Five observations from the Redskins’ win over the Bills

Fourth-year pro Keiland Williams may have forced his way into the running back rotation. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)

Fourth-year pro Keiland Williams may have forced his way into the running back rotation. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins improved to 3-0 in the preseason with a 30-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Saturday in a game that likely represented our last look at the starters until the Sept. 9 season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It wasn’t the typical third preseason game, which usually represents a final dress rehearsal for the starters, who normally play into the third quarter. Mike Shanahan changed things up because of the short turnaround following last Monday’s game.

But there still was plenty to take away from the game even though the starters basically played just one quarter.

Here are five observations from Saturday’s game:

1.) Running back competition: Things definitely appear to have taken shape in the backfield, where Roy Helu Jr. seems to have emerged as the clear-cut change-of-pace running back behind Alfred Morris, who had another strong performance in limited action. Morris continues to generate yards in situations where there are none readily available to him. He showed good patience, but good shiftiness as well, and at other times barreled through the defense to gain yards after contact. Also give Morris credit for a great blitz pickup at the line, which bought Rex Grossman time for a 31-yard throw to Fred Davis.

Helu presents a speedier threat. He isn’t as good as Morris in picking up the tough yards. But his abilities in the open field are evident. This is a good combo for the Redskins.

Things could be changing behind those two. Keiland Williams continues to make the most of his opportunities, and just may have overtaken Evan Royster with his strong performance last night. Royster missed the game with an ankle injury from practice last week, but after the game he described it as “very minor” and said that he wanted to play but was told he would be held out. Williams, meanwhile, rushed for 52 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.

Williams appears to have rediscovered his feel for the Redskins’ system after spending a year and a half in Detroit following his rookie season with Washington. The Redskins picked up Williams last season after he was cut with nine games left, but didn’t use him on offense at all. He said this perplexed to him at the time, especially since he served as third-down back as a rookie, and Washington needed one last season. Now, however, Williams surmises that he must not have displayed a comfort in the offense in last season’s practices upon his return. But he has worked hard this offseason, and appears to have gotten his groove back.

Williams doesn’t appear likely to overtake Helu in the rotation, but he gives the Redskins a little bit of everything. He is an adept runner in this zone-blocking scheme, and can hit the cut-back lanes and pick up yardage in good spurts. He also has receiving abilities (39 catches for 309 yards and a touchdown as a rookie). Additionally, Williams does well on special teams, where he we re-inserted almost right away last season, and this season is a member of all four units.

Royster plays some special teams, but doesn’t seem to be as proficient. He is a smooth runner, but isn’t quite as quick as Williams, and doesn’t pose a receiving threat out of the backfield. Royster did well in the preseason opener, averaging 4.4 yards per carry against Tennessee, but he didn’t receive any carries against Pittsburgh.

Williams, meanwhile, continues to progress. His carry tally for the three games: two, eight and eight. His average yards per carry in each game: 5.5, 4.9 and 6.5. Elsewhere in the backfield, I’m still not sold on Chris Thompson. Yes, coaches love his speed, but the rookie has fumbled in back-to-back games, which you can’t do, especially if you’re a back that’s generously listed at 5 feet 8 and has durability issues. He’s still working to develop a feel for running in the system, and struggles to generate yardage when running between the tackles. On 13 carries against the Bills, Thompson averaged 2.9 yards and had a long of only nine yards. His quickness can be used on pitches and plays to the outside, but he has yet to really demonstrate that yet.

One area that could help Thompson is special teams. With top punt returner Richard Crawford lost for the season, the door suddenly opens for someone. Receiver Skye Dawson has received some chances, but Thompson saw his first action as a return man on Saturday and averaged 16 yards a return on three attempts, and had a long of 31 yards. Thompson expressed encouragement over how he did, especially since he hadn’t returned punts since his freshman year of college. It could be hard for the Redskins to keep five running backs, but if Thompson can do well in the returns game once again next week, that helps his case.

Jawan Jamison didn’t play, and the Rutgers product appears far behind. Could he thrust himself back into the picture with a strong performance in the preseason finale? Possibly. But the Redskins probably wouldn’t have trouble cutting him and then signing him to the practice squad.

2.) Poise on Defense: Some of the talk entering this game centered around how the Bills’ up-tempo offense would give the Redskins a good test in advance of their date with the Eagles, and Washington’s defense appeared to handle this challenge with ease. At times in the first quarter, the Bills snapped the ball with 20 seconds still left on the clock. The Redskins didn’t appear flustered, and you could see the defenders communicating with one another and getting in position quickly enough that Buffalo never seemed to catch them off guard. Veterans credited London Fletcher’s leadership, and their own strong communication skills. This is something they have been working on since the second week of training camp – moving downfield, making adjustments, calling out assignments and lining up quickly.

