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Facing Big Passing Attacks, Redskins Defense Must Sure Up Its Middle


With the Redskins facing elite receivers to start the season, the defense knows it must make plays up the middle when it gets spread out into nickel formations.

Defensive end Ricky Jean Francois calls it a challenge. Inside linebacker Mason Foster calls it added responsibility.

Throughout the majority of the season opener with Pittsburgh Steelers, the Redskins' defense played in their nickel and dime packages with six players in the box – a combination of two defensive linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers – to combat the Steelers' passing attack.

This presents a challenge to those up front because it leaves a lot of open space around the middle of the field as plays develop, spreading out the inside linebackers and allowing the offense room to operate in short spurts. It's what the Steelers did throughout most of their Monday night victory, dinking and dunking for short gains with running back DeAngelo Williams and tight end Jesse James, using up the clock and keeping the defense on the field by converting third downs with manageable distances.

Head coach Jay Gruden said Thursday that prevented the defense from pinning their ears back and attacking Roethlisberger, who was quick to release passes when they were available, either in the backfield or the center of the field.

"The key is first down, we've got to do better," Gruden said. "Get them a second and long and then obviously try to get them in third down and long to try and make it more one-dimensional where we can rush."

"Anytime you have six in the box you can do so much [on offense]," defensive end Ziggy Hood said. "You can run the ball, because you've got so many light people, but not only that, everybody's spaced out, so anytime you do a little quick and in, somebody can be there to catch it…We've got to do a better job to keep them in [longer] yardage."

This will continue to be a challenge facing the Redskins defense as they play more and more nickel packages – a league-wide trend -- to counteract teams' multi-faceted passing attacks. The Cowboys offer more of the same with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley at wide receiver.

Check out these photos of the Redskins' defense and special teams preparing for their Week 2 game against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.

In his press conference on Thursday, defensive coordinator Joe Barry said he knew before Monday's game that Brown's presence on the field would precipitate a lighter box and make them more vulnerable towards the run. It's an issue the defense must address throughout the majority of their games this season.

"Every week is going to be the same thing," Barry said. "Whether it's [No.] 84 [Antonio Brown] in Pittsburgh, or [No.] 88 [Dez Bryant] in Dallas, it's [No.] 13 [Odell Beckham Jr.] in New York, it's [No.] 18 [A.J. Green] in Cincinnati—you're going to have a guy to deal with. Especially when offenses have good runners, they have good running games. We play against a very accomplished, very good offensive line this week that wants to run the ball. That's life in the National Football League. That's the challenges that we face week-in and week-out."

For nickel cornerback Dashaun Phillips, who played in 46 of the defense's 68 snaps against the Steelers, that means making sure he has beats on his matchup in the slot, likely Beasley, and is also ready to attack a run play trying to exploit a six-man box.

That should prove to be a challenge with running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and run up the middle, much like DeAngelo Williams on Monday.

"All these guys are such good athletes, you really gotta know what routes are coming, so when they split out, it's a whole other world," linebacker Mason Foster said. "Guys are really quick. But all through camp, we've been going against [Chris Thompson], Matt Jones, guys like that, Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, so I really don't worry about covering anybody else. I face some of the toughest guys I'm going to see all year every day here. You just have to study for it and be ready."

If the Cowboys continue to lean on quarterback Dak Prescott in the offense (he threw 45 times against the Giants last week), defensive coordinator Joe Barry will likely run with a six-man box again. It will be up to his playmakers to utilize their skills accordingly and win their matchups.

"It just comes down to hitting gaps and making tackles really," Foster said. "Even playing with a light box against the Steelers, we still had our chances. We've just got to make plays. We know what we're capable of, we know Coach is going to put us in the right position. We just got to execute and make the play."

Or, as Jean Francois said, "beat your man, win your job, do what you got to do."

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