Five observations from the Redskins’ loss to the Lions

Another game, another loss. This game, the Redskins showed improvement in a number of areas, but couldn’t find a way to overcome shortcomings here and there, and they all added up to produce the same result.

There’s not much else to say introduction-wise. So I’m just going to get to my five observations from this game. Let’s go.

1. Griffin good and badThe good news: Robert Griffin III appeared to gain more comfort in this game, particularly in the pocket where he moved around, bought time with his legs and stepped into throws. Griffin also displayed confidence in his legs as he scrambled a season-high six times for 37 yards. Kyle Shanahan on Sunday got back to moving the pocket, which bought Griffin more time to throw and also made it harder for defenders to tee off on his quarterback. A big key: the Redskins’ ability to get into their game plan and run a balanced attack. Because they found a way to get the rushing attack going, the play-action attack worked. The Lions bit on those fakes, and Griffin took advantage by finding open receivers for key gains. After Griffin ripped off a couple of runs, you saw the hesitation return for the defensive linemen, who instead of pinning back their ears and rushing into the backfield, started pausing ever so slightly as they tried to determine run or pass as the ball snapped. The bad: Griffin still isn’t entirely comfortable or confident. He’s pressing at times, and that’s what happened on the interception that killed a potential first-half scoring drive. Griffin should not have thrown that pass. You can’t fault him for wanting to make a play, but he did force the throw as defensive end Willie Young began yanking him down from behind. Griffin appeared to have Jordan Reed for a two-yard gain, but either didn’t see him, or thought the defender closing in on the tight end would have prevented the catch from happening. So, he continued rolling to the sideline looking for Pierre Garcon. Griffin should have either used a burst of speed to move further downfield and away from Young before trying to make the throw, or he should’ve just thrown the ball away. No one would’ve had a problem with Griffin throwing the ball away because it was first down, and he and his team simply could’ve lived to see another play. Griffin’s most costly error was the late-game fumble, however. He showed great explosion as he left the pocket, eluding defenders, and picked up 21 yards. But then, with the safety converging upon him, Griffin probably panicked and dove head-first – only the ball popped out as he hit the ground. The young QB thought he was down as soon as he hit the ground, but that’s not the NFL rule. Griffin admitted that if he had it to do all over, he would’ve slid feet-first. There were many plays that factored into Washington’s defeat, but that fumble proved to be the ultimate dagger. Overall, there were plenty of positives to take away from Griffin’s performance. Each week he moves better. But it’s clear at times that he’s still thinking too much, and that his confidence still is not quite at 100 percent. It will come. Mike Shanahan is doing the right thing by letting Griffin play his way back into form. You can make the argument that had Aldrick Robinson made that catch on the 57-yard bomb (as he has to do, because that’s the only reason why he’s on this team), the Redskins would have won, and this morning we’d be talking about how Griffin was able to power his way through the early miscues and finally get his mojo back. But, he didn’t, and for now, the errors by Griffin stand out more than the good.

2. New defensive look – Give Jim Haslett credit for continuing to look for new ways to steer his defense in the right direction. Sunday saw him go with a look that he hadn’t yet showed with his base 3-4 front coupled with a three-cornerback/one-high safety alignment. The unit had spent the bulk of the first two games in its nickel package – two down linemen, four linebackers and three corners and two safeties. But as Perry Riley explained, the Redskins noticed that alignment led to teams being able to spread the Redskins out too much, and it led to gaping holes in the run game. The Redskins acknowledged the risk of playing with only one safety, but the benefit of Brandon Meriweather’s skill set is that he has great range and can cover ground quickly. (How about that? Meriweather made it through a whole game.) The Redskins knew that they could possibly give up some big pass plays, but they just didn’t want Calvin Johnson to go off, and often Meriweather provided help over the top while DeAngelo Hall, who had a strong game, primarily matched up one-on-one with Johnson at the line. The Redskins accomplished their goal of stopping the run and minimizing Johnson’s impact. You’re saying, “Seven catches for 115 yards and a TD is limiting?” Yeah, well last time they met, he had three touchdown catches. But there were still coverage breakdowns, such as the touchdown 37-yard pass to Bell, who slipped four tackles on the way (and a roughing the passer call on Riley turned it into a 52-yard play), or the 47-yard fourth-quarter pass to Nate Burleson, who didn’t have any defenders around him at the time of the catch. Or, the 41-yard throw to Burleson, where he on that time as well had plenty of room to work with, or the 33-yard pass to Kris Durham, where he had a step on David Amerson, who appeared to slip a little while in coverage. One or two big gains a game, you can live with. But the Lions had five plays of 23 yards or more. Way too many. Conversely, the Redskins had only two plays of 25 yards or more.

