’s chest, too. It was over right then.

He beat Rams C Jason Brown on his other sack. St. Louis’ protection on the play was very strange. The Rams ran a play-action stretch play to the right, away from Orakpo’s side. As the line blocked play-side, Brown peeled back to block Orakpo coming from the left. Why the Rams thought it a good idea to have their center block a two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker in space is probably a good indication why they’re 0-4.

Orakpo also set up Bowen’s fourth-quarter sack. He rushed from an inside linebacker’s position at Saffold, who was lined up over Bowen. LG Tony Wragge slid with Orakpo instead of passing him off to Saffold. Orakpo picked Saffold, and that opened a lane for Bowen to loop through and get to Bradford.

Orakpo wasn’t perfect on the afternoon. Rams RBStephen Jackson beat him for a touchdown catch. When Jackson sprinted out of the backfield on a pass route down the left side, Orakpo tried to turn and run with him in coverage. However, his feet tangled with TE Lance Kendricks’, and Orakpo stumbled. That allowed Jackson to separate enough to catch the pass.

Overall, though, Orakpo helped take the game over in the second half when the offense couldn’t put the victory away. That’s what marquee players do.

RDE STEPHEN BOWEN:Bowen had another strong game against the run, and he also contributed 1.5 sacks. His most impressive play, in my opinion, was the fourth-quarter second-and-3 on which he beat a double-team and limited RBStephen Jackson to 1 yard. First, he shed LG Tony Wragge by pulling Wragge through the block and ripping under him. Then LT Rodger Saffold cut off his path en route to the linebacker, but Bowen swam through that and got to Jackson. Bowen’s strength and quickness made that play.

He fought through LG Tony Wragge to limit RBStephen Jackson to 3 yards on third-and-4 in the first half. It’s clear that Bowen is getting comfortable with the reads he has to make in this scheme. He’s playing faster and stronger as a result.

In the passing game, Bowen made a second-half adjustment against Wragge that helped him generate pressure. “He just kept trying to jump me,” Bowen explained later. “I realized it kind of late, which I was kind of upset about. I tried to give him a little more space, and it forced him to make a decision.”

ILB ROCKY MCINTOSH: McIntosh had five tackles and now leads the Redskins with 27, according to the league. Improved talent on the line in front of him is keeping him cleaner and helping him make plays, but McIntosh also seems to be better with his run fits and angles. He stopped RBStephen Jackson for a 1-yard gain in the first half by filling his gap after OLB Ryan Kerrigan and DE Adam Carriker occupied three Rams blockers.

McIntosh stopped St. Louis’ screen for a 5-yard loss on third-and-12 on the game’s first series by diagnosing the play quickly and sprinting to the ball behind the blockers out in front. He forced an incompletion in the second half on a delayed blitz. He read Jackson was staying in to protect, and hit QB Sam Bradford as Bradford threw.

Coverage is still problematic at times for McIntosh. TE Lance Kendricks separated from him by faking in and then breaking out for an 8-yard catch on third-and-5 in the second quarter.

LOLB RYAN KERRIGAN: Another week, another big play by Kerrigan. His sack and forced fumble in the second quarter set up RB Ryan Torain’s 20-yard touchdown. He beat two blockers on the play. TE Lance Kendricks engaged him briefly before releasing on a pass route. Then the Rams positioned WR Austin Pettis to block him on the edge. Again, why the Rams thought they could block Kerrigan with a wide receiver is beyond comprehension. Kerrigan exploited the strength mismatch and shed Pettis easily. And we’re familiar with Kerrigan chasing down quarterbacks from behind. His tenacity paid off again.

On the previous play, Kerrigan forced RT Jason Smith to grab his face mask when he beat Smith with a speed rush around the edge. That set up third-and-22 for the Redskins to get creative, show an eight-man front and get after Bradford. Kerrigan is more consistently taking direct angles to the quarterback instead of rushing too wide. That’s something he has emphasized since Week 2.

Kerrigan’s run stop on the first play of the game set the tone. He ripped under Kendricks and creased him to get down the line and make the tackle. He still appears a bit rigid in coverage. St. Louis completed one early pass to the right sideline; Kerrigan dropped in coverage and was near the receiver but didn’t cover him closely. It happened again later in the game, but Kerrigan recovered quickly and minimized the gain with a quality form tackle.

NT BARRY COFIELD: Cofield recovered a fumble in the second quarter and was a big reason why the Rams averaged only 2.6 yards per carry. He anchored well inside. Basically, the Redskins‘ defensive line did to St. Louis’ offensive line what other teams did to Washington’s offensive line in 2009 — won an overwhelming majority of their individual blocks and controlled the game up front.

