The Week 4 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles was about as dramatic and incredible as any Redskins fan could hope for. Although I just about nailed my Week 4 prediction, the three-point victory came about for pretty much the exact opposite reasons I predicted and I couldn’t be happier to explore all the reasons why I was wrong. First we’ll dive into the offense.
The Eagles kept the Redskins rushing offense from dominating the game, aside from a 42-yard scamper by Chris Thompson on the first drive of the game. Philadelphia made Kirk Cousins beat them, and he did.
The first half progressed relatively similar to the prior three Redskins games with one key exception: Jay Gruden leaned a bit heavier on the running game than the pass. The last few games began with a majority of passes; paradoxically, facing one of the league’s best run defenses, he chose to attack on the ground. The Eagles severely limited Alfred Morris & Co., and Gruden turned to Cousins for third down conversions. It was there that the maligned quarterback showed a little something more than he has yet in the young season. He began noticeably working through progressions.
On the first drive the run was still the savior. Here, Thompson takes a simple draw play and runs behind a well-executed trade block by Kory Lichtensteiger and Brandon Scherff -- watch 'Steiger spring the play for extra yards with his downfield cut block -- to not only convert the long third, but get into enemy territory.
Cousins’ limitations were still evident during the first half, however. He struggles in the red zone when defenses have less field to work with and the decisions must come quicker and the windows are tighter. For instance, on the 20 yard line, Cousins ran a play action naked bootleg and had Jordan Reed ahead of three defenders in the corner of the end zone. He overthrew the tight end, not even giving him a chance to make a play.
What’s different from prior games, however, is that two plays later, on third down, Cousins threw a dime to Ryan Grant on a fade that likely would’ve been caught for a score if not for pass interference.
Cousins scored a touchdown on a recovered fumble to cap that drive. It’s hard to say how the fumble happened on film, whether it was a center or quarterback error, but ultimately what’s remembered with something like that is the result rather than the mistake that led to it. It's that bounce — and others, like Philly missing a 33-yard field goal to end the half — that buoyed Washington’s confidence and factored into the resilience the team showed in coming back after surrendering the lead in the second half.
After the offense’s initial three-runs-and-out second half drive flamed out, Gruden turned the ball over to Cousins to surprising effect. The team broke out a new play action pass, this one a wheel route to Rashad Ross. The play fake held the safety in the middle of the field and caused the cornerback to turn his head as the linebackers bit. That little space opened Ross up downfield, and Cousins laid it in perfectly for a 43-yard gain.
It was clear that Cousins was in the zone a few plays later. It was a long third down, and he heaved one toward Crowder in a tight window. The pass could be fairly interpreted as either a late read that simply worked out or as a ballsy, confident throw the quarterback knew would work. Given the circumstances, I believe it was the latter.
Early in the fourth quarter the Eagles took the lead. The Redskins faltered with bad field position, but late in the quarter it appeared the time of possession and body blows of the running attack started to take hold. Philadelphia’s linebackers didn’t crash quite so hard and Washington was able to break a couple big runs, gain better field position and set up the pass a little more. As an aside, watch this play and how Derek Carrier sticks his block. Throughout the game he made small but key contributions like that in both the running and passing game. The comparison that jumps to mind here is one of a poor man’s Heath Miller. Good trade by GM Scot McCloughan.
This 16-yard run by Morris keyed the game-winning drive. It combined a handful of solid runs and effective passes by the Redskins. And, if you didn’t notice this during the drive in real time, Cousins made some excellent throws into tight coverage. Ones that clearly were not his first option. Coincidentally, all of the passes went to Pierre Garcon. The tightest window, the ballsiest, the highest risk-reward toss of them all was, of course, the four-yard touchdown to Garcon. Lets all just take it in that Cousins went completed seven out of 11 passes for 46 yards and a touchdown while he directed a 90-yard, 17-play drive to beat a division rival.
The strategy of steadily building Cousins’ confidence through timing routes and simple reads appears to have paid off in the wake of this Week 4 success. Cousins has now shown that he can come back and win a game. Expect things to open up a little more for the running game as defenses give Cousins a little more respect. Still, I’m a little hesitant to anoint him as anything more than a below average starting quarterback. He hasn’t shown that he can consistently read defenses and throw accurate passes more than 10 yards downfield. I hope I’m wrong again about that, too, but I’m not holding my breath either.
We’ll find out how the coaches actually feel in Week 5. Either they’ll stick to the Denzel Washington offense or branch out and take some chances.
