How did the Redskins get here, and can they beat the Seahawks?

Before the season started, Jimmy Kempski — who authors the NFC East-specific blog, BloggingthebEast.com — and I shared our thoughts via an Opening Kick on how we thought the division would shake out. We each liked the Redskins more than the experts, but we didn’t see a home playoff game coming. Yet we’re brave enough to toss out some more insights. As you settle back into work routines with four days to kill before game day, Jimmy and I try to kick-start the morning conversation by pondering what changed to propel the Redskins here, which players are responsible and how they match up against Seattle. I threw the first question his way:

Keith: Jimmy, back in the preseason, you and I both wrote that the Redskins would be better than expected, but neither of us had a division title in mind. Since the bye, when they started winning, what have they done that you hadn’t expected? Here in D.C., folks have had to stop ridiculing the secondary and calling for Jim Haslett’s head, as the defense has very much done its part in supporting RGIII and the gang.

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Jimmy: For me, it’s the diversity of ways they’ve been winning. In preparation for the NFC East championship game, I went back and looked at the second quarter of the Thanksgiving Day game against Dallas.  Here (linked in graph form) were their four drives in that second quarter:

They showed the Cowboys pretty much their entire offense in that one quarter: A little read option, a swing pass to the wide receiver who was originally lined up in the backfield, runs up the middle out of the Pistol, play action over the top for the huge gain, a few patented 10-yard slants, a goal-line power run, a sprint boot, and all kinds of broken tackles with yards after the catch. The Cowboys sacked RGIII for a loss of about two, and Morris Claiborne blew up a quick screen to a wide receiver.  But otherwise, in those four drives, everything worked.

In the second matchup against Dallas, they simplified. The Shannies knew the banged-up Cowboys couldn’t stop the run, so they bludgeoned them all day with Alfred Morris. Eighteen pass attempts, 42 runs. It was brilliant in its simplicity. There was no need to throw the kitchen sink at the Dallas ‘D,’ just Morris.

Against the Ravens, they had to have Kirk Cousins come off the bench and win the game late. Then Cousins comes out the next week and throws for 329 yards against the Browns. The read option was off the table with RGIII out of the game, so the Redskins bootlegged the Browns to death.

Against Philly after the bye, the defense completely dominated, and against the Giants, the D was able to tighten up when the Eli and Co. got deep into Redskin territory, forcing field goal attempts instead of touchdowns.

So again, for me, the impressive thing is that none of these games have looked like another, and they’re winning in a variety of ways.  There’s something to be said for that.

Wow, I kind of rambled there.  For you, who have been the unexpected individual players who have stepped up?

Keith: The first guys that come to mind are Rob Jackson and Tyler Polumbus. Richard Crawford is a guy I notice on the broadcast, not just on returns, but when he’s in as a cornerback in the role Cedric Griffin had been playing. Logan Paulsen has been solid as a tight end.

And to go one step further with it, offensive linemen Maurice Hurt and Josh LeRibeus have drawn praise when they’ve had to play. I should also acknowledge DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty and Madieu Williams, not because any of the safeties have been outstanding, but they haven’t cost the team games lately — and remember they weren’t even supposed to be starters — Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson were.

I mention a litany of names because I think that’s the difference between the Bruce Allen/Shanahan Redskins and the Cerrato front-office Redskins. Drafting depth and adding bargain free agents doesn’t sell tickets, but the old Redskins would have starters as good as anyone’s, then go 2-6 in the second half (as opposed to 7-0 after the bye) as injuries took their toll and the depth wasn’t there. When adding core players, special teams and backups with potential, the rewards accumulate over time. Losing Jarvis Jenkins, a second-round pick at 3-4 defensive end, was disappointing last season. But this year when Adam Carriker, a one-time bargain free-agent add, went down, there was Jenkins ready to step in.

Every NFL team has injuries, and increasingly, suspensions. One of the big differences between 6-10 and 10-6 in the NFL is how well those backups play, and how quickly they make an impact once they have to start. Everyone noticed when Kirk Cousins played well in relief of Robert Griffin. Yet the Redskins not only were able to function without RGIII, but without Brian Orakpo and Fred Davis as well.