Cofield pushed the pocket on several second-half passes. When Washington’s defensive linemen know a pass is coming and they don’t have to make the initial run/pass read, they are much more explosive and effective generating pressure. That’s one reason why they’re more successful rushing out of the nickel package — the Redskins use it when opponents come out in passing formations.

Cofield also batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage. He has done well reading opposing quarterbacks when he doesn’t win his initial pass-rush attempt and getting his hands up.

P SAV ROCCA: His 63-yard punt changed field position with the Redskins‘ protecting a 7-point lead in the final minutes. It was a huge play. Sure, Rams returner Quinn Porter should have fair caught the punt and saved his team the 19 yards that the ball rolled after it hit the ground. But Rocca has been consistently good all season. He has a league-high 12 punts downed inside the 20 and zero touchbacks. He ranks seventh in the NFL with a net average of 41.0 yards.

GASSERS

No gassers on defense this week. The Redskins didn’t give up any big plays, although St. Louis bailed them out with at least five dropped passes. Washington has allowed only one touchdown in the last eight quarters. Mike Shanahan’s vision for the defense is starting to materialize, and the unit appears to be one fans should be excited about.

OBSERVATIONS

It might have been a different game if the Rams could catch. As I mentioned above, St. Louis receivers helped the Redskins with at least five drops. TE Lance Kendricks dropped two potential touchdowns. The first was on third-and-goal from the 14 in the fourth quarter. Instead of 7 points, the Rams settled for a field goal.

On their next series, Kendricks was open down the left seam. LB London Fletcher bumped into him as he sprinted into coverage on the outside, and that threw off the timing of the play. Contact was beyond 5 yards, but the officials didn’t call it. QB Sam Bradford’s throw went through his outstretched hands.

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Along those lines, St. Louis is a bad team. QB Sam Bradford doesn’t have a talented supporting cast. By contrast, the Rams‘ situation appears to validate how Mike Shanahan is building the Redskins‘ roster. Get the defense in place first, see what he can get out of Rex and Beck, and then we’ll see how he approaches the quarterback position in April’s draft.

Of course, you can’t necessarily blame the Rams for their approach. They had the No. 1 pick in 2009, and Bradford was there for them. Shanahan wanted Bradford, too. If he had the chance to draft Bradford, the Redskins might be in the same predicament. It also doesn’t help St. Louis that OTs Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold have underperformed. Remember, the Redskins addressed a major need with LT Trent Williams with the fourth pick the year Bradford went No. 1. Now, the Redskins‘ defense is helping them win games as long as the offense does enough.

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The Redskins were hurt by four personal foul penalties. ILB Perry Riley and WR Niles Paul were flagged 15 yards for helmet-to-helmet hits on PR Austin Pettis. Shanahan disagreed with the call against Riley, and I do, too. Paul’s illegal hit was obvious — Shanahan and the NFL agreed. Paul announced on Twitter he was fined $20,000.

CB DeAngelo Hall simply played through the whistle when he tackled WR Danario Alexander in the second half. Alexander kept playing, too, though, and it was loud in the dome, so it’s difficult to blame Hall for playing the receiver. The ref showed no discretion on calling the personal foul.

OLB Rob Jackson tackled QB Sam Bradford too late. He did a great job with his hands to break down the offensive lineman and pressure the quarterback, but Jackson has to know when the ball is out.

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Speaking of Jackson, he played a few snaps on defense in place of ROLB Brian Orakpo. Jackson has flashed as a pass-rusher when he has gotten in (he had a forced fumble disallowed against Dallas because of defensive holding in the secondary). Orakpo after the game complimented Jackson’s play in giving him a “breather,” so that would indicate that Jackson will continue to play a bit on defense even if Orakpo and OLB Ryan Kerrigan are healthy.

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The Redskins never ran their infamous eight-man, Cover-Zero blitz, but they dropped out of an eight-man front on six plays, by my count. They rushed four defenders five of those times and five defenders once. Basically, the Redskins realized they could get to Bradford by rushing only four or five, so there wasn’t a great need to blitz.

The disguise helped produce NT Barry Cofield’s fumble recovery, which set up Washington’s second touchdown. Several times when the Redskins showed eight up front, Bradford changed to max protection. That limited his options downfield and sometimes caused confusion on the Rams‘ line, players said.

The Rams also beat the eight-man front on their touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.

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The Rams began moving the ball in the second half by resorting to quick throws and a no-huddle offense. There really was no other choice against the Redskins‘ dominant pass rush. Washington seemed content to let Bradford throw short and then rally to the ball. Playing conservatively and to not give up the big play paid off for the Redskins.

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FS Oshiomogho Atogwe is through four games without forcing a turnover. His history of consistently forcing turnovers is one reason the Redskins signed him, but it hasn’t carried over through a quarter of the season. There probably is a combination of reasons for it, including his growing familiarity with the defense. It’ll let you decide how significant a concern it is. For now, it’s at least worth noting.