On the verge of squandering an 11-point fourth-quarter lead last week against the Cleveland Browns, the Washington Redskins needed to pressure quarterback Derek Anderson.
In the final minute, the Browns faced a first down at the Washington 36. One or two more completions would give Phil Dawson a chip-shot field goal. One or two incompletions would make the kick a much trickier 54 yards.
Defensive coordinator Greg Blache rushed six players on first down and seven on second down.
The Redskins didn’t sack or intercept Anderson, but both passes fell incomplete. Two plays later, Dawson misfired, and the Redskins won 14-11.
Although the Redskins’ nine sacks are tied for the fifth fewest in the NFL, the amount of pressure dialed up by Blache in the last two games has made an impact. In an era of quick throws and maximum pass protection, merely pressuring the passer is an accomplishment.
“The more and more teams throw the football, the more and more they pay the quarterbacks, the more and more they have to protect them, the more and more they learn about the passing game, the more and more they line up different things,” Blache said before practice Thursday at Redskin Park. “It goes in cycles. They recognize the less hits on the quarterback, the longer he’ll stay healthy.”
The Redskins rank fifth in yards a completion (10.7), a sign the rush is forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the football. Twenty-four of Anderson’s passes last week traveled 5 or fewer yards.
The floodgates could open Sunday. Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky has attempted only 91 passes in his career, and Detroit is allowing four sacks a game.
In the last two games, the Redskins have unofficially rushed more than four players 37 times. St. Louis’ Marc Bulger completed five of 10 passes for 67 yards (sacked twice) against the blitz; Anderson was 8-for-24 for 84 yards (sacked once).
Plenty of players are getting involved:
c Safety Chris Horton rushed seven times vs. St. Louis.
c Three linebackers, three safeties and one cornerback rushed Bulger at least once.
c Linebacker Rocky McIntosh rushed 14 times against Cleveland.
c Linebacker London Fletcher and Marcus Washington rushed 10 and nine times, respectively, against the Browns.
“When it comes to blitzing, it’s a good change-up when you can bring five or six guys,” defensive end Andre Carter said. “It gets the offense kind of flushed, and to a certain degree it can allow us up front to get into a rhythm because they don’t know how many guys are coming and where they’re coming from.”
Jason Taylor’s knee and calf injuries haven’t allowed the front four to get in that desired rhythm. Teams are using five blockers to contain the Redskins’ four rushers.
But early blitzes that put early hits on the quarterback can pay immediate dividends. According to the Redskins’ coaches, the defense has 39 quarterback hurries this year.
“Marty Schottenheimer used to say they wanted to get 12 solid hits a game,” Blache said. “It’s hard to get that in this day and age. They get rid of the ball faster, and they’re so much more adept at knowing protections and how to keep people off the quarterback. In certain ways, the passing game has replaced the running game with the short passes.”
If an opponent runs that game plan, Blache plays LaRon Landry in the deep middle and trusts Horton enough to run- and pass-blitz.
“I’m very comfortable at blitzing,” he said. “It’s easy - just line up and go get the quarterback.”
On the two key plays against Cleveland, Horton and Fletcher blitzed both times and were joined by McIntosh on second down.
“Some guys are just great blitzers from the beginning,” Fletcher said of Horton. “LaRon was great as a rookie last year, and Chris is a good blitzer. It depends on the player - some guys take a little more time to learn, but our coaches do a great job of explaining why we’re doing the things we’re doing.”
The Redskins hope the effectiveness of the linebackers and safeties in blitz situations will free up their regular four rushers. The line has seven of the team’s sacks.
“We’ve been hitting the quarterback more lately because they’re still trying to get guys out [in pass routes],” Alexander said. “When London’s doing a great job, teams have to watch him, and that might help one of us up front come free because they’re more worried about picking him up.”
Of course, Blache’s plan may change drastically this week against the woeful Lions, opting to play coverage and make Orlovsky figure out a variety of looks. But if Blache’s plan is pressure-oriented, expect new looks.
“You definitely have to mix things up,” McIntosh said. “You can’t settle on doing just one thing because teams will pick up on it fast. But our coaches are creative.”