Five observations from the Redskins’ win over the Raiders

The Washington Redskins on Sunday managed to stop the bleeding with a 24-14 win over the Oakland Raiders.

The players even last week stopped short of calling the game a “must win,” but they said that they had all vowed to one another that there was no way they were leaving Oakland without a victory.

The game wasn’t perfect by any means, but the Redskins managed to overcome the early struggles and finish on a strong note.

Here are five observations from the game:

1. Defensive improvement – After providing little to no support for the offense in the first two weeks of the season and then showing some signs of improvement in Week 3, the Redskins’ defense turned in a dominant performance against the Raiders. Washington held the Raiders to just less than 300 yards, forced two turnovers and denied them on 12 of 17 third downs. That showing by the defense was the type of effort coaches had hoped they could count on while Robert Griffin III and the offense worked out the early season kinks. But until Sunday, it just hadn’t happened. Double-sack days for Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo and Barry Cofield and a pick-six by David Amerson served as the highlights.

Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan turned in another dominant performance, recording two sacks and a forced fumble. (Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports)

Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan turned in another dominant performance, recording two sacks and a forced fumble. (Cary Edmondson)

Kerrigan has played well all season, and Sunday was no different. Kerrigan recorded his 19th and 20th sacks of his career and increased his season total to five. He currently is on pace to record 20 sacks this season. Orakpo looked like the player that the Redskins have long hoped he could be. In addition to the two sacks, he had four tackles (two for losses), two quarterback hits, and two pass breakups. Now, the one first-half pass breakup should’ve been an interception, but Orakpo apparently has Carlos Rogers hands and couldn’t secure the ball. Orakpo’s biggest play might not have been either one of his sacks. Instead, it was probably his stop on fourth-and-1 from the Washington 17-yard line with 3:32 left. Matt Flynn tried to pick up the first down to keep his team’s hopes for a comeback alive. But Orakpo fully expected the quarterback sneak up the middle, perfectly timed the snap, leapt over the line and stopped Flynn for no gain, forcing a turnover on downs. Through three weeks, Orakpo had been relatively quiet. Did he turn the corner on Sunday? He needs to continue to play on that level for the Redskins to have a chance to turn their season around, and for him to earn the big pay day that he would like this offseason.

2. Signature RGIII play – You wondered when – and if – the magic would return. After a rather pedestrian 3 1/2 quarters, Robert Griffin III finally delivered what probably stands as his most impressive play of the season. With his team nursing a 17-14 lead, the defense gave Griffin & Co. the ball at the Oakland 42 with just under eight minutes left to play. Griffin found himself in position to deliver his team’s first knockout punch of the season, and he delivered. After taking the snap, faking the handoff and dropping back, Griffin scanned the field and began to feel the heat of Brian Sanford coming off the left edge and winning his battle with Logan Paulsen, Griffin pulled the ball down and stepped up into the pocket. But then came cornerback Mike Jenkins darting into the backfield. Griffin ducked the would-be sack, spun off the line and scrambled to his right and found Roy Helu Jr. for a completion that Helu turned into a 28-yard gain. That’s the type of play that makes Griffin special, and it’s the type of play the Redskins and their fans have missed thus far this season. On the next play, Helu scored on a 14-yard run. Griffin’s numbers for the game don’t look that impressive – 18 for 31, 227 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 91.7 quarterback rating and three carries for 10 yards – but he again managed to shake off a slow start, and this time, delivered in the clutch. Griffin looked comfortable in the pocket and hung tough under pressure to make a number of throws on Sunday. Kyle Shanahan didn’t call as many rollout passes as he did last week to move the pocket for Griffin, but Griffin got the job done. Now, he can head into the bye with a victory and the confidence that he is indeed taking steps forward in his road back.

