When the Washington Redskins take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday to open the regular season, fans will not see the same two teams that have graced the field in recent memory. The Redskins’ changes have been talked about ad nauseum, while the New Orleans’ Saints indiscretions have been well-documented all offseason. One of the biggest changes for New Orleans, however, has flown under the radar; Steve Spagnuolo (former New York Giants Super Bowl-winning Defensive Coordinator) has relieved Gregg Williams as the defensive general for the Saints.
For this reason, it’s difficult to take New Orleans’ 24th ranked defense in 2011 and translate it into what should be expected this year. Although Steve Spagnuolo and Gregg Williams both run a 4-3 alignment, the philosophies of the two schemes could not be more different. Redskins fans are well-aware of the blitz-heavy, Buddy Ryan-influenced defense that Gregg Williams ran. Spagnuolo, by contrast, runs a zone-pressure scheme predicated on three simple concepts.
Many thanks to TCUDan and the Saints Report for the helpful information on Spagnuolo’s defense as it pertains to the New Orleans Saints. This breakdown below (the three tenets of Spags’ defense) comes from his excellent post, which you can find using the link above:
(1) Split-coverage: When most people think of a zone defense, they picture a simple cover-2, cover-3, or cover-4 as it’s drawn up in Madden. Most understand the basic concepts; a cover-2 drops two players deep; a cover-3 drops three; cover-4 drops four. The assignments are assumed to be basic, and the zones equally parsed out amongst the defenders. In reality (and particularly in a zone-pressure defense), the zone coverages are much more complicated. A split-coverage divides the field in half, with each half of the field offering a different coverage scheme.
How would you depict a split-coverage? Well imagine the playcall “Over Base 24 Solo.” Over describes the alignment; Base is the front call, which tells the defensive line to play their aligned gaps (i.e. no stunt); 24 Solo is the coverage. “24 Solo” breaks down more specifically into this: cover-2 to the read side (passing strength), cover-4 to the away side, and “Solo” for the trips check (a coverage designed to specifically match up against 3 WRs aligned to one side of the field. An example would be cover-4 to the trips side and man-to-man on the single WR side).
What the split-coverage does is force the quarterback to diagnose the coverage he’s seeing multiple times per play. A quarterback can no longer take his drop, see a cloud cover-2 to the strong side, and automatically assume that the defense will be playing a cloud cover-2 to the weak side as well. If the QB is unable diagnose the entire defense, he’ll be living very dangerously because more often than not, the defense will not end up where the quarterback initially reads it to be. A QB can see the strong side CB covering the flat while the strong-side safety covers that deep half of the field, then turn his head and notice the weak-side CB bailing on the flat. The QB fires the ball into the vacated space, thinking he has an easy completion. He realizes his mistake when the weak side safety (playing in “Robber” coverage instead of the “Cloud” the QB saw to the strong side) breaks on the ball in the flat for the easy INT.
This is particularly troubling for a rookie QB who is seeing everything at twice the speed that he’s used to. Progressing through reads become exponentially more complicated, and the confusion of the quarterback can be overwhelming if the QB is not prepared for what he is going to see (and given that Steve Spagnuolo is entirely new to the Saints defense, RGIII will have little to work with in terms of film specifically from the Saints).
(2) Read Zone vs. Area Zone: Read zone refers to adjusting the zonal responsibilities based on what the defense reads after the snap. The basic concept behind this defense is to read a specific receiver, react off his route, and communicate the play to the rest of the defense. This tactic is becoming more and more common in college (and even in certain high schools). Again, most people depict zone defensive responsibilities with an imaginary bubble surrounding each player; if a receiver enters the zone encompassed by your “bubble,” you are responsible for picking this player up. In reality, defenses use a much more efficient method to defend zone-beaters.
A zone-beater is a route combination that’s specifically designed to exploit the weakness of certain zonal concepts. One of the most common zone-beaters is the “Smash” combination against a cloud cover-2 (or 2-cloud). In a 2-cloud, the safeties are responsible for the deep halves of the field, the cornerbacks are responsible for the flats, the OLBs (or nickel and dimebacks) have the slice or hook-curls, and the Mike LB has the middle hole. The weaknesses of this defense are the seam and the corner routes because it forces the safety and/or MLB to cover an inordinate amount of ground. A “Smash” combination is simple; the outside WR runs a hitch (which draws the CB up) while the slot WR or TE runs a corner route, attacking the void between the safety and CB.
