There will come a point in Sunday’s game, perhaps as early as the first defensive play, when Mike Shanahan and Jim Haslett sound the call to attack.
It could be first down-and-10 or third-and-21 or second-and-4. It could be at the Washington Redskins‘ 20-yard line or the St. Louis Rams’ 5. The score could be tied, or the margin could be wide. The scenarios in which the Redskins might blitz are endless, really.
“We mix it up,” Haslett said.
And they’ll continue to do so, even after they were burned by an especially risky eight-man blitz in the decisive moments of a two-point loss to Dallas on Monday night. The Redskins‘ coach and defensive coordinator thrive on their aggressive approach and the strategy involved in determining how and when to try to dictate the game to an opposing offense.
“I know from an offensive standpoint the hardest defense is when you don’t know what to expect,” Shanahan said. “They have the ability to do everything and you just don’t know when they’re going to do it.”
And with that underlying philosophy, the Redskins have attacked in variety of ways through three games this season.
They consider a blitz a pass rush that involves six or more defenders. A “dog” describes a rush with five. They’ve rushed as few as three on some pass plays and as many as eight.
They’ll rush the strong safety or the slot cornerback or one of the inside linebackers or any number of combinations. Insider linebacker London Fletcher, for example, rushed the passer on 10 of 33 dropbacks against Arizona in Week 2.
“We blitz depending on what they’re doing,” Haslett said. “Can we four-man rush? Can we five-man rush? It’s not like blitz-fest. It’s a mixture of what we do. We’ve got guys who are pretty good at it.”
The results seem to validate that. The Redskins have rushed more than the conventional four rushers on 46 percent of opponents’ dropbacks. When they rush four or fewer, the opposing quarterback’s passer rating is 85.2. On rushes involving five or more, that decreases to 68.5.
“The Redskins do pressure quite a bit and they do a great job,” said Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who will face it Sunday. “They throw a lot of different looks at you behind their pressures. It’s not like they play the same coverage behind their pressures every time.”
That deception is the key. The idea is to force the opposing quarterback to make a hasty decision that results in an incompletion or, better yet, an interception. Or the pressure could overwhelm the offensive blockers and the Redskins could record a sack.
Quarterbacks often have safety-valves built into their offense termed ‘hot’ reads, receivers in certain areas they throw to by default against pressure. That’s where mixing up coverages comes in.
“We play zone behind it,” Haslett said. “We blitz when we’re playing a two-deep behind it or we play quarter-quarter-halves behind it. So let’s say you drop into blitz. It doesn’t really make a difference because we’re playing coverage behind it. We’re giving the illusion it’s a blitz, but it’s really not. It looks like a blitz.”
If that’s confusing, it should be. Haslett wants to spin the opposing quarterback’s mind in circles.
But there is risk, as Dallas proved Monday night. When the Redskins blitzed eight on two out of three plays, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo improvised in the pocket and completed a 30-yard pass on third-and-21. Rushing eight defenders left cornerback DeAngelo Hall without any help.
That’s just part of this scheme, though, players say. Monday’s lost gamble won’t scare them off.
“We want to attack,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “You want to keep the offense on their toes, and that’s what our mentality is. I’m behind Haz and whatever he calls. That’s what I think, and I’d say everyone else on the team is as well. I love that mentality that we’re going to attack no matter what the situation is.”