The other big emergence is Kai Forbath. Going from “oh crap, we might have to try a field goal here” to “well if we don’t get seven, we’ve got three” has helped a lot.

One of the things I like about your blog is that you actually break down plays and dig into the footage when you can. What’s been the most effective coaching move the Redskins have made this season? I’m especially curious as to your thoughts on how the defense has adjusted.

Jimmy: I’ll give you two (one on offense, one on defense), and they’re both from last week against the Cowboys.

The decision to repeatedly hammer the run was as brilliant as it was obvious. The Cowboys’ defense was playing without its spine. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff only played six games this season because of an assortment of injuries, while inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter were done for the season after being put on IR. The Cowboys were also missing Week 1 starter Barry Church.  

But worse, the backups were now also missing games.  Reserve NT Josh Brent was of course out after rolling his car while reportedly being under the influence, forcing the Cowboys to play defensive ends at NT. As a result of all the injuries, players like Alex Albright, Brady Poppinga, Eric Frampton, and Brian Schaefering were seeing meaningful playing time.

And oh yeah, DeMarcus Ware had significant shoulder issues.

The Redskins knew the Cowboys couldn’t stop the run, and they didn’t get cute.  They ran it, again and again. And it worked.

On the defensive side of the ball, they did something I would have thought was certifiably insane. They blitzed, again and again, which is fine, but in doing so they left DeAngelo Hall one-on-one all night with Dez Bryant. I don’t know what they saw in preparation for this game that made them trust Hall that much, but Hall rewarded them with a big-time performance.

You asked about what the Redskins have done to adjust on defense. I wish I had the answer, but I don’t. I’m not really sure all that much is different, scheme-wise. I don’t think it was Jim Haslett’s idea to have Madieu Williams looking into the backfield as Victor Cruz ran by him for a back-breaking score in October.  From what I can tell, the ‘D’ is simply playing with more discipline.

Next week will bring a whole gamut of new challenges.  That Seahawks team is legit, and hot. What are your initial thoughts there?

Keith: A gamut!

The first thought is can Seattle be the same team at FedEx Field that it is at home? And will the cross-country travel bother them? But I tend not to believe NFL playoff games are swayed all that much by home field.

Matchup-wise, Seattle finished fourth in the league in total defense and 10th against the run, so the part that will intrigue me is which team can get its stud rusher going. Almost all of the Redskins’ big plays this year come off of play action, and I haven’t watched much Seattle, but my impression of Russell Wilson is that the run sets up a lot of what he does too.

What do you think of Redskins-Seattle? And if you think Washington can win, how far do you think they can go?

Jimmy: I think it’s a great matchup, in that Seattle does a lot of things well on defense that the Redskins do well on offense. For example, the Redskins have receivers that excel at breaking tackles and running after the catch, while the Seahawks have big, physical corners that can tackle. The Redskins have the read option that has given teams fits all season long, while the Seahawks have very athletic defensive ends, which should make it difficult for RGIII to get around the edge on the occasions he keeps it.

Meanwhile, the matchups on the other side are similar as well. The Seahawks are 27th in passing yards, while the Redskins are 30th in pass ‘D.’ The Seahawks are third in rushing yards, and the Skins are fifth in rush ‘D’. Strength on strength, weakness on weakness.

I haven’t had the chance to study Seattle on tape since Week 2 when they played Dallas, and can’t wait to dive in (probably sometime tomorrow). My somewhat uneducated opinion at this point would be to say that I like the Skins, but again, I need to see more of Seattle. 

Keith: We kind of dodged the ‘how far can they go?’ part of the question, but maybe the wise minds in the comments can tackle that. There’s definitely something to the theory that whoever’s hot at the end of the season, a la the Giants can win it all. More specifically, I’m asking, with a win this week, how do you like Washington’s chances against the Falcons (pretty good; see earlier this season), 49ers (not as good) or Packers (rough matchup)? The floor is open.

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