Five observations from the Redskins’ win over the Eagles

Robert Griffin III

Robert Griffin III and the Redskins stand one win away from the NFC East title and a home playoff game. (Associated Press)

The Washington Redskins extended their winning streak to six games – the first such regular season run since 1996 – and next Sunday night play the Dallas Cowboys in what could be an all-or-nothing game.

In case you missed it, the Redskins-Cowboys game has been flexed from 1 p.m. on Fox to the 8:20 p.m. on NBC.

If the Redskins win, they will take their first NFC East title since 1999 and would earn a home playoff berth. In the event of a loss, Washington and Dallas would both finish 9-7, but the Cowboys hold the NFC East tiebreaker because of better record against common opponents. The only way the Redskins can lose and still make the playoffs is for both Chicago and Minnesota to lose also. Those games will have taken place earlier in the day, so by the time Washington takes the field, they will know exactly what’s at stake.

Here are five observations from Washington’s 27-20 victory over the Eagles:

1. Griffin limited but effective: All week long, Robert Griffin III looked good in the portions of practice that were open to reporters, and he moved well as he wore a less-restrictive brace. Sunday, we saw him wearing a bulky, more supportive brace that appeared to limit his movements some. Griffin didn’t like wearing it, but he knew it was better to be safe than sorry. His coaches understood this as well and formulated a gameplan that would put the least amount of pressure on his sprained LCL. Griffin was under center much more, and there was only one designed run and one short run on a broken play. Griffin showed good elusiveness as he scrambled away from defenders but still remained in the backfield and threw the ball downfield to receivers, and he had no problem rolling out on bootlegs and completing throws. Griffin again showed his versatility, and what he has always stressed: that he is a passer first, runner second. “It’s why they call me quarterback,” Griffin said afterward. “It’s not abbreviated with a ‘running quarterback’ in front of that, or whatever else they want to say. They call me quarterback because I lead the team. I’m supposed to go out there and throw the ball, assist guys and hand the ball off to Alfred [Morris], and that’s what I was able to do.” Griffin wasn’t perfect, however. He tried to make the throw to Santana Moss that wound up being a backward pass (a fumble), and fortunately for the Redskins, Moss had the presence of mind to recover it before the Eagles did inside the 10-yard line. Later, he forced a throw that was high and off the hands of Josh Morgan. Griffin said he put the ball high because he didn’t want to lead Morgan into a position where he would’ve “gotten annihilated” by the cornerback and safety, but conceded that he should’ve opted for a check-down. Despite the blunders, Griffin did have his fifth multiple-touchdown passing game of the season, completed better than 65 percent of his throws for the ninth time this season, and posted a passer rating of better than a 100 (102.4) for the eighth time all year. And most importantly, the Redskins got the win. Asked if he felt like his old self, Griffin didn’t want to concede any limitations, saying only, “I mean, we won the game, I was playing quarterback for the Washington Redskins, so I felt like myself out there.”

2. Offensive line held up: Despite featuring some battered pieces (center Will Montgomery, left tackle Trent Williams) and a new piece (guard Maurice Hurt playing his first NFL game at right tackle because of Tyler Polumbus’ concussion), the offensive line held up, paving the way for 128 rushing yards and limiting the Eagles to only one sack. The unit wasn’t perfect as there were some blown assignments that led to some rushes that were stopped for a loss, and some pressures Griffin had to elude. But overall, and considering the less-than-superb health, the line did well. Hurt appeared to have some struggles both in drop-back pass protection, and in run blocking, where he at times didn’t get to his assignment and block anyone. But he did lay some key blocks on other plays, and considering he was playing at a position he’s not naturally suited for, he did enough to get by. A much tougher defensive front awaits next week when the Cowboys come to town. The Redskins hope to get Polumbus back on the field, but will not find out until later this week.

