The Washington Redskins' secondary looked considerably better in coverage in Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons than it had in its previous three games. When I broke down the tape via NFL Game Rewind to try and figure out why, I came to the conclusion that the help the defensive backs are getting from the linebackers is the key to their coverage schemes.
Outgunned and outmanned most weeks in the secondary, the Redskins rely on a variety of pre-snap looks and changing coverages to confuse and outwit more talented offensive players. Sometimes they play off the outside receivers and press the slot guy. Sometimes they press all three. They use their inside linebackers in coverage liberally, but they like to line them up so that it's not readily apparent to the defense who's going where. And the key to the whole thing may be the way they use their best pass-rusher, outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, to help in coverage. He did it a lot Sunday, and one of the plays on which it stood out to me was a second-and-three from the Atlanta 41-yard line with a little over a minute left in the first quarter. It's a play on which Kerrigan disrupts a receiver at the line and still gets into coverage to help break up the eventual throw.
Pre-snap on the right side of the line, Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson lines up over Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. Kerrigan is on that side as well, lined up tight to the line looking as though he'll rush the passer. Instead, he pulls a move he repeats several times during the game -- faking a step inside and then dropping into coverage.
When the ball is snapped, Jones immediately breaks inside across the middle and Wilson drops deep up the field. The key is, as soon as Jones turns inside, he's met by Kerrigan, who gives him just enough of a bump to slow him down. Kerrigan and Jones don't stay together long, but I believe the little bump is significant. At this time, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is comfortable in the pocket, looking downfield as he goes through his progression. He's looking to his left, and Jones has not yet entered his field of vision. My belief is that Jones might have done so sooner but for the Kerrigan rub, and Ryan might have hit him for a completion that Jones could have turned into a big gain.
Instead, just before Jones would have caught Ryan's eye, the pocket breaks down a bit, forcing Ryan to move his feet and turn his head to the right. I don't think he ever sees Jones. By this point, Kerrigan is deep in coverage, trailing running back Michael Turner, who is running a route. Wilson is deep and the Redskins have extra defenders on that side with Ryan apparently committed there.
By the time Ryan makes a hurried throw, Kerrigan is positioned equidistant between Turner and another Falcons receiver (I can't tell who it is) and could break and make a play on either one. He also has Wilson and plenty of other help behind him. Ryan chooses Turner, and the pass is incomplete on second-and-three. The Falcons gain only two yards on the next play and have to punt.
This is just one example of something Kerrigan was able to do in coverage to assist the Redskins' outmanned secondary in covering some of the best wide receivers in the league. There's a third-and-seven play on the previous Falcons possession on which defensive back Richard Crawford plays way off Roddy White on the right side and Kerrigan again does his, step-forward-then-immediately-drop-back move into coverage. He trails White upfield while inside linebacker Perry Riley also swings over to that side, and with Crawford deep they have White triangulated. Kerrigan doesn't stay with White and really doesn't have to. It appears that seeing him there is enough to rattle Ryan into a low, short, incomplete throw.
The flip side of this, of course, is that on plays on which he drops into coverage, Kerrigan can't rush the passer. And that hurts the Redskins' pass rush for obvious reasons. But in Sunday's game, it appears Washington wanted to prioritize coverage on White and Jones and, to some extent, tight end Tony Gonzalez (who was often covered one-on-one, and at times by Kerrigan!). The result, with Kerrigan and his fellow linebackers adhering well to their responsibilities in their zones and when asked to help double, was Washington's best coverage game since the season opener in New Orleans. Going forward, it appears the success of their coverages will rise and fall on the help they can give their cornerbacks. And with strong safety Brandon Meriweather sidelined for a while yet, the linebackers are the ones that are going to have to offer the bulk of that help.