Coming off the bye week, the Detroit Lions will be going up against a familiar opponent in the Washington Redskins, who they have faced for the past three seasons. However, like the Lions, the Redskins are a much different team than the ones the Lions have faced in the past. They have a new head coach (in fact Mike Shannahan will be the 3rd Redskins head coach the Lions have faced in the last four years) , and a defensive coordinator in Jim Haslett. The hiring of Mike Shananhan is a pretty obvious one as the Redskins like high profile coaches with an offensive background, but Shananhan’s choice of defensive coordinator is sort of a puzzling one to the naked eye, and requires more in-depth research to make sense of…which is exactly what I did.
The biggest and foremost thing that we need to understand about this Washington Redskins defense is that they are trying to emulate the Pittsburgh Steelers. During Mike Shanahan’s one year hiatus from football, he visited/studied many teams and was really impressed with the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. When he was hired as the Redskins head coach, he made sure that his team plays the same type of defense as the Steelers. What does this have to do with Haslett’s hiring? Everything actually.
Since the zone blitz scheme was brought to the NFL by Hank Bullough in the early 80’s, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had only three defensive coordinators that coached the zone blitz: Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and of course Jim Haslett. Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau are well known around the NFL for their defenses and both were employed in the 2010 offseason, so Shanahan was left to hire Jim Haslett, who was coaching the Florida Tusker of the UFL at the time. Still, Haslett is an odd hiring to say the least. His three year tenure in Pittsburgh from 1997 to 1999 were the only time he ran a 3-4 and even those defenses weren’t super successful, ranking 11th, 7th, and 12th in points allowed in those three years. Those would be great numbers for most defenses, but not for a Pittsburgh Steeler defense that had ranked 4th in 1996.
As far as the scheme goes, the Washington Redskins are running what I consider to be more of the modern version of the zone blitz scheme. The textbook/classical definition of the zone blitz scheme is simply to blitz a linebacker (or two) and drop defensive end(s) into coverage. That used to be what a zone blitz scheme referred to and was generally better run out of a 4-3 as the defensive ends were smaller compared to 3-4 defensive ends. The modern/popular version of the zone blitz scheme was really devised by the Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau where the defensive line is made up of a nose guard and two slightly smaller than average defensive tackles that pretend to be defensive ends. The linebacking corp is generally made up of two hybrid outside linebackers/ defensive ends (closer to defensive end) and two linebackers, one of whom is a run stopper while the other is a cover guy.
The idea behind this scheme is to use the three big defensive linemen to eat up as many blockers as possible so that the hybrid defensive ends (outside linebacker) have a clear path to the quarterback. Of course, guys like James Harrison or DeMarcus Ware rarely get a “clear path”, but often times all the offense has to block the outside linebacker is a runningback or a tight end, which isn’t sufficient. The other major difference between the Pittsburgh Steelers 3-4 defense, which the Washington Redskins are trying to employ, is the placement of the strong safety. We all know that Troy Polamalu plays all over the field. He often lines up with the linebackers and even with the defensive line. Simply put, the versatility and talent of Troy Polamalu makes the Pittsburgh Steelers defense special and the Washington Redskins are trying to turn LaRon Landry into their own Polamalu.
On that end, Mike Shananhan and Jim Haslett have been very successful as Landry leads all safeties in tackles with 68 (on pace for 155 for the season!) and is currently 3rd in the NFL among all defensive players. However, the rest of the secondary hasn’t been as successful as the Redskins are 31st in pass defense. At the same time, a whole lot of blame can’t be put on the secondary as they are also in a transition phase. Under Greg Blache, Redskins defensive coordinator in 2009, the secondary was expected to prevent big plays and lined up about 10 and even 15 yards off the receiver. Under Haslett, they line up much closer, and are expected to be aggressive and force turnovers.
The numbers show a similar trend too. In 2009, the Redskins were 9th in the NFL in passing yards with 207.2, while the Redskins are 31st in the NFL through seven weeks are allowing 292 passing yards per game. However, the Redskins only registered 11 picks in all of 2009, while they already have 8 picks in seven games this season (DeAngelo Hall had four last week against the Bears). Lastly, Washington gave up 41 passing plays of 20+ yards in 2009 while they have already given up 25 plays of 20+ yards in seven games this season.
All in all, this Redskins defense has a ton of talent across the board, but they have yet to learn to play a very complex scheme that asks a lot out of the players. A few players have shined in this scheme (DeAngelo Hall and LaRon Landry), but they have yet to play defense as a cohesive unit, which is why I think the Lions offense will be very good against this team. It also doesn’t hurt that the Lions played the Steelers in the preseason (coached by Dick LeBeau) and played the Green Bay Packers in the regular season (coached by Dom Capers), who run very similar if not the same scheme as Jim Haslett. Overall, I expect the Lions, who have had two weeks to prepare for the 31st ranked defense in the NFL, to score a ton of points…in the 30 to 40 range.