Just when Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes appeared to be losing his touch, he came through with some of his most creative, effective schemes in recent memory. And that has given the Washington Redskins plenty to think about this week.
The Broncos, using tactics that included rushing just two defenders and dropping nine into coverage, held the San Diego Chargers to 243 yards last weekend in a convincing 26-16 victory. The big win followed a 1-2 stretch in which Denver allowed 300 yards or more in each outing.
The Redskins don’t know what to expect from the Broncos’ 12th-ranked defense Sunday at Invesco Stadium except the unexpected. Not only did Denver play creatively in its most recent outing, but Rhodes, who led Washington to a No. 4 defensive ranking last season, is known for making deft game-to-game alterations.
“They’re kind of a jack of all trades,” guard Ben Coleman said yesterday. “I think one big aspect of their defense, especially in nickel situations, is to try to confuse you, and to commit you to throw the football where they want you to throw it.”
Rhodes has told associates that he wants to drop 50 points on his old team, though he declined an interview this week, saying, “This is about the game, man.” Washington players also refused to play up the reunion, limiting their comments to Rhodes’ qualities particularly his ability to create.
“He changes up a lot depending on the opponent, the players he has,” defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. Denver observers weren’t so sure how good Rhodes was after the recent 1-2 stretch, which included losses to San Diego and the Oakland Raiders. After the latter defeat, coach Mike Shanahan said he would take a more active role in the defense.
Yesterday Shanahan downplayed his input, saying he did “nothing really. If any area is doing poorly, I like to spend a little more time over there.” Shanahan also gave full credit to Rhodes for designing the schemes.
Regardless of who made the innovations, they worked. Denver faked blitzes and dropped into coverage, then faked conservative schemes and blitzed. Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie, who passed for 280 yards in San Diego’s win three weeks earlier, completed just 12 of 31 with four interceptions.
“For us, [the key is] the ability to control all their stuff,” Coleman said. “There’s really not a name for [the scheme]. It seems like it’s not real sound, but they get a sack. Or they make plays. Or they get a turnover.”
Coleman believes Denver’s unpredictability creates a risk that could hurt the Broncos if their opponent is patient.
“If you do that much stuff, not only do you try to confuse the offense, sometimes your defense gets confused,” he said. “They’re going to give the offense the chance to make a big play. We’ve seen that in every game we’ve watched on film.”
Denver’s defense ranked 24th in 2000 before hiring Rhodes, who refused to stay on in Washington after coach Marty Schottenheimer was hired. The Broncos also picked up several free agents: tackles Chester McGlockton and Leon Lett, end Keith Washington and cornerback Denard Walker.
Washington’s defense included several key free agents in 2000, and many players felt that Rhodes was the perfect coach for the talented, experienced unit.
“He allowed the veterans to have some input,” defensive end Marco Coleman said. “That type of respect made guys get a little more into it.”
Rhodes doesn’t have the same type of veteran unit this season but there is plenty of talent. The players collectively have 14 Pro Bowl appearances, and one of the guys without a trip seemingly is most destined for the game this season: cornerback Deltha O’Neal (seven interceptions, nine passes defensed).
Collectively the players and the coordinator will comprise a stiff challenge for the Redskins, who have averaged 387 yards in their past three wins to at least partly salvage the season after an 0-5 start.
“I’m expecting [Rhodes] best shot,” offensive tackle Jon Jansen said. “He knows what we do well. A lot of the guys on offense are the same [as they were last year]. So we’ve got to go out and play our style of ball and not worry any other stuff that’s going on.”