With the prolific offense of the New Orleans Saints now in the rear-view mirror, it may seem surprising that the upcoming opponent will be our defense's biggest test yet. This is the case as Rob Ryan prepares his unit, which has been decimated weekly since season's start, to face a Redskins offense with a playoff berth on the line.
But what makes this Rob's biggest test? This isn't the most effective offense we've faced. That honor goes to the Saints. The stakes are high, but they aren't everything, as we played out essentially the same scenario in week 17 of last season.
What sets this apart as an incredible challenge is that, while difficult, the goal is attainable. As Rabble pointed out on Christmas Eve, this Cowboys defense simply didn't have the personnel to match the Saints. The lack of healthy depth at inside linebacker spelled their doom.
The Redskins, however, are very beatable. They don't present the impossible match-ups that the Saints did. High-stakes and a moderate possibility for success: now that's a test worth taking.
How will Rob Ryan meet this challenge? All the stops have to come out. We know already that the gameplan from Thanksgiving Day should not be utilized. Well, maybe the couple of plays that resulted in instantaneous sacks could be salvaged, but, other than them, it's time to start fresh.
Brady "Batman" Poppinga, one of our somewhat new faces, has an idea about where to start:
"You have to inflict him with pain ... You have to tackle him, and you have to hit him and you have to make it to where the coach says, ‘Look, we need to protect our guy a little more.' ... You want to get some good shots on him and you want to test his toughness."
I don't have any problem with that philosophy. I want RG3 to be hit, hard and often. I don't want him injured (and neither does Batman, I just edited out the politically correct qualifiers and disclaimers from his quote), but I want him scared, unfocused, and undisciplined. That's the idea behind hitting people hard, although it may have been lost amidst findings that the New Orleans Saints did not share in that ideology.
Just hitting Griffin won't win us the game, however. A very large portion of the Redskins' offense comes along the ground, and a large portion of those yards come from rookie sensation Alfred Morris. He'll need to be hit, preferably in the backfield, early and often Sunday night as well.
Given our trouble last week against shallow crossers, it may be a good idea for our defense to simply hit everyone within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
As for the secondary, I want to see some man-to-man coverage for most of the game. RG3 isn't a laser-accurate quarterback at this point in his career, and therefore we shouldn't be worried about him exploiting route combinations (planning complex zone coverages as a result), but rather we should expect to capitalize on the occasional throw that hangs in the air or travels behind its intended target.
This isn't to say that I want to do away with the linebacker zones we've been utilizing so often - I think they'll be instrumental in taking away intermediate passes. Rather, I want the corners to do away with their deep-thirds responsibilities and simply chase their receivers around the field. They'll have safeties and linebackers to help direct traffic, and with any luck our pass rush will also have returned to form.
The safeties are what worry me most. We've seen Santana Moss get behind the Cowboys seemingly his entire career, and we've seen him get behind the entire league for RG3 this season. The obvious answer is to back up the safeties to prevent the deep ball. Before you start thinking that's a good idea, remember that we tried it against the Vick-led Eagles last season (safeties consistently lined up as much as 30 yards downfield), with little to no success. The key will be balancing, in our safety play, deep-ball deterrence with proper gap integrity against the run.
A lot of what we're able to do will be dependent on what personnel we have available. For example, a healthy Ernie Sims gives me infinite more confidence in the Cowboys than last week's Batman and Dan (Brady Poppinga and Dan Connor) performance. Sims is our Bruce Carter right now, in a sea full of guys who were recently unemployed (yes, Bradie James and Keith Brooking are still both employed elsewhere). If his concussion issues clear up, he may even have a role with the Cowboys next season.
The importance of having a rangy linebacker is fairly large, and Rabble did an excellent job of explaining how that works against the New Orleans' scheme. More important, this week, is how that range will allow him to close to the Redskins' rushing threats, RG3 and Morris, and make those hits before anything can get going.
If Sims is still a big question mark, I wonder whether or not Kyle Wilber will be activated for gameday.
So, BTB, how do you see it? What are the keys to winning in Washington this Sunday?