Ryan Tannehill Stood tall at the end of his three-step drop as the Redskins conducted a dispassionate four-man pass rush on third and long. The pocket solidified around him. He turned away from the play side routes toward the backside, where Greg Jennings was on a comeback route. Tannehill took a hitch and stepped into the pass. Chris Culliver broke on the ball and beat Jennings to the spot.
It felt like the game turned on this play. Up to that point the odds were teetering back and forth, but that play in the middle of the third quarter was the one that likely broke the game. The ball passed through Culliver's hands and was caught by Jennings a yard short of the first down. From that point on nothing fell the Redskins way. Let's take a look at what led up to that point and how the game slipped away after it to see if we can glean some information about how the team will fare in the next week.
All day the offense dispensed heavy doses of Alfred Morris to great effect, and limited Kirk Cousins to throwing timing routes, swing passes, and simple play action crossing routes. It worked fine through the majority of the first half. The The offense controlled the ball and the well-rested defensive line stymied Miami's run game and harassed Tannehill. That is, until Duke Ihenacho broke his wrist and DeAngelo Hall left the field with a rib injury two minutes before halftime. The Dolphins worked their replacements, Trent Robinson and David Amerson, and responded to the only Redskins touchdown with a nearly perfect two-minute drill.
The injuries helped the Dolphins find a rhythm in the passing game. Tannehill threw deep to tight end Jordan Cameron seemingly at will, beating Robinson twice for 27-yard gains. It put the Redskins offense in a position where players had to respond with a score to keep control of the game. The defense set them up perfectly when rookie linebacker Preston Smith abruptly ended the Dolphins first third quarter possession with a strip sack and fumble recovery. It set the Redskins offense up with both momentum and a short field.
But it wasn't to be. On the first play of the drive defensive tackle Earl Mitchell blew across center Kory Lichtensteiger's face and dropped Alfred Morris for a two-yard loss. The possession was a quick three-and-out and the game slipped incrementally further out of Washington's grasp. Mostly that was because the team only put up 10 points in the first half even though it dominated time of possession with a successful ground game. This is the NFL; if a team can hang around long enough, the contest will inevitably turn. Remember when the Tebow-led Broncos beat the Steelers in the playoffs in 2011?
The pass rush continued doing the Lord's work and kept the Dolphins from advancing thanks to a timely sack from Ryan Kerrigan and Chris Baker.
The offense started to sputter, despite starting another second half drive with good field position. It appeared the team could feel Miami slowly increasing the pressure. Short runs and hitches aren't effective ways to come from behind, and it was clear that if the Redskins didn't score they would be playing from behind sooner rather than later. As that reality dawned upon the team, old Redskins demons started to arise -- thin roster, costly penalties, special teams miscues -- and further compound the difficulty of the burgeoning situation.
There was a 15-yard penalty on the punt return. Morgan Moses jumped early on the drive's first play. On third down the Dolphins overloaded the left side of the line, and Kirk Cousins slid protection that way. Of course, that left 5'7", 190-pound Chris Thompson to block Cameron Wake, the 6'3" 250-pound sack specialist. Cousins was dropped for a loss. A defensive holding penalty allowed the drive to continue, but things had already started to come apart at the seams.
The next third down -- four yards to go -- started with a delay of game to make it third and nine. Forced to press the issue and pass but hamstrung by Cousins's limited abilities, the Redskins ran a pick play for Pierre Garcon, who nearly converted the down. But Jordan Reed, who set the pick, was flagged for offensive pass interference to set up third and nineteen. Backup tackle Ty Nsekhe was flagged for holding, leading to a third and twenty-nine. When the team was finally able to line up and run a third down play, Morris took a draw 11 yards.
The familiar notes of self-destruction thoroughly overcame the rhythmic drumbeat set in the first half by the effective zone and power runs as the Redskins punted away and the third quarter bled into the fourth.
The Dolphins tied the game on the ensuing possession with a drive marked by another dropped interception. The first Redskins drive of the fourth quarter began with a holding penalty, followed by a dropped pass, a personal foul, flag for illegal formation, and a punt. Jarvis Landry fielded that punt and ran 69 yards untouched for the winning touchdown.
The offense was able to move the ball on the next possession. The coaches pulled out the play that worked best at picking up chunks of yards: a ply action crossing route. It got Washington inside the Dolphins 30 yard line. Cousins was given the keys to the car at that point in an apparent stab at a sort of quick-strike passing touchdown. Unfortunately, he telegraphed two consecutive passes, the second of which was intercepted at the two-yard line.
Still, the Redskins had an excellent opportunity to tie the game. Cousins and Morris pushed the team through Miami's prevent defense to the 20 yard line in seven plays. It was second down with 2:50 left on the clock and the team held all three of its timeouts. Three quick incomplete passes later the game was over.
It was just one game, but it became clear in the second half that this season is going to be a long one. While the offensive line has improved with Moses and Brandon Scherff, but Lichtensteiger was beaten too easily too often (quick note: Shawn Lauvao was the only lineman aside from Trent Williams to get a consistent push on power runs. Lauvao!) Also, the Redskins need to get new tight end Derek Carrier up to speed on the playbook, because Reed wasn't particularly effective setting the edge.
The game film also made it clear that Kirk Cousins was not asked to do much. The passes he threw were almost entirely short timing-based routes or mid-range crosses that drew upon the respect the linebackers had for the run game. In light of that, losing DeSean Jackson for the first month of the season. It was abundantly clear that Cousins was bad att throwing the ball downfield in a meaningful capacity. Jackson's speed allows Cousins to simply throw the ball as far as he can and let Jackson adjust to it.
For instance, midway through the fourth quarter, down by a touchdown, the offense got inside the 30. The coaches opned up the offense a bit and let Cousins try to throw beyond 15 yards. He then proceeded to stare down Jordan Reed on a seam route. The one-high safety saw the pass coming from the time the ball was snapped, bided his time for a bit with his hips already turned to Reed, and broke once Cousins threw it, and nearly intercepted the ball.
On the next play Cousins again went deep, and again he stared down the receiver. This time the ball was picked off. And on the team's last play, fourth and seven from the 20 going in, the Dolphins blitzed six. Cousins appeared to hesistate in the face of an unblocked rusher and threw a weak toss off his back foot in Reed's direction. It fell about 10 yards short and was nearly picked by the Miami safety.
The offensive game plan was simple, but effective against Miami. The offensive line got movement up front and was able to limit one of the best defensive tackles in the league to two tackles and a negligible impact. The tactics, however, are too vanilla to work over time without Jackson's game-breaking speed to keep secondaries honest. Its hard to see the same broad strategy -- establish the run to set up a play action based passing game -- working against the St. Louis Rams. Their defensive line is significantly better top to bottom than Miami's. Aaron Donald stuffed Marshawn Lynch on a fourth and one to seal the victory. After watching that, it's hard to believe that any zone run that calls for Lichtensteiger to reach Donald will work. Barring an ingenious tweak to the offensive game plan or the defense having a game long out-of-body experience, I don't believe the Redskins have much of a chance against the Rams.