The interior of the Green Bay Packers offensive line and each pass-protecting running back had better be aware of where No. 58 is Sunday when the Arizona Cardinals visit Lambeau Field.
The number belongs to Cardinals inside linebacker Daryl Washington, an emerging star for defensive coordinator Ray Horton's top-10 defense. In his third year out of TCU, Washington (6-2, 230 lbs.) has made his biggest mark blitzing the quarterback. His eight sacks in eight games ranks third in the NFL this season, a remarkable rate for an inside linebacker in any defensive scheme.
According to Pro Football Focus, no inside linebacker comes even close to approaching Washington's 16 quarterback disruptions (eight sacks, three quarterback hits and five hurries) in 2012.
Overall, Washington's blitzing ability has been one of the leading reasons why Arizona ranks alongside the Packers as the top sacking defense this season (26). It helps that his defensive coordinator knows how to use him, too.
Horton, a disciple of Dick LeBeau's original 3-4 defense in Pittsburgh, runs a variety of fire and zone blitzes with Washington to get him free or favorable lanes to the quarterback. He sends Washington often, too. Of his 273 snaps against the pass, 74 have been spent rushing the passer (27.1 percent). From there, Washington does the rest.
Here's a look at how Washington has been so productive getting to opposing quarterbacks in 2012:
Shooting the A gap
In defensive terms, the 'A gap' is defined as the space on either side of the center. On this particular sack of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder in Week 7, watch as Washington shows a blitz of the A gap early in the defensive look.
In this pre-snap picture, Washington is clearly pressing the line of scrimmage. Ponder and center John Sullivan have to see this, but the adjustment doesn't seem to be made beforehand. When Sullivan's first move after the snap is taking on Dan Williams (92), and the left guard blocks Calais Campbell (to the right of Washington), Ponder is in big trouble.
Washington explodes through a wide open A gap. Just two or three steps into his drop, Ponder has Washington in his lap. The rush is so immediate that running back Toby Gerhart (circled) has no chance at stepping into a block. Even if he did, Washington has Paris Lenon (51) trailing behind him with no lineman aware of the double blitz of the A gap. Two of Ponder's targets are just a yard or two into their routes by the time, making this an easy sack for Washington.
What can we take from this look? Both quarterback Aaron Rodgers and center Jeff Saturday have to be cognizant when Washington presses the line of scrimmage Sunday. Saturday is a 14-year veteran, so this kind of complete breakdown shouldn't happen Sunday. Saturday needs to orchestrate the pre-snap adjustment so that the quickest avenue to the quarterback (A gap) is blocked first.
Delayed Cross Blitz
Packers fans should be well aware of this next look, as defensive coordinator Dom Capers may run the delayed cross blitz more than any of his other blitzes. Washington and the Cardinals executed it well on this second-down play against the San Francisco 49ers Monday night. Here's how each team looks just as the ball is being snapped.
Lenon is attacking the line of scrimmage immediately. His goal, however, is not exactly to get to the quarterback. If the call works correctly, Lenon will force the lone running back (Frank Gore, in this situation) to pick between two free blitzers. He'll take up the lone blocker, allowing Washington a clear path to quarterback Alex Smith.
Horton's blitz works. Lenon forces Gore to step up and make a block, while the center initially double teams Dan Williams inside. Washington, patiently waiting and reading behind the mayhem, picks his spot and attacks. The center does eventually recognize Washington's delayed blitz, but it's too late. Washington sheds the block easily and winds up with his first of two sacks on Smith Monday night.
Again, the onus will be on Saturday to corral this look Sunday. But given his time working against Capers' blitz schemes, Saturday should be aware enough of what is happening on these kind of delayed blitzes. The key to stone-walling the delayed blitz is communication between the interior lineman, combined with a running back who can stick the first middle linebacker. When there's communication, this blitz can look silly and ineffective.
Blitzing with different personnel
Horton isn't limited in blitzing Washington with just fellow middle linebackers. He's more than comfortable bringing a nickel cornerback or safety into the mix as well. In fact, he relishes the opportunity. On this look during a Week 5 trip to St. Louis, Horton stacks safety Kerry Rhodes with Washington to overload one side of the offensive line.
Again, the quarterback and center combination fail to make the necessary adjustment in the pre-snap read. The numbers, in terms of a hat on a hat, actually line up if the protection is called correctly. Unfortunately for Sam Bradford, that doesn't happen here. Rhodes, joining O'Brien Schofield and Washington to the offense's right side, help overwhelm a poorly blocked third down play.
Schofield holds the edge, while Williams is once again double teamed on the nose by an unaware center. The blitz gets exactly what it wants; a running back forced to block two on-coming rushers. The center (back turned to both Rhodes and Washington) is going to be no help for the blitz coming off the right side. Daryl Richardson mostly whiffs on both blocks, and Washington cleans up by getting Bradford to the ground. Drive over.
Saturday can't fall asleep when safeties come into the box, especially on short distance plays like this one. Horton loves bringing more defenders into the box and then blitzing Rhodes or Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson. Lapses in concentration like the above play—especially from Saturday—will result in sacks and negative plays. When the numbers line up, the protection has to be right every time.
Washington is an explosive athlete who flashes more natural pass rushing instincts than 99 percent of NFL inside linebackers. Aiding his talent is a defensive coordinator who knows his personnel and how to get the playmakers into the right positions. Washington is one of those chess pieces.
For the Packers to avoid Washington adding to his sack total Sunday, both Rodgers and Saturday have to be alert and cognizant of the different looks Horton throws their way. Washington has gotten into a habit of taking advantage of mental mistakes at the line of scrimmage this season.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.