- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

ASHBURN — Landon Collins timed it perfectly. In Sunday’s 17-16 win against the Miami Dolphins, the Redskins safety exploded through the gap and easily worked his way past to drag down quarterback Josh Rosen.

The play was not only Collins’ first sack of the year — it was part of a shift in the way Washington has used its $84 million man. Against the Dolphins, the Redskins emphasized generating more pressure, partially doing so by sending Collins off the edge. 

After a slow start to the season, the Redskins have done a much better job of getting after the quarterback, recording nine of their 14 sacks over the past two weeks. And sure, five of those came against the winless Dolphins, but the other four were against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

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Washington’s overall defense has improved as a result.

“Our interior has provided more push and more production than our outside guys have, so that’s a challenge that we accept,” interim coach Bill Callahan said. “We know we’ve got to get a little more heat on the quarterback. We’re definitely tied into that.”

Entering the year, the Redskins’ defensive line was supposed to be the team’s biggest strength, which is why the unit’s struggles through the first four weeks were confounding.

It wasn’t just one player who struggled, either. Linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Montez Sweat couldn’t consistently win their matchups. The interior, bolstered by Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, wasn’t collapsing the pocket. Through the first two games, Washington had just two sacks — one from Kerrigan and another from Cassanova McKinzy, who isn’t even on the active roster anymore.

But something clicked soon after. Schematically, the Redskins tried to get more creative in the ways they blitzed. Collins’ usage, for instance, was part of the game plan heading into Miami, Callahan said. Collins finished with 12 tackles against Miami and was named the NFC defensive player of the week on Wednesday. 

Kerrigan, though, said it also comes down to the defensive line playing better up front.

“Just winning one-on-ones has been the biggest thing,” Kerrigan said. “Our interior has done a really great job of winning their one-on-ones and putting a lot of great pressure. I feel like we’ve done a better job on the edge the last couple weeks than the previous ones.”

After Week 6, the Redskins have now pressured quarterbacks on 25.8% of their dropbacks — the 13th-best rate in the league, according to Pro Football Reference. Last year, Washington’s pressure percentage was at 24.1%, ranking 21st.

The Redskins, too, don’t blitz nearly as much as other teams. Typically, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky relies on Washington’s front four to collapse the pocket. League-wide, the Redskins have blitzed just 24.2% of the time, the 10th-lowest rate. By comparison, the Ravens have sent an extra attacker 49.3% of all dropbacks.

Kerrigan and defensive end Matt Ioannidis lead the defense with 12 pressures each.

Washington has also seen improvement in Sweat, who was acquired in the first round when the Redskins sent two second-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts to move back up in the draft. Like the rest of the defense, Sweat had a quiet start to the year — getting blanked against the Eagles and Cowboys.

In both of those matchups, Sweat went against two of the NFL’s premier tackles, Philadelphia’s Jason Peters and Dallas’ Tyron Smith.

Sweat said facing two elite players right away helped his transition into the league.

“Guys like that are really going to harp on your fundamentals,” said Sweat, who has one sack and six hurries in 2019. “You’ve got to be real fundamentally sound when going against tackles like that.”

This week, the Redskins face a San Francisco 49ers team which has held up well in pass protection. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been sacked only six times and hit just 12 times.

In particular, the 49ers do an excellent job of disguising their offense. They fool defenses by sending players in motion before the snap, getting them to shift one way and creating misdirection.

Safety Montae Nicholson said the Redskins have to be aware of San Francisco’s tendencies by closely studying the film.

For now, though, the Redskins are pleased their defense is playing closer to expectations.

“Any time you can create and generate pressure on the quarterback, cause interceptions, cause bad throws, it’s definitely encouraging and inspiring,” Nicholson said, “especially to your guys up front and it encourages guys on the back end. It kind of goes hand-in-hand.”

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