It's evident after three games that this Redskins team is better than initially expected. The team is far from great, but it's equally far from last year's dumpster fire. This is a bit of a revelation for those of us who, like me, had braced for an excruciating season, which you probably noticed if you read my first film review.
While it's great to watch Bill Callahan's wizardry and Ryan Kerrigan and Terrance Knighton wreak havoc on opposing runners, the team has a couple fatal flaws. It's to be expected; building the team into a contender will take years, even though McCloughan has things ahead of schedule. In the interest of learning more about how this team clicks and what to expect week-to-week I went back and pulled a few examples of those flaws -- and examples of progress -- from Weeks 2 and 3.
As a disclaimer, this piece will focus on the bad things that have happened with the Redskins during the last two games. There have been many positives, and I'll touch on those, but sometimes the best way to understand how a team can win games is by figuring out why and how they lose them. So, you know, fair warning. To take the reassuring stance of a concerned parent after the first semester of college, these criticisms come from a place of love.
One of the major flaws this team has is an inability to play from behind. Said another way, this Washington offense cannot score quickly. The biggest reason for that is either because Kirk Cousins is unable to make reads and throw downfield, or because the coaching staff simply doesn't trust him to do so. The passing game through three games has been simple, based primarily on timing routes and play action. By far the most succesful pass play during the first two weeks was a play action crossing route.
This was the first offensive play against the Rams. It's easy to see why the coaches call this play again and again. The linebackers are a mere three yards off the line of scrimmage, evidence of the respect they have for Washington's rushing attack. Watch as the 'backers take two steps forward on the fake handoff. It leaves just enough time and space between them and the tight end for Cousins to finish his drop, plant his back foot and deliver a strike downfield. Simple, straightforward, effective. Great play. Keep this in mind when we start talking about the Giants game.
The first quarter against St. Louis was a good example of what does and doesn't work for this Redskins team. For instance, that first drive consisted of three passes and one run. My guess is that coach Gruden wanted to get Cousins into a rhythm early, maybe catch the Rams off guard on that first series. But the second play of the drive showed that Cousins wasn't quite feeling the game just yet.
The Redskins motioned Alfred Morris into the backfield from an empty set and the Rams feinted a middle linebacker blitz. Right before the snap, the 'backer walked off and the weakside corner started down. The safety came up to occupy the blitzing cornerback's coverage zone, and inadvertently left Pierre Garcon wide open 12 yards downfield with no one between him and the endzone. Cousins missed the quick read and instead dropped the ball off to Morris. It nearly went for a first down, which is great, but not as good as a potential touchdown.
On the next series Gruden turned to the run game. Two runs for massive yardage and Matt Jones was jumping into the stands. The first, a zone run for Morris, was allowed in large part because the Rams all-everything defensive tackle Aaron Donald's aggressive upfield pursuit left a huge cutback lane that Morris took advantage of. This is a bit of an aside, but on the Jones touchdown scamper, Donald damn near tackled Cousins before the handoff. Watch, he's so fast off the line that Trent Williams completely whiffed on the down block and almost fell over. Incredible.
Anyway, let's take a second and also admire the blocking that allowed the touchdown. Tight end Derek Carrier seals off the defensive end, Reed locks down the outside linebacker, and Shawn Lauvao pulls and devours the cornerback crashing down. My favorite part is center Kory Lichtensteiger. Watch as he gets off the line, through all the muck, and makes the block on the pursuing middle linebacker to spring Jones for the score. For all the junk 'Steiger gets about getting pushed around by bigger players (I'm guilty of this), the man is a talented center. Take a second and admire how well he moves in space.
The defense played well and kept the Rams offense from finding its rhythm. The defensive line -- as has come to be expected -- was stifling. Unfortunately a turnover mid-way through the third quarter gave St. Louis a short field to work with, and Foles found Kenny Britt for a touchdown. It appeared that, while Britt beat DeAngelo Hall, it looked like Hall expected backup safety Trenton Robinson to provide help over the top. But it looked like Robinson was uncertain about his responsibilities before the snap, elucidating another of the team's fatal flaws: the weak secondary.
