Containing Tony Romo can be tricky

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
5:35
PM ET
ASHBURN, Va. -- The play begins with a little pressure and Dallas quarterback Tony Romo starting to get trapped in the pocket. This is when the damage can start if all lanes aren't clogged. And, on this play in the 2011 season finale, they weren't. As linebacker Brian Orakpo pushed a little too far inside -- perhaps only by a foot -- Romo saw the opening he needed.

He spun to the outside, kept his eyes upfield, hit Jason Witten at the Redskins' 34 and, a few seconds later, celebrated a 68-yard touchdown pass.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsRedskins pass rushers have learned to always stay on their feet when chasing the elusive Tony Romo.
Flash ahead to last season, once more in the finale. Once again, Romo is trapped. This time, on a slight rollout to his right, Romo is under pressure from blitzing linebacker Perry Riley. Then Romo does his other trick: the pump fake. Riley leaps, Romo buys himself more time, then hits receiver Dez Bryant for 23 yards.

"He's probably as good as I've seen, a guy that can stay alive in the pocket," Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said, "scramble, move side to side, left to right, both sides, and step up and have the ability to still clear the field, look downfield and complete passes. He's probably as good as I've ever seen do that."

The Redskins have learned plenty of lessons when it comes to defending Romo. They sent extra rushers at him in last year's 28-18 season finale win; against five-plus rushers, Romo completed 11-of-23 passes for 135 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. In the first game, Romo was 9-of-15 for 105 yards against five-or-more rushers. But this season, he's completed 43-of-64 passes for 425 yards and five touchdowns against five-plus rushers -- and no interceptions.

Washington had success running stunts and blitzing up the middle last season. However, the Cowboys have a new starting center, rookie Travis Frederick.

"He does a good job to see if there's an overload and he does a good job cleaning up the pile," Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said.

Still, the Redskins must somehow contain Romo in the pocket. His 85-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dez Bryant last Thanksgiving resulted from a scramble in which he extended the play for 5.1 seconds. Back to the 2011 finale: Dallas scored an earlier touchdown when Romo slid out of the pocket to his left and, right before reaching the line of scrimmage, threw to receiver Laurent Robinson for a 7-yard touchdown.

"It's tough to do because you want to be wide open how you pass rush," Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "You don't want to be thinking, 'Oh man I have to keep the quarterback contained.' That's the biggest challenge. I don't want to say it slows you down, but it prevents you from doing what you normally want to do. You can be rushing for three or four seconds and trying to be in good contain and you happen to slip an edge and he escapes one way or another and he makes a play.

"What you initially want to do is collapse the pocket and get pressure in his face. In the second game [last season] we did a good job of that. You want to collapse the pocket and hope you can slip an edge."

And don't fall for the pump fake.

"That's the one thing you can't do," said Kerrigan, who has two sacks and a forced fumble in four games against Dallas. "He'll pump fake you 'til the cows come home. You've got to stay on your feet. Put your hands up, but don't leave your feet."

Kerrigan deflected a pass last season following that strategy. Orakpo has yet to record a sack against Dallas in six games.

"Sacks come and if they don't, they don't," Orakpo said. "So it doesn't bother me."

But what does bother him is trying to corral Romo. He praised Romo's pocket awareness and said he has a good feel for when pressure is coming off the edges. And that spin move can be a killer. Orakpo called it Romo's "patented" move.

"He got me on that a couple times," Orakpo said. "That same spin off the back shoulder, spin off of it and make something downfield. It's hard to keep him in the pocket, but at the same time you've got to be disciplined."

Orakpo learned that two years ago, when his rush brought him enough inside to allow Romo to spin outside contain. That's why a point of emphasis this week was rushing at Romo's upfield shoulder, making the path just a bit wider.

"He does a good job of acting like he doesn't see you," Orakpo said. "That's why he gets defenders reaching and lunging, thinking they have to deliver a big blow and then at the last minute he spins right off them."

It's not as if Romo owns the Redskins. Since Mike Shanahan arrived, the Redskins are 3-3 against Dallas (3-2 vs. Romo). He has thrown nine touchdown passes and six interceptions against them. Washington knows what to do. But if the Redskins don't do it, they know what will happen.

John Keim

ESPN Washington Redskins reporter

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