3. Return game struggles – Chris Thompson has yet to make an impact on the return game. He currently is averaging 20 yards a return, which ranks 17th in the league and 5.5 yards per punt return (18th). For a team like the Redskins, who need every yard they can get to help a struggling offense, you have to get more in these areas. Thompson still is learning, so you can’t write him off as a terrible return man. But he has to quickly figure things out so he can make an impact. The Redskins did turn to Josh Morgan late in the game, but Morgan didn’t do any better than Thompson. It’s hard to say if the lack of an impact is a result of the team not having an effective return man, or if new special teams coach Keith Burns’s units aren’t creating the holes for the return men. The Redskins have to start getting better field position so there’s less pressure on their offense to have to go the length of the field to score.

4. Offensive imbalance – The Redskins got the run game going enough for the read-option, the play-action and bootlegs to work. But they’ll still look at their pass to run ratio and acknowledge a glaring problem. Griffin threw the ball 50 times while Alfred Morris had only 15 carries. Griffin added another six carries. It wasn’t clear why the team strayed away from the run throughout the game. They seemed to have a spurt where they mixed in the run well, and then they’d revert to a heavy dose of the pass even though the game wasn’t yet out of hand. Balance is key for this team. That’s how it’s constructed. Last season, Morris averaged nearly 21 carries a game to Griffin’s 25 pass attempts. This year, Morris has carried the ball just 13 times a game compared to Griffin’s 46 pass attempts per outing. Yes, falling in big holes early on offense led to imbalance in the first two games. But the Redskins never trailed by a sizeable margin on Sunday. The Lions were intent to limit the run game, but Morris did still average 4.9 yards a carry, and he’s a back that gets stronger with each carry he gets, so, the fact that the Redskins wouldn’t feed him the ball more in a close game is confusing.

5. Dangerous position – At 0-3, the Redskins could be out of it already. Since 1998, no team has reached the playoffs after opening the year with an 0-3 record. The good thing for the Redskins is the NFC East is weak. Dallas leads with a 2-1 record, but Philadelphia is 1-2, and New York also owns an 0-3 record. The Redskins can probably kiss any hopes of a wild-card berth goodbye because unless they go on an amazing run, they likely will not have a better record than other wild-card candidates. The Redskins’ three losses have all come to NFC teams. The only way to make the playoffs probably will be to win the division, and considering their current position, that could prove easier said than done. The Redskins play at Oakland next Sunday and then have the bye. They’ll come out of the bye with a game at Dallas. That’s followed by games against Chicago, Denver and San Diego before a meeting with another struggling team in Minnesota. There’s not a lot of relief there. Mike Shanahan said he can’t remember a team of his ever coming back from an 0-3 start. But the players inside the locker room continue to say that they aren’t worried, because they know their capabilities and character, and they expect to turn things around and finish strong in the months of October, November and December. It’d better be a magical three months.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesday.

What’s ahead:

● Mike Shanahan speaks with reporters Monday at 3 p.m.

● Next week’s opponent, the Oakland Raiders, plays later at Denver on Monday Night Football.

More on the Redskins and NFL:

Boswell: RGIII is just a bit different from 2012

The Takeaway: A team that’s a long way from winning

Each Griffin highlight came with a footnote | Redskins fall to 0-3

Robinson touchdown-that-wasn’t turned elation to deflation

Defense improves, but not enough | Lions’ Johnson delivers when it counts

Scenes from FedEx Field | Fletcher: ‘We beat ourselves’ | Players aren’t giving up

D.C. Sports Bog: Redskins vs. Lions best and worst | More Bog on Redskins

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo | @MarkMaske | @Insider | Insider on Facebook

Also on The Insider

Jordan Reed suffers quad contusion