3. Lineup changes – Jim Haslett on Sunday made a lineup change that he probably should have just gone with out of training camp – playing Reed Doughty. The Redskins had high hopes that sixth-round pick Bacarri Rambo could get the job done despite his inexperience, but poor execution on tackles made him a liability. His impressive athleticism didn’t even matter. He did more harm than good. A week after benching Rambo and going with only one safety, Haslett on Sunday used Doughty as his strong safety and Brandon Meriweather as the free safety. Together, the veterans provided stability on the back end as well as solid run support. Doughty recorded six tackles (five solo) while playing primarily in the box. And Meriweather, while using his range to play further downfield, also added five solo tackles. As former Redskins safety Matt Bowen said during an interview this offseason, knowledge, experience and instincts can win out over inexperienced athleticism. Doughty proved this again. Meriweather finally is healthy and able to offer versatility, the Redskins can use him in a variety of ways, and this allows Doughty to play to his strengths.

Other lineup changes: We saw Logan Paulsen get his first start over Fred Davis. Paulsen started last week with Davis injured. But Davis moved around just fine during tight end drills pre-game. The revamped pecking order was clear, however. Paulsen – who spent the week practicing with the first team – took the first rep, Niles Paul the second, and Davis the third. Things played out in that manner throughout the game. Davis only got on the field for a handful of plays, and he was targeted only once. This is another example of coaches feeling more comfortable with a steady, reliable player that they know knows all of his responsibilities, rather than going with a better athlete that lacks consistency and dependability.

Lastly, Leonard Hankerson maintained his edge on Josh Morgan as he again got the start and recorded four catches for 49 yards. Hankerson’s must crucial catch came on the third-quarter scoring drive that gave Washington its first second-half lead of the season. On third-and-3 from the Oakland 29, Hankerson found himself in one-on-one coverage after Santana Moss set a pick for him, and Hankerson ran a slant to the inside – getting past the first-down marker – and making the catch. This differed from a play earlier in the game where Hankerson ran an in route on third down but made his cut a yard shy of the first-down marker, and made the catch, but got tackled short of the first down. Now making a weekly habit of making solid contributions, it appears that Hankerson may finally be developing into the threat the team hoped he could be.

4.  Special teams – Keith Burns’s unit remains an area of weakness for the Redskins. From the blocked punt to the lack of a threat in the return game, it’s hard to find anything positive about the special teams play in Sunday’s game. Well, John Potter did make a field goal attempt. But otherwise? Perry Riley Jr. admitted that he got fooled by the stunt that the Raiders ran on that blocked punt-turned-touchdown. Chris Thompson, meanwhile, again displayed some questionable decision making on punt returns. He had the one return where he leaped into the air, caught the ball over his head and very well could’ve fumbled and had it recovered for a touchdown. Thompson let a lot of other punts just hit the ground. The Redskins have to get someone back there that can field punts cleanly, and then provide a spark with solid returns.

5. Uphill climb – It’s obviously good that the Redskins got a victory. Falling to 0-4 at the bye would’ve basically killed whatever slim chances that remain for the team to turn things around and compete for a postseason bid. As crazy as it sounds, the Redskins, with a win at Dallas on Oct. 13 could pass the Cowboys for first place in the downtrodden NFC East. But, as Barry Cofield said Sunday night, while the win over the Raiders was nice, the road ahead gets much more challenging. The Redskins will not face backup running backs and backup quarterbacks every week. After the Cowboys, they must face the 3-1 Chicago Bears at home and then travel to take on the Denver Broncos, who are flat out dominating teams.  And after that, a game against San Diego and four days later a trip to Minnesota. That’s followed by another meeting with the Eagles, and dates with the 49ers, Giants (twice), Chiefs and Cowboys. That’s not the most promising outlook. But now, the Redskins will try to bottle up the success they had on both sides of the ball late in Sunday’s game, recharge over this early bye week, and then return to work next week and gear up for a tough, long stretch run.

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.

More on the Redskins and NFL:

The Takeaway: The D earns an A | Wise: It wasn’t pretty, but it was needed

Griffin uses grit to get it done | Amerson’s interception was the spark

Morris has bruised ribs | Redskins make use of no-huddle

Punt protection issue resurfaces | Vets: ‘It’s just one win’ | Photos from Oakland

D.C. Sports Bog: Best and worst from Redskins at Raiders

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