How Washington has Become a Winner
Jay Gruden and his coaching staff have are overseeing a team that keeps improving on both sides of the ball
The low-hanging fruit from Week 11’s Sunday night game is Headline: Packers Lose Again. Green Bay’s offense remains a week-to-week proposition (this week happened to be a good one… for the most part), and the defense, riddled with injuries, has had more big plays go through it than the New Amsterdam Theatre. The Packers are far too talented to be 4-6. Fingers that are not pointed at Aaron Rodgers and his receivers usually—and understandably—go to Mike McCarthy and his assistants.
But instead of criticizing a maligned coaching staff, let’s laud one that doesn’t get nearly enough praise. Sunday night wasn’t about Green Bay losing, it was about Washington winning. And while the game may have looked like a coming-out party for what’s now a 6-3-1 team, it actually was more of a snapshot of how that team has performed over the last month and a half.
Washington plays a very specific brand of football—one good enough to last deep into the postseason. (That is, if this team can first make its way out of the powerhouse NFC East. It gets its crack at the 9-1 Cowboys on Thanksgiving.)
Several things define this brand on offense, many of them scheme-related. One reason it was hard to pinpoint a value on a long-term contract for the now-franchise-tagged Kirk Cousins is that Washington’s offensive system defines much of the quarterback’s job for him.
Cousins, to his credit, capitalized on this down the stretch in 2015 and has continued to do so this year. He is throwing extremely well at the deep and, especially, intermediate levels. He’s also operating proficiently on the move. Both are critical to Washington’s play-action game, which is the NFL’s most expansive. It features an array of different deep shot designs (headlined by DeSean Jackson and, lately, Jamison Crowder), quick-hitter concepts (Pierre Garçon) and rolled pockets (Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis). Almost all of these play-actions have multiple targets to choose from—and not necessarily just the either/or options that define many play-actions, but full three-man route combinations that out-leverage the defense in multiple directions.
Many of Washington’s route combinations, play-action or no play-action, are designed to beat specific coverages. And it’s become apparent that few offensive game-callers are better at predicting coverages than Jay Gruden and coordinator Sean McVay. You see from them diverse man-beater route concepts, with receivers motioning, stacking and switching off the line of scrimmage. You see routes that flood zones with multiple receivers. Or, routes that high-low certain defenders, sending one receiver behind him and another in front. All of these help clarify a quarterback’s reads.
When you rely on a system like this, week-to-week success becomes easier. You depend less on players and more on geometry. (And remember, geometry never has an off day.)
Last season Washington had an aerial attack this sharp but couldn’t run the ball. That’s changed. It’s not just that the ground game now ranks in the top 10 in yards per attempt after placing 30th in 2015, it’s that it’s churning out yards in critical situations. In Week 3 against the Giants, for example, Washington ran eight times on its game-winning field goal drive. The following week it ran eight times for 56 yards to set up two fourth quarter touchdowns in a come-from-behind win over the Browns. Most recently, on Sunday night, it posted 103 yards on 20 second-half runs, gradually pulling away from Green Bay. The common factor here is that most runs have come out of three-tight-end sets, usually with all three tight ends up on the line of scrimmage. This is true trench-fighting football. Smashmouth, even, though it’s hard to quite characterize it completely as that given how many of these runs take the shape of outside zone, where blockers beat defenders with angles more than power.
Teaching these angles is venerable O-line coach Bill Callahan. He has everyone along this front five either overachieving (see center Spencer Long, or fill-in left tackle Ty Nsekhe) or playing up to their considerable raw talent (see first-round right guard Brandon Scherff or, before his suspension, left tackle Trent Williams). And now Washington has found a reliable runner behind these blockers, having replaced Matt Jones with Robert Kelley, who offers better quickness and agility but also has Jones’s propensity for finishing runs.
Nothing is new with Washington’s offense; it’s all the same, just better. Where actual change is occurring is on defense. Almost too insipid as a pure zone unit last season to even be labeled vanilla, coordinator Joe Barry’s D now features a litany of different zone concepts, including matchup zones and, yes, snaps of straight man-to-man. Significant snaps of man-to-man, in fact. Adding Josh Norman has probably helped expand the scheme (few things liberate defensive play-callers like a top-shelf corner), but there’s also the factor of players just becoming more familiar with each other and their surroundings.
Typically, upticks in man coverage correlate with upticks in blitzing. The tactics go hand-in-hand. Barry, however, has often relied on his four-man rush, which is generating much better results in 2016. Veteran edge man Ryan Kerrigan’s long arms and mechanically refined bull rush have led to eight sacks. Trent Murphy and especially Preston Smith have flashed at times on the other side. Inside, Chris Baker continues to ascend after already becoming the NFL’s most improved interior pass rusher a year ago.
And finally, the latest element to this defense: Su’a Cravens. Healthy after missing most of Weeks 5 and 6 with a concussion, the second-round rookie is getting snaps at linebacker in various sub-packages, where he serves as a run defender, flexible cover guy and, Sunday against Aaron Rodgers, blitzer or spy. With Cravens, Washington can potentially offset an offense’s mismatch-making running backs or tight ends and infuse more deception and disguise into its own pre-snap looks.
When we gather around to watch this team on our great American holiday Thursday afternoon, we can look to its offense and defense as an uplifting reminder that it is possible for both sides in Washington to come together and prosper. At least if Jay Gruden and his staff are running things, that is.
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