In a read-zone, every defender has a specific key. In a 2-cloud, the CBs key the #1 WR from the outside, the safeties have the #2 WR (second WR from the outside), and the LBs have the #3 WR (if there is one). When the CB sees the hitch from the #1 WR, he immediately thinks the “Smash” is coming as he reacts to the route. He communicates the play to his teammates with a specific call word; as a result, the safeties now know the corner route is coming, and they can anticipate the coverage they need by shifting outside. The CBs sit a little deeper to close the hole for the corner route, while the OLBs get a little more width in their drop to cover the void left by the safeties’ shifts. The “Smash” combination has become much more difficult to complete.
A read-zone allows the defense to react much more quickly to specific route combinations, which makes it much more difficult to attack the zone with traditional plays. Most zonal defenses in the NFL use these concepts, so there is nothing ground-breaking here, but this is definitely one of the primary tenets that makes Spagnuolo’s defense click.
(3) Fire-Zone: a commonly-used term for the 4-3 equivalent to a “zone-blitz.” Redskins fans should already be familiar with this philosophy as Jim Haslett uses it extensively in the 3-4 scheme. Essentially, this allows a defense to drop seven players into coverage while blitzing linebackers and safeties. The concept is simple; when a linebacker or safety blitzes, a defensive linemen drops into coverage to take his place. If the QB is forced into a quick decision, he may not see the defensive lineman dropping, which provides the opportunity for a turnover.
Now keep in mind that NFL defenses, particularly those based off zone-pressure, are unquantifiably complex and cannot possibly be broken down in a single post. Additionally, nothing that I wrote above will be new to Mike and Kyle Shanahan; these are the same concepts that Steve Spagnuolo used when he was the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, and these are the same concepts that he learned under the great Jim Johnson in Philadelphia. Where this defense differs from other 4-3 philosophies is that it places much less emphasis on corners being able to stick with WRs in man-coverage. Very rare are the days of Spagnuolo leaving any CB on an island.
At its best, this defense is one of the most dominating and inpenetrable schemes the NFL has seen. Arguably the greatest offense in NFL history, the 2007 New England Patriots, were dismantled by the New York Giants under Spagnuolo in Super Bowl XLI.
At its worst, this defense can be clumsy and personified by blown assignments left and right. While the concepts above are what make this defense tick, the three items below are absolutely essential to make it work:
- Intellectually capable players at every single position on the field. Make no mistakes about it; this is not a simple scheme to grasp. With the split-coverages, read-zones, and fire-zones, every single player on the field must be on the same page and reacting in concert with one another. A single missed assignment can open the door for explosive plays at every turn. A player who’s slow to react will foil any designs to fool a QB by opening up soft spots where there shouldn’t be any. This is not the case of man-under coverage, where as long as you’re able to stick with your receiver, everything will work out.
- Generating pressure with four pass-rushers. While Spagnuolo will definitely send 5 or 6 guys at times, the focus of this defense is being able to drop seven men into coverage. To do this, you must be able to generate pressure on the QB with only four rushers. The reason why the New York Giants were so successful in dismantling Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLI is because Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck provided NY with three of the best pass-rushers to ever line up alongside one-another in a Super Bowl. In fact, part of what makes Spagnuolo different from other zone-pressure coordinators is his creativity in getting his pass-rushers into mismatch scenarios. He is not afraid to throw four DEs on the field at one time, abandoning all size along the interior of the line in favor of matching up against slower guards and centers.
- Stopping the run. There is nothing special about this scheme with regards to stopping the run. The alignments and responsibilities of the front seven are pretty much what you will find in other 4-3 schemes (Philadelphia’s wide-9 excluded). However, if the defense cannot force the offense into 3rd and long scenarios, they significantly limit the creativity Spagnuolo can use.
Having outlined what this defense is attempting to accomplish along with what the defense must do in order to be successful, now I can go into what the Washington Redskins can expect during week 1.
