Redskins' D faces unique test

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
6:15
PM ET
ASHBURN, Va. – Jim Haslett started watching film this summer and pored through two dozen Oregon films and every Philadelphia Eagles game this preseason. Just to figure out what Chip Kelly might run Monday night in the season opener. And Haslett figures he’s done all the studying he can do.

“If they can do anything else, God bless ‘em,” Haslett, the Washington Redskins' defensive coordinator, said.

[+] EnlargeJim Haslett
Howard Smith/USA TODAY Sports Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has combed through film of Oregon and the Eagles to prepare for whatever Chip Kelly has up his sleeve.
The Eagles will surely show something new and different from what Kelly ran at Oregon. He surrounded himself with multiple NFL minds for a reason. No one knows how well Kelly will do in the NFL; he has a good start in part because of the offensive talent in Philadelphia.

“Our guys are prepared,” Haslett said. “They’re ready for what they’ve seen.”

Today is not the day to go over keys to the game (gang-tackling, etc). Rather, this is about some danger areas the Redskins are well aware of entering the game, based on watching game footage of Oregon and talking to players.

The coaches like to be creative. An example: Oregon would run the zone-read from different looks, motioning a back into position from the left slot just to the left of the quarterback right before the snap. The quarterback faked the handoff to that back inside and kept it around left end. Auburn stopped the play because the backside defenders did not follow the motion and stayed focused on their jobs, forcing a bad pitch.

Another time Oregon ran what almost amounted to a bootleg pass to to a back running with the boot (a swap boot). However, it wasn’t really a boot: it was a fake zone-read off the slotback’s motion, then dashing to the left and hitting the running back, first aligned to the right of the quarterback, in the left flat – with a blocker in front. They use their speed.

“You just have to play so much,” Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson said. “They’re trying to expose one person every down to get you out of position. If everyone plays their responsibility, you’ll be all right.”

Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan faced Oregon twice while at Purdue (losing both times by a combined eight points). “It tries to limit your defense in terms of playing aggressive and playing quickly,” Kerrigan said. “When you see so many moving parts it distracts you, but you can’t be distracted. You have to stay on your assignment.”

You must be disciplined before the snap. Occasionally -- actually, more than occasionally -- Oregon’s opponents could be seen not fully in position before the snap. Or they’d be caught leaning a certain way. For example, Oregon ran a play against Stanford that ended up near the left sideline. As the Ducks hustled back to the line for a quick snap, the left outside linebacker ran back to his position. When the ball was snapped, he was still leaning to his left. Oregon ran it inside to his right.

“That’s when they make their big plays, guys standing up looking around and saying, ‘What’s the call? What’s the call?’ And then, boom, they run the play,” Kerrigan said.

It tests a team’s discipline all game.

“You see guys, they’re good for so long and then they start to guess a little bit and the next thing you know a big play is out of the gate,” Kerrigan said.

The tempo. They won’t run the fast pace every play. At Oregon they went fast, but at times went much faster – like in the red zone or after big plays. In one game against Stanford, one red-zone play ended at the 5:50 mark; the ball was snapped 12 seconds later. Another time the whistle blew at 4:59 and the snap occurred 14 seconds later – and this was on a fourth down.

If they make the defense run a long way – sometimes just horizontally – they’ll hustle for a quick snap.

“If they have a big play they’ll run up to the line and snap it right away,” Kerrigan said. “That’s when sometimes we’re trying to get different personnel groups in. That’s when they can really build momentum.”

This is why conditioning was such a big deal for the Redskins. Teams that had success against Oregon in college often had depth on the defensive line. The Redskins’ depth would be better with suspended end Jarvis Jenkins.

“Coach has really done a good job of getting our condition in,” Redskins end Stephen Bowen said. “We might not have liked it, but he got us in shape. It seems like we’ve done a lot more conditioning than what we’ve usually done. They put us in different situations in practice that caused us to be in more condition by running more plays.”

It’s not just about being in shape. The tempo changes can force defenses into unwanted alignments. If, say, the Redskins run their six-linebacker set on a third-and-long and the Eagles convert, the Redskins will have to hustle to get a new group in. One that’s not strictly geared toward rushing the passer, with Kerrigan and Darryl Tapp aligned as tackles. The faster tempo, and longer run from the sideline, makes it tougher to change personnel in the red zone, too.

Oregon, and the Eagles during the preseason, ran their same plays regardless of personnel – even with the occasional four-tight end grouping.

“That’s the risk you run with the defense we’re in,” Kerrigan said. “But at the same time, myself and [Tapp], we both know if we do get caught in that, we have to buckle our chinstrap because we’re going down inside.”

Haslett isn’t worried.

“We can play in our base and stay in it all day against everything, so that’s not a problem,” he said.

[+] EnlargeLondon Fletcher
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliLondon Fletcher will be key to getting the Redskins' defense set for whatever looks the Eagles give.
Communication. This might be the most important aspect Monday. The Redskins handled it well when Buffalo went up-tempo in their preseason meeting. But this will be different because the Eagles’ offense will be more complex than anything the Bills showed this summer.

It helps that Washington’s defense returns 11 starters and that nine defenders have played at least three years in the system. Plus they have linebacker London Fletcher, one of the better linebackers at diagnosing plays. Communication is always a key; when a team is playing faster it makes it even more important.

"I have to definitely be on top of my game," Fletcher said.

Ironically, while teammates started watching film of Oregon this summer, Fletcher waited until Sunday.

“In the past I made that mistake before where I watched too much film on a team and stuff starts to run together and you see ghosts, chase ghosts,” Fletcher said.

But Fletcher’s career was built, in part, because of his film study and knowledge of opposing offenses. It’s a bonus for Washington.

“If something happens and I can’t get the ball in,” Haslett said, “that is not a concern because London is like a coach on the field.”

John Keim

ESPN Washington Redskins reporter

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