3. Receivers making a difference: Both Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan passed the 500-receiving-yard mark for the season. Garcon now has 587 yards, and Morgan 510. They join Santana Moss (551) and Leonard Hankerson (532), giving the Redskins their first quartet of 500-yard receivers since the 2000 season. Garcon’s impact is undeniable. The Redskins are 8-1 when he plays, and in the past five games, he’s averaging six catches for 86 yards per outing. His presence on the field not only gives the Redskins an impact receiver, but he also creates opportunities for his teammates, and coaches and teammates say the attitude he brings rubs off on his fellow pass-catchers. Since the bye (when Garcon returned), Washington’s receiver unit as a whole has played better. Moss remained steady all year (and his touchdown catch, where he dragged his toes for the completion was one of his best plays all year), but the other receivers lacked consistency. But now they’re not only getting open and making catches, they’re also contributing with strong blocking in the run game and on screens. Take Morgan’s touchdown for instance. If not for a block by Garcon, Morgan wouldn’t have gotten downfield. If not for a block by Moss in the end zone, Morgan probably wouldn’t have gotten there. “We’re just playing for each other,” said Morgan, the only wideout with a catch in all 15 games, and who also has a touchdown in three of the past four games after going 11 games without one. Speaking on the post-bye turnaround, Shanahan said, “From an offensive perspective, we had the run game going, but we didn’t take it to the next level with our receivers. I think that’s been the biggest difference in our offense: how our receivers have performed the last six games.”

4. Defensive pressure: In the continuation of the above Shanahan quote, the coach also pointed to an increase in pressure on the quarterback and continued ability to create turnovers as another big key to the six-game win streak. Sacks have been hard to come by for Washington’s defense, but they have recorded multiple sacks in three consecutive games. Ryan Kerrigan certainly had a strong game, recording two sacks as he went against his former college teammate Dennis Kelly, and Perry Riley and Lorenzo Alexander also provided key sacks. The Redskins also have forced multiple turnovers in three straight games. Going against an easily-confused rookie in Nick Foles on Sunday, the Redskins generated five sacks and got another five hits on the quarterback. They flustered Foles into bad throws, and on many possessions, kept him from getting into a rhythm. Now, the unit did have some down moments. The defense opened the game by letting the Eagles march downfield and score on the opening drive – something Philadelphia had managed only once all year – and we saw a continuation of the struggles in the secondary, particularly where Madieu Williams frequently was late in reacting when he was supposed to provide help over the top, and D.J. Johnson had some struggles and then was benched for Richard Crawford. The defense got lucky a couple of times, but none more than on the potential game-tying drive where Foles had Jeremy Maclin wide open in the end zone because Crawford undercut the route and thought Williams was providing help over the top, only the safety was looking for an underneath throw as well. Foles underthrew the pass, and Maclin couldn’t get to the ball in the end zone, and Washington lived to see another play. The Redskins know they can’t afford to have close calls like that. They won’t always be so lucky. Not sure what they can do about the safety struggles other than continue to shuttle players in and out depending on the situation and hope to avoid costly errors. Crawford did gamble wrong on the one late play, but he seemed to have a solid outing, and appears to have overtaken Johnson as the third corner. Continued strong play from the guys up front will help this ongoing secondary problem.

5. Drastic turnaround: As he entered this season having suffered double-digit losses and finishing dead last in the NFC East back-to-back years, the common knowledge was that Mike Shanahan and his team had to show progress in Year 3, but no one knew exactly what they were capable of. The hope on the Redskins’ part was that a strong defense would provide support as a rookie quarterback and new wideouts adjusted to a new league and new system, respectively. The belief was that the Redskins just had to be relevant as the month of December started. Injuries struck on defense, and to Garcon as well, and although Griffin exceeded expectations, Washington remained far from a complete team, and at 3-6 appeared left for dead. Fast-forward six weeks, and the scowls Dan Snyder and the fans of his team sported at mid-season have changed to beams of pride and goofy grins of disbelief. A relevant game in Week 17? For the Redskins? It’s been five years since Washington has really mattered. A chance to win the division? It’s been 13 years since the Redskins had a realistic shot at that. Not only have the Redskins pulled a drastic turnaround this season, but their fortunes from Year 2 to Year 3 of the Shanahan era have shifted as well. Yes, there are deficiencies on defense, but the output since the bye is more like what was expected of this unit. The leaps and bounds by which the offense has improved were not expected – at least not outwardly. A 7-9 or 8-8 campaign would have given Redskins fans cause for optimism this season. Now, a shot at 10-6 and a first-round home playoff game signals a real turnaround for this franchise. There haven’t been fluky wins. Yes, fluky plays and strokes of luck at times. But the Redskins have won games the right way: balance on offense, turnovers and big stops on defense. The team has been able to withstand injuries, which indicates depth has improved. Whether the Redskins win or lose Sunday, areas of the roster will be bolstered in the offseason. But finally, Redskins fans have a clear indication that this long-suffering franchise is finally on the right track.

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