First of all, expect Steve Spagnuolo to be aggressive in his approach to confuse Robert Griffin III. He will throw a lot at RGIII, forcing the rookie to diagnose what’s going on all over the field, using a lot of split-coverage concepts and fire-zones in an effort to force RGIII into mistakes. The New Orleans Saints have been preaching turnovers all training camp and preseason, and have placed a primary focus on allowing their safeties and cornerbacks to see the QB at all times, which allows them to run downhill at the ball while it’s in the air. With New Orleans’ high-powered, ultra-explosive offense, they are not worried about keeping the score low defensively; they are worried about capitalizing on teams that force passes in an effort to chase the scoreboard. The Redskins cannot allow this to happen.
Second of all, the Redskins should be able to keep RGIII’s jersey clean (at least in pass-protection). Yes, the Redskins have question marks across the offensive line; however, as many questions as the Redskins have, the New Orleans Saints have even more along their defensive front. Their best pass-rusher, former pro-bowler Will Smith, is suspended for his role in the Bounty scandal. Replacing Will Smith is Turk McBride. In 59 career games, McBride has totaled 9 sacks. Cameron Jordan, Smith’s usual DE partner, was New Orleans’ first round draft pick in 2011; despite starting 15 games, he totaled one sack in his rookie campaign. Broderick Bunkley and Sederick Ellis make up the starting interior; combined, they have 18 sacks in 146 games played. In fact, among the projected starting lineup, New Orleans has averaged about 8 sacks per season for the entire starting defensive line combined (based on individual career totals). Brian Orakpo had a better total by himself as a rookie. That’s not just bad; it’s putrid. To be fair, the team does have youth and potential on its side with Cameron Jordan, Sederick Ellis, and reserve DT Akiem Hicks, but if past production is any factor, this should be a troubling area for New Orleans all season long.
Thirdly, as much as Spagnuolo would love to confuse RGIII in his first professional game, it takes time for an entire defensive unit to get in sync with a scheme as complicated as this. Spagnuolo learned this the hard way as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams. This defense is extremely mentally demanding, and when you’re not dealing with elite talent to begin with, there can be severe growing pains along the way. New Orleans certainly isn’t devoid of talent defensively, but they are far from proven. With Jonathan Vilma gone, expect safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins to be the backbones of Spags’ scheme. New Orleans lost Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter in the offseason, and the other starting CB from 2011, Jabari Greer, is questionable at this point to play in the season opener. Those are some big shoes to fill in a new scheme with a new coordinator demanding sophisticated assignments. There is the very real potential for big breakdowns along the secondary. If RGIII can exploit them, this game will turn into a shootout.
Fourthly, the Redskins should be able to run the ball on New Orleans. The Saints were solid against the run in 2011 (12th in rush ypg), but the losses of Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma are not small. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were signed to bolster the LB corp, but both have been injured in preseason and are questionable for week 1. Even if they do play, I would not expect them to be 100%. I don’t believe the Redskins’ running game in the preseason was a flash in the pan. The zone blocking system takes time and consistency to develop, and the Redskins are seeing their patience pay dividends along the OL. Alfred Morris is the real deal, Roy Helu is dangerous in open spaces, and Evan Royster is as steady as they come.
Finally, as much as Spagnuolo’s defense represents a new beginning for New Orleans, the Redskins will bring a lot of things out of hiding in week 1. As fans, we saw just a miniscule percentage of what the Redskins have been working on all training camp. You’ve heard it all for the past month or so: pistol formation, zone-read option, designed QB keepers, etc. We’ve heard it, but haven’t seen it (or at least much of it). Steve Spagnuolo’s readiness will be tested just as much as RGIII’s. Week 1 is always a fascinating poker game because coaches never want to reveal the wrinkles they’ve implemented during the offseason; this week 1 match-up is extra-tantalizing because of the overhaul of New Orleans’ defense, the bounty scandal that has been heard around the world, and the unique skillset that RGIII brings. Be prepared: the Washington Redskins will show you some things that you may have never seen on an NFL field before. Spagnuolo certainly better be.