I hated Desean Jackson for years.
Until he became a Redskin. Then I became a huge fan.
As a young adult in the ‘80s, I really disliked Buddy Ryan, and I never really got past that. I didn’t like him when he was with the Bears, and I grew to absolutely loathe him once he joined the Eagles.
It wasn’t hard for me to project my negative feelings for the elder Ryan onto his two boys, Rex & Rob. My disdain for Rob was probably a bit greater, since he had a short stint with the Cowboys.
Of course, all that changed several weeks ago when Rob Ryan became the inside linebackers coach of the Washington Redskins.
I’m suddenly a big fan of Rob Ryan, and I am very open minded about the possibility that I may come to appreciate him as much as I did Desean Jackson. I could be absolutely in love with Rob Ryan by December.
I’m basing this optimism on my idea about how coaching staffs work. See, I don’t have this idea that Jim Tomsula takes care of the defensive linemen, Ray Horton takes care of the DBs, Ryan takes care of the inside linebackers and they all take absolute direction from Greg Manusky.
I have this idea that a coaching staff — and especially all the guys on one side of the ball — cross-pollinate, motivate and inspire one another. I don’t take the view that, because Manusky is still the DC, the defense will be the schematically and tactically the same as it was last year. On the contrary, I believe that changing a pair of position coaches will lead to a natural evolution of the Redskins defense as the coaches get together and map out what they can and should do with the players available.
What impact can Redskins fans expect from the addition of Rob Ryan to the Redskins defensive coaching staff? How is he likely to impact Manusky’s approach this season?
To help answer that, I looked at a very good article written by Mark Bullock and published in The Athletic a few weeks ago. The Bullock article is a film review. I won’t include any of the film from the article, but I do want to rely on Bullock’s analysis of Rob Ryan’s defensive philosophies.
One of the more notable aspects of Ryan’s defense is multiplicity. Many coaches claim they are multiple in what they execute on defense. That plan includes different fronts, blitz packages, and coverages, but few will have the type of variation in the scheme as Ryan. Having watched some of Ryan’s defenses with the Saints and with the Bills in 2016, where he coached alongside his brother, the multiplicity stood out immediately from game to game. Just looking at just a base defensive front, Ryan doesn’t strictly fall into a 3-4 or 4-3. He uses both.
Being able to flip between multiple fronts has apparent benefits. It allows the defense to match up schematically to each opponent regardless of what the offense does. But it also requires flexible personnel.
The Redskins do have some flexible personnel. Jon Allen, DaRon Payne and Matt Ioannidis can and have rushed from just about every spot on the defensive line. One of Ioannidis’ career highlights is a sack against Packers’ right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Ryan Kerrigan can move inside along the defensive line but isn’t someone the Redskins would like working off the ball too much. However, Ryan Anderson and rookie pass rusher Montez Sweat are both capable of moving around.
The Redskins front office seems to have stressed positional flexibility on defense over the past several seasons, which means that the Redskins may be in a position to take advantage of the ‘Ryan’ brand of defensive football that sees fronts, blitz packages, coverages change from one play to the next.
While Ryan is specifically tasked with coaching the inside linebacker group, is there any doubt that he’ll influence the broader strategic planning? I suspect that the Redskins will take a step forward in the ‘multiplicity’ of defensive schemes that we see on the field from week to week.
This defensive unit has largely been together for while. Really, among the players who are likely to see significant snaps, the only new faces are veterans Landon Collins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, both of whom should be able to adapt easily to whatever is asked of them, and rookie Montez Sweat, who will be part of a rotation in a veteran OLB group. There’s every reason to believe that the Redskins defense has the physical abilities, veteran leadership, and improved positional coaching needed to move forward with more varied and complex schemes in 2019.
Blitz from anywhere
Ryan uses multiple blitz schemes. Like I said before, a lot of defensive coaches will say they can blitz anyone from anywhere, but Ryan is one of the few who does it. Any player on defense is a candidate to blitz on any given down, including from the secondary.
In terms of blitzes from the secondary, the Redskins have a few candidates that would be well suited. Landon Collins would be a significant threat blitzing from the strong safety spot and corners Fabian Moreau and rookie Jimmy Moreland both have the speed to be a threat rushing from slot blitzes.
The Redskins drafting seems to be focusing more and more on speed - both offensively and defensively. Linebacker, cornerback and safety blitzes may become a larger part of what we see from the Redskins in 2019. Pressure may be integrated into the psyche of the Redskins defense in a way that we haven’t seen since the departure of Gregg Williams.
Stunts, games and pressure up the middle
The Redskins did a good job pushing the middle of the offense back on pass plays last season, with Payne, Allen and Ioannidis combining for 20 sacks in 2018. With Rob Ryan joining the team, we may see that interior pressure ratcheted up another notch.
Ryan doesn’t only use secondary blitzes or send the house on every play. A lot of his pressures come from limited rushers but strong schemes.
Ryan has many cunning stunts and blitzes designed to beat protection schemes and generate favorable matchups for his rushers. Something the Redskins haven’t done a great job of doing is blitzing the running back, forcing him to stay in to protect.
In his article, Mark Bullock shows film of a Buffalo Bills Double A-gap blitz.
The Bills align both of their inside linebackers in the A gaps on either side of the center. This look instantly forces the back into thinking about protection, because the vast majority of teams will have their running back step up and block one of the A gaps. Ryan runs a clever blitz, with both inside linebackers initially rushing forward while reading the center. The idea is to force the center to commit to one of them, leaving the other free to work against the back.