The Redskins controlled the game on the ground thanks to the stellar work of the offensive line and the running backs. It allowed Cousins to settle into the game and make decisions within his comfort zone, from what I could tell. And it worked out. Midway through the fourth quarter the Redskins were ahead 17-10 and faced a third and eight on their own 25. Cousins took the snap and worked through his reads and dumped the ball off to Chris Thompson who coverted. The drive ended in a game-icing touchdown by Matt Jones.
The Rams game provides the formula for how I believe this year's Redskins will win its games: ground-based attack, just enough of a pass game to make things work, a defensive line talented enough to take away the opponent's run and severely limit their passing game.
Conversely, I believe Thursday night's game is a good illustration of how the Redskins will lose games this season. The Giants are alright -- good but not great. But New York has a talented quarterback and an elite wide receiver. It gives them the ability to score quickly against Washington. When the Redskins get down it throws the team out of its offensive rhythm and makes for a challenging uphill slog, one that the team has struggled to fight through. Let's look at how this cropped up specifically during Week 3.
The Redskins started the game with three passes and one run -- just like the St. Louis game. Again, I assume this is an effort to quickly get Cousins into the ebb and flow of the game. Again, it resulted in a three and out only this time the series was followed by a blocked punt and a safety. AN inauspicious start to the game.
Remember that play action pass that worked well for Washington the first two weeks of the season? When the Redskins got the ball back, they went back to the well for a consistently successful play: the play action crossing route. Cornerback Prince Amukamara watched the play develop and broke on the ball before it was thrown. He intercepted the ball to set the Giants up with a short field. Four plays later, they scored to take a 9-0 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
The team struggled to get the running game going on the next drive. The loss of Shawn Lauvao on the first series played a fairly big role in this, I believe. He played well the first two weeks, and backup Josh LeRibeus was not as effective. On the second play of his first full series he failed to cut the defensive tackle on a zone run to the right. The tackle ran down the line and stopped Thompson as he started upfield.
Throughout the game the Redskins defensive line kept the Giants from rushing the ball more than a couple yards at a time. The only way they were able to move the ball enough to get first downs was through the air. Even when they were close, Washington's defense held strong and left the offense ample opportunity to get back into the game.
The offense was able to move the ball steadily throughout the first half, thanks in part to the play of Cousins; Washington's longest run was a 10 yarder to close the first quarter. But as heartening as it was to see Cousins moving the team downfield, it was impossible to watch without seeing his limitations. For example, a third down conversion early in the second quarter saw Cousins work through his progressions and find Andre Roberts across the field. It was a completion, but you wonder what could've happened if Cousins had hit Roberts in stride and allowed him a chance to make a play after the catch.
Two plays later, Cousins had an opportunity to hit Jordan Reed in the endzone but failed to put the ball where it needed t be.
What ended up doing the Redskins in on Thursday night was simply that Eli Manning was quick and decisive when he passed the ball, the Giants receivers beat the Redskins defensive backs more often than not. New York also got a few lucky bounces that helped seal the game. The Matt Jones goal line fumble, Cousins's interception, Rueben Randle's deep touchdown, all those plays helped keep the game out of Washington's reach and were more or less unrelated to talent or ability.
Looking forward to next week, I think the Redskins will beat the Eagles in Week 4. The Eagles have struggled to run the ball so far, and I don't think Sam Bradford is good enough to pick away at the Redskins secondary. It'll be dependent on whether Washington's offensive line is able to get a good push and establish the run. It'll be a tougher task than usual if the lateral ankle sprain Shawn Lauvao suffered Thursday keeps him out. LeRibeus cleaned up his performance after early struggles, but his play was still a far cry from Lauvao's strong early season work. It'll be interesting to see if Spencer Long, who was inactive Thursday, gets the nod ahead of LeRibeus. I have a sneaking suspicion he will.
Week 4 prediction: Redskins 24, Eagles 21