The Redskins also seemed to do well against the Bills’ option plays for the most part. There was one play where Brian Orakpo ran right past Kevin Kolb, not realizing he had kept the ball on a zone-read run, but Bacarri Rambo was there to make the tackle on the quarterback keeper. That was one of several strong plays out of Rambo, who remains a work in progress – particularly in the tackling department. Saturday, he showed improvements. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said this week that he told Rambo to play with more aggression and not worry about how he was getting runners down, just to get them down. There was no hesitancy in the rookie free safety on Saturday, and he made plays both against the run and the pass.

3.) Pass rush packages: Haslett continues to exhibit creativity on his fast nickel packages, and he’s succeeding in his goal of getting all of his pass-rushers on the field at the same time. Previously, Haslett had Orakpo or Darryl Tapp and rookie Brandon Jenkins as the outside pass rushers, and Ryan Kerrigan and a lineman such as Stephen Bowen as the interior down linemen. Kerrigan did well, using his quickness to cause problems for opposing guards.

On Saturday, Haslett replaced Bowen with Tapp, so he had a defensive front that featured six linebackers with Tapp and Kerrigan on the interior, Jenkins and Orakpo on the edges, and London Fletcher and Perry Riley as inside linebackers. Tapp and Jenkins continue to do well as they make quick transitions to Washington’s scheme, and both recorded sacks against Buffalo.

It’ll be interesting to see how things play out at linebacker, particularly with Rob Jackson, who had been Orakpo’s top backup, but hasn’t seen as much action as Tapp and will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the regular season. The Redskins re-signed Jackson to a one-year deal over the offseason, but Haslett doesn’t hide his excitement over Tapp and Jenkins. “You can never have too many pass-rushers,” the defensive coordinator often says, but there are only so many roster spots to go around.

4.) No. 3 quarterback “competition”: Rex Grossman demonstrated why coaches value him so much as he moved the starting offense up and down the field with ease and demonstrated a great feel and command for the game as he directed scoring drives of 86 and 70 yards to open the game. Yes, Grossman had one very reckless near-pick-six pass, a play in which he did his trademark fadeaway-sidearm sling of the ball under pressure. But the pass was dropped, and Saturday’s good outweighed the bad.

Grossman was at his best on the first drive, and showed his veteran savvy on the seven-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon. That was an option play in which Grossman could either go with a handoff or fire a quick pass. He went pass. Grossman said the play is called in the huddle as a run, and but that the ‘X’ receiver is told to be ready. He didn’t initially like the look the Bills were giving him, but then in a split-second saw the window of opportunity open. One defender near Garcon started approaching the line at the snap of the ball, and the cornerback lined up in zone coverage in the end zone didn’t readily pick up the receiver because he was watching what he thought was a run play. Grossman made the split-second decision to zip the ball to Garcon for the touchdown.

Pat White directed a touchdown drive in the second quarter and showed his ability in the zone-read packages and good patience as he let Darrel Young string out the defender to set him up for a 14-yard touchdown run. But White just doesn’t have the feel that Grossman does. He needs more seasoning, and the Redskins can’t afford to give it to him because he has no practice squad eligibility since he accrued a full season as a rookie. If Griffin were to have a setback and Cousins started a game but got hurt in that game (or, say Griffin started Week 1 but Cousins remained hobbled), Washington would like to have the comfort in Grossman, who still has the ability to win games.

5.) Forbath kicks: The Redskins brought in John Potter over the offseason to compete with Kai Forbath, but the kicking job is securely in Forbath’s possession. I can’t see the Redskins keeping two kickers (Forbath as the field goal guy, and Potter for kickoffs). Forbath remains clutch on field goals, nailing a 54-yarder on Saturday, and he exhibited improved leg strength, recording two touchbacks against the Bills. Forbath has been working on this area – which is relatively new to him because in college, UCLA only used him on field goals. The second-year kicker has all the leg strength needed, as he shows on field goals, but it has been a matter of technique and consistency. He likens striking the ball on a kickoff to driving a golf ball off of a tee. All of the mechanics have to be in line and done the same way every time. Forbath’s two touchbacks went deep into the end zone, another went to the goal line, and another to the 3-yard line. If he can do that on a consistent basis, Washington will be just fine.

More on the Redskins and NFL: 

Offense remains productive in 30-7 preseason win over Bills

Jason Reid: Helu makes his case to Redskins’ backup RB

Wilson gets on field, but uncertainty lingers in secondary

Shanahan plans “similar” practice reps for RGIII this week

Grossman and White are fine with unusual playing rotation

Crawford’s season-ending injury leaves hole at punt returner

Photo gallery from Redskins vs. Bills

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