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No guts, no glory

Early games give hope to aggressive defenses

Posted: Wednesday October 5, 2005 1:57AM; Updated: Wednesday October 5, 2005 1:57AM
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Brett Favre
Brett Favre's first half against Carolina was a nightmare thanks to the Panthers' pressure defense.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
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The Washington-Dallas game was winding down. There were less than two minutes left and the Redskins were up by one, and Dallas was looking at a fourth and four on Washington's 42.

"We were," Redskins' defensive coach Gregg Williams says, "under duress."

Four yards just about removes the possibility of a run. The Redskin defenders were yelling, "Watch the quarterback draw!" so there would be no element of surprise in that direction. It would have to be a pass, and it would have to pick up four yards or more, and Drew Bledsoe had been through a million situations like this, and he had a choice of any of three Pro Bowl receivers to throw to -- Terry Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson or tight end Jason Witten.

One play. If the defense rushes four and plays everyone else back in coverage. Well, it's the kind of thing college defensive coordinators do, hoping for a miracle play downfield, against a quarterback who won't face much of a rush. NFL coaches will do the same thing. Carolina did it against the Packers on the final drive Monday night.

Four yards. A first down buys a new set. Another one and they're in field goal range, and a field goal is the ballgame. Blitz Bledsoe and he's experienced enough to get to his hot read in a hurry, working with receivers who know the drill by heart. Send just one extra rusher? It's a middle ground, a compromise. The guy probably would be blocked anyway, and that would take someone out of coverage.

"At the two minute mark," Williams says, "I said to our guys, 'We're gonna win it our way, right?' They yelled, 'Our way!'"

The all-out blitz. Selling out for home and country. The Kamikaze Blitz. Jerry Glanville's Gritz Blitz. Here they come. God help the cornerbacks who have to cover, if the rushers don't find their mark in time.

"Buddy Ryan said it best," Williams says. "It's hard for a quarterback to throw with tears in his eyes. We brought the whole house. We left our two corners back. Bledsoe went hot and got the ball out quickly. Terry Glenn caught it..."

And Walt Harris nailed him a yard short. Ballgame's over.

It's rare to see a team that blitzes a whole game, although writers and TV folks like to mention it. Philly's Jim Johnson likes to send people, but he saves it for when it's least expected. If the enemy is having trouble protecting its quarterback, though, they'll see plenty of Eagle blitzes, as Kansas City did on Sunday. But that's only logical.

Williams, who has had amazing success with the Redskins over the last two years, will sell out on a blitz at the moment of truth, but his philosophy is pressure, any way you can get it. Blitz the whole game, and if your blitzers get blocked, all you're doing is tiring out your pass rush.

That happened to the Patriots against the Chargers last Sunday. They tried to apply pressure, to take some of the heat off a banged up secondary. It didn't get there. The rushers were spinning their wheels. In the second half fatigue set in and Drew Brees was getting plenty of time to deliver the ball and LaDainian Tomlinson was having his way with a very tired defense.

"Sometimes the idea of a blitz can be almost as good as the blitz itself," Williams says. "We pressured Bledsoe on seven of the first 10 snaps. I knew Bill Parcells was going to over-commit to protecting his quarterback, and leave more people in to block. So we started showing pressure and not bringing it, making the quarterback feel by the way we lined up, 'Here they come.' And then we'd drop back, and he'd wind up getting upset and throwing the ball away."

Bill Walsh once said that a pass rush late in the game was the key to NFL football. "The single hardest thing to do is rush the passer in the last two minutes," Williams says. The Cowboys alternate two complete units. Williams says that if he dresses seven defensive linemen, he tries to make sure that they get just about equal playing time.

Other teams don't have that luxury. The Patriots' rush shows a big dropoff, once you get by the first unit. I thought the Panthers had a fairly deep unit, but I didn't see Brett Favre getting much pressure in the second half. Of course, he was also working off a quick drop and throwing on rhythm.