The Redskins have put a lot of draft capital into the defense recently.
- First round - Montez Sweat (‘19), Daron Payne (‘18), Jonathan Allen (‘17), Ryan Kerrigan (‘11)
- Second round - Ryan Anderson (‘17)
- Third round - Fabian Moreau (‘17)
- Fourth round - Troy Apke (‘18), Montae Nicholson (‘17)
- Fifth round - Cole Holcomb (‘19), Tim Settle (‘18), Matt Ioannidis (‘16)
- Sixth round - Shaun Dion Hamilton (‘18), Adonis Alexander (‘18)
- Seventh round - Jimmy Moreland (‘19), Jordan Brailford (‘19), Greg Stroman (‘18), Josh Harvey-Clemons (‘17)
Strength, speed, and athleticism should be available in abundance to the defensive staff, who can rely on these 17 draft picks, as well as some top tier players who came to the team via free agency (Landon Collins, Josh Norman, DRC, Jon Bostic), and even some undrafted players who are already strong contributors (Quinton Dunbar, Deshazor Everett).
There’s really no reason why the Redskins defense can’t take a big step forward in 2019, incorporating some of the successful defensive concepts that have been hallmarks of Rob Ryan defenses over the years.
Whatever is the opposite of pressure
Unpredictability is really what we’re talking about with Ryan. So, while I talked about “pressure” earlier, Ryan gives offensive coordinators and opposing quarterbacks a lot to think about.
Ryan also likes to drop nine defenders into coverage.
That’s not a typo.
Mark Bullock used film of Buffalo again to illustrate how unpredictable Rob Ryan can be.
With Ryan known as a heavy blitzer, particularly on third down, the offense has to be prepared for any number of potential rushers. Ryan knows this, and his counter is to drop nine defenders into coverage. To the single receiver side, he has his corner play heavy inside leverage while the safety sinks back to stay over the top. To the other side, Ryan has a triangle coverage over the two inside receivers. The two corners and the deep safety work a combination coverage to pick up those two receivers, leaving the outside corner to deal with the outside receiver. Inside, the two linebackers drop into coverage underneath, eyeing any potential release from the running back.
There’s a lot of moving parts and some complex coverages there, but the result is the quarterback having nowhere to throw.
This strategy can be an effective counter to teams suspecting a heavy blitz. It can muddy the coverage and make it hard for the quarterback to decipher, especially if he was expecting to see five or six rushers, which would typically mean man coverage behind it.
I have to confess that my natural tendency over the years was to believe in pressure, pressure and more pressure. “When in doubt, blitz” could have described my NFL defensive mindset for most of the past 40 years or so.
That changed a bit when I started watching what the Kansas City Chiefs were doing a couple of years ago. I saw that they often opted to rush 3 and use 8 men in coverage, and that it created a different kind of puzzle for the offense to solve.
Mixing in this ‘limited rush, maximum coverage’ idea is sort of the defensive equivalent of the play-action pass. Get your opponent thinking that you’re gonna do one thing, then do something else.
[W]ith so many moving parts, one criticism of Ryan’s defense is its complexity. Sometimes it asks too much of the players when a more straightforward solution would have gotten similar or better results. It can often cause miscommunication issues in coverage, which was part of Ryan’s downfall with the Saints.
The Redskins had more than their fair share of miscommunication issues in the secondary last year. Ironically enough, it was most apparent in the Saints game when Drew Brees completed 26 of 29 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-19 blowout. The complexity of Ryan’s defense might not necessarily mesh with the Redskins personnel. However, with the presence of Landon Collins and some continuity at corner, if healthy, could see that communication in coverage improves.
I confess, as I was reading Mark Bullock’s film breakdown, the thing that most concerned me was that I’ve seen so many mental breakdowns in the Redskins defense over the years that seemed due to mental lapses or poor communication.
Bullock points to the addition of Landon Collins as reason for some optimism. I’ll go a different direction. I want to focus on the defensive coaching changes we’ve seen this off-season with the addition of Rob Ryan and Ray Horton.
My impression of the Redskins defensive problems has been twofold:
- The inside linebackers ‘guessing’ or ‘freelancing’ and losing gap integrity throughout the 2018 season. I saw it again and again. The team has a new inside linebackers coach, and Zach Brown is now playing for a division rival.
- The defensive backs frequently seem to have been confused about coverage responsibilities. This dates back to the Shanahan years. I thought it was fixed when the Redskins said goodbye to Raheem Morris and hello to Torrian Gray, but the issues continued. Enter Ray Horton.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that ILB and DB are the two position groups that underwent coaching changes this off-season.
My hope — perhaps my expectation — is that the two new position coaches, Ryan and Horton, will improve the communication and performance at both positions, meaning that the defense as a whole should be more capable of incorporating some of the complexity that Rob Ryan’s influence is likely to bring to the Redskins in 2019.
It could be that the Redskins defense is set up to be something special in 2019.
- Defensive Coordinator - Greg Manusky
- Defensive Line - Jim Tomsula
- Outside Linebackers - Chad Grimm
- Inside Linebackers - Rob Ryan
- Defensive Backs - Ray Horton
- Assistant DB coach - James Rowe
- Defensive Quality Control - Kyshoen Jarrett
- Defensive Quality Control - Cannon Matthews