- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

Recent passes by both the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams look like they've been thrown into double coverage. And that might not be a coincidence.

NFL teams seem to be challenging big-play offenses by keeping potential blitzers back in coverage and safeties in the deep part of the field, effectively eliminating the coveted deep ball. It's a strategy that worked in Super Bowl XXXVI, when New England upset the Rams, and was seen Monday night in Tampa Bay's dismantling of St. Louis.

The Redskins have seen similar schemes the past two weeks in losses to Philadelphia and San Francisco. In both games, Washington's offensive line struggled to contain a basic four-man rush, and the Redskins' quarterbacks under pressure often found no one open.

Don't expect the tactic to stop. When the Redskins (1-2) emerge from the current open date for the Oct. 6 game at Tennessee, the offense can expect to see conservative coverages until it proves it can beat them.

"If a team has success against whatever it is you do offensively, you can bet you'll see it again until you fix whatever the breakdown is," wide receiver Chris Doering said this week. "I think we'll continue to see a lot of [similar tactics] to what Philly did and what San Fran did until we can start putting some points on the board."

Philadelphia reportedly entered its Sept. 16 game at Washington with blitz packages prepared, but it shelved them when it found its four-man rush generated sufficient pressure. The Redskins' offense was limited to 179 yards and no points. The 49ers mixed it up more, Redskins players said, but remained fairly basic in limiting Washington to 217 yards and 10 points.

Early deficits in both games led the Redskins to throw more frequently and opponents to play more conservative sets. But some players think there's a connection between how they have been defended lately and how teams have shut down St. Louis, the offense to which coach Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun most often is compared.

"I think what happened is the Rams' offense took off so well a couple years ago that teams began to say, 'If you want to win the Super Bowl, you've got to stop the Rams,'" wide receiver Kevin Lockett said. "And I think before we even started our system, people just affiliated our system with what the Rams do. So I think teams came in initially trying to play us like how they thought was the best way to play the Rams."

Certainly the schemes have similarities in a league dominated by varieties of the West Coast offense. While a West Coast set uses a lot of three-step drops by the quarterback and looks to hit short, high-percentage passes to receivers on the move, the Redskins and Rams have more five- and seven-step drops and often try to hit bombs of 20 or more yards.

The current defense of choice to defend Washington and St. Louis is called the "cover 2," which basically sits two safeties in a deep zone and has five players (linebackers and cornerbacks) in an intermediate zone. The scheme concedes the underneath routes to ensure that nothing is hit deep.

"It forces the quarterback to be patient, and it's hard to be patient," quarterback Shane Matthews said. "You want to get the big play and score quickly, but it's hard to do."

Other coverages often yield one-on-one matchups by blitzing certain defensive players. But the cover 2 pretty much ensures that deep targets will be double-covered. Lockett believes the Redskins might have led teams to this coverage by successfully attacking blitz packages in their 4-1 preseason.

"I thought that everyone's supposed answer to our system was going to be blitz us to death and pressure the quarterback," Lockett said. "They saw us hit some big ones [in the preseason]. So now they're saying, 'Let's see them do a 10-, 15-play drive.' I think once we prove we can do a 15-play drive, that we don't have to throw a bomb to score a touchdown, then they'll start blitzing again."

A cover 2 can be beaten in a variety of ways by avoiding the penalties and errors that swamp a 15-play drive; by running the ball effectively so that the defense commits to stopping that; by blocking the four-man rush and creating enough time for the receivers to get open; or by the receivers running precise routes and having perfect timing with the quarterback.

The Redskins, of course, have had none of those aspects working of late. But players are confident that they can beat the cover 2 most likely by re-establishing running back Stephen Davis, who had 25 carries the past two games after getting 26 in an opening win over Arizona.

"What we did against Arizona is mixed it up," Matthews said. "When they played cover 2 we had a good running play on and vice versa. Hopefully we can get back to that and start out on a positive note."


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