The Redskins will bring the NFL's second-best rushing attack to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday to face the Buccaneers and their top-ranked run defense. Rookie running back Alfred Morris already has 263 rushing yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a pop, and the presence of a talented runner like Robert Griffin III at quarterback complicates matters.
The matchup issues extend to the other sideline, however. The Redskins obviously have talented players, and Griffin is a unique threat, but it is the zone-blocking scheme that Washington Head Coach Mike Shanahan has been running to great effect since his Denver days that presents the biggest challenge this Sunday.
Zone runs, which involve linemen double-teaming a first-level defender and then part of that double-team peeling off to go after a linebacker on the next level, try to create cut-back lanes for the ballcarrier. Defenses often overcommit due to the flow of the play, and a seal block on the back side can create the space the back needs. It is left to the runner to read the blocking in front of him and choose the best gap.
The Bucs' defense might see some zone runs almost every week, but they will see it on the majority of running plays this Sunday against Washington.
"Most teams either are 3-4 or they're not, whereas every team has a zone scheme," said Bucs Head Coach Greg Schiano. "It's their commitment to the zone scheme. They do a little bit more than that, but not a whole lot. They major in the zone scheme. And the way they block it, sometimes it hits as an outside run and sometimes it hits as an off-tackle run and sometimes it hits as an inside run, and that's by the training of the back and the training of the linemen. Nobody's done it better over the years than Coach Shanahan and his teams."
The Bucs' run defense is quite clearly the most improved aspect of the team in comparison to the 2011 squad. You simply cannot make a bigger leap than going from last in the league in a specific category to first, and that's what the Bucs have done against the run. They've reduced their yards allowed per game from 156.1 last year to just 47.3 this year, albeit through just three outings so far.
Sunday's game will be a good and very specific barometer for that improvement. The last time the Bucs played Shanahan's Redskins, in December of 2010, Washington ran for 178 yards in what would prove to be a one-point Tampa Bay victory. The Bucs' defense has changed quite a bit since then, particularly in terms of scheme, and it has worked hard this week to install a game plan for Shanahan's zone runs. Linebacker Mason Foster says the Bucs have the means to stop the Redskins' ground game, though it won't be easy.
"I feel like they can isolate certain players at times with that scheme," he said. "They can get you where they want you. It gives them a chance to read what you're doing on defense while running the ball. It's tough but we've got good athletes and they've got good athletes. We've got to make more plays than them."