Now for the defensive side of the ball. The defensive line looked good once again, but what truly stood out was how poorly Sam Bradford played. He short-armed his first pass and then sat in the pocket too long on third down and got taken down by Chris Baker. I’d notch it up as a coverage sack.
On the second drive, a late switch between Keenan Robinson and Ryan Kerrigan confused the Philadelphia offensive line and gave Kerrigan a clear shot at Bradford, who somehow evaded Kerrigan’s grasp. The minor error nearly blew the well-executed scheme: rookie safety-turned-slot-corner Kyshoen Jarrett, who played well against the run, got caught watching the backfield and left Riley Cooper open. Surely a more talented quarterback could have potentially completed that pass.
Chris Baker played a solid game beyond his two sacks. Later on in the second quarter he blew up a DeMarco Murray run in the backfield. It’s interesting to note that even if Baker hadn’t penetrated the backfield, Jarrett came down hard on a corner blitz and nearly took down Murray for a 10-yard loss. Joe Barry dialed up a handful of blitzes throughout the game. The aggression kept Bradford out of a rhythm by forcing him to either make quicker decisions than the slow-developing pass routes allowed or throw with a hand in or around his face. It protected the relatively weak secondary
Speaking of the secondary, the injury-hobbled Chris Culliver was protected by a safety over the top for much of the game. But not all of the time, as evidenced by the long completions to Nelson Agholor and the long touchdowns Riley Cooper and Miles Austin. Interestingly enough, the two touchdowns came off a play action that held the safeties in place just long enough to create a window. I say interestingly because the Redskins offense has had an abundance of success from its own limited quarterback throwing relatively deep off play action because of how it holds the safety.
While watching the film I wondered why the Eagles didn’t more frequently line up with three wide receivers away from Culliver, isolating him, and then allow the lone receiver to abuse Culliver’s ailing legs.
Anyway, I’m going to give the defense short shrift again this week. Mostly it is because we all know its fatal flaw (the thin, sparsely talented secondary) and it’s boring to rehash the same thing over and over. It’s also because I played offense through college and have a better understanding of it and am more able to issue critiques and point things out on that side of the ball. Still, I feel a little bad about not giving you defense aficionados more to sink your teeth into. So here’s a GIF of Jason Hatcher drinking an Eagles’ guard’s milkshake.
Before I move onto the Week 5 prediction let me hop on a soapbox real quick and sound off on Chip Kelly and how the first quarter of the season has gone for the Eagles. It seems like he believes the offensive scheme is more important than the talent of the players. Scheme is important; don’t get me wrong. But at the professional level the two don’t exist independently of one another. Bill Walsh created a dynasty with his West Coast offense. But he also had Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott. Dick LeBeau invented the zone blitz and popularized the 3-4. His Super Bowls came with Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger. More to the point, if scheme mattered more than talent why did the Indianapolis Colts go to the Super Bowl in 2009 and then two years later, under the same head coach, finish 2-14? They lost one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Peyton Manning.
Kelly turned the Eagles from a 4-12 team in 2012 to a 10-6 playoff team in 2013. Clearly his scheme works. But since then he has cut ties with All-Pro players DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, and Evan Mathis, as well as well-regarded starters Todd Herremans, Trent Cole, and Jeremy Maclin. Kelly only replaced one of those players with an equally talented (though stylistically different) player, McCoy for DeMarco Murray. And running backs, as Murray well knows, are dependent on their linemen. Losing two of the league’s top interior linemen clearly hasn’t helped ease the transition.
All these moves give the impression that Kelly values players who fit in his scheme more than players 10 to 15 percent more talented than their peers. That holds true in a college environment where the gap in overall talent can be as vertiginous as the one between Oregon and Colorado. In the NFL the difference between winning and losing, more often than not, is those uniquely talented players. Scheme only matters if your players are able to execute it regardless of opponent.
All that said, I sports-hate the Eagles almost as much as I love Washington. So here’s to hoping those players never find their way onto Kelly’s roster.
Whew, glad I got that out. The Atlanta Falcons are a bad, but interesting, matchup for Washington. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are a more lethal combination this season than Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. Atlanta ranks second (behind Washington) in time of possession. So, it could be a relatively low-scoring affair if both teams trade off long, clock-eating drives.
I expect Shanahan the Younger to play puppet master with Ryan and Jones to pick away at the festering scab of Washington’s secondary, testing the CB depth and teasing Trenton Robinson with decoys and false looks. Mostly I think the Falcons will be able to score touchdowns when they get inside the 30-yard line, whereas Washington will settle for field goals too often to come out on top.
My bold prediction: Falcons win, 35-27.