The Outsider: Position-by-position review of the Redskins 45-21 loss to the Broncos

The Washington Redskins fell to their fifth loss of the season after a disappointing 45-21 defeat to the Denver Broncos. Washington looked to be in a great position and have control of the game after an excellent start to the second half, but found a way to throw away their lead and lose the game. Dropping to a 2-5 record in such a fashion is hard to take, and it now looks tough for Washington to reach the playoffs. Here’s my position-by-position review.

Quarterback

From the very first play of the game, Kyle Shanahan wanted to use his star quarterback Robert Griffin III to take deep shots off play-action against the NFL’s 32nd-ranked pass defense. But Denver was rarely fooled by the play-action and often had double coverage on the two-man routes that Washington was running. Griffin started off well by avoiding pressure, keeping his eyes downfield and then scrambling to pick up yards when there was nothing else open. But as the game progressed, both Griffin and his offensive coordinator became more desperate to connect on a deep pass. Kyle kept calling for two-man routes off play-action and Griffin started making bad decisions to throw the ball despite receivers being double covered while checkdown targets were open.

In truth, Griffin never looked in sync with his receivers throughout the game. His receivers struggled to separate against man coverage, and Griffin wasn’t accurate enough on the rare occasion they got open. The second play of the game, Griffin threw a quick comeback route to Jordan Reed, split out wide. But Griffin was late on the throw and threw behind Reed, which allowed the defender to break up the pass.

Similarly, Griffin’s receivers couldn’t pick him up when he needed it most. Josh Morgan dropped one of the few deep shots that was on. The throw from Griffin was perhaps a touch early and was behind Morgan, but certainly catchable. A few plays later, Aldrick Robinson dropped what would have been a first down on a pass that was slightly high.

Denver started by challenging Griffin to beat them with his arm, often only bringing three or four man rushes. Either Griffin couldn’t find the holes in the coverage, or his receivers found themselves well covered, because Washington couldn’t step up to the challenge. That led to Denver challenging the Redskins further by bringing more blitzes. Griffin did his best to buy time, but took a number of big hits and was forced to leave the game with a knee injury.

Kirk Cousins replaced him with a chance to raise his trade value. Unfortunately, we saw a tendency from Cousins that we saw last year. He locked onto his receiver and told the defense where he was going with the ball. That allowed Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie to break quickly on a pass and take it to the house for six. There have been plenty of Redskins fans calling for Cousins to replace Griffin at times this year, but as we saw yesterday, there is a reason why he hasn’t been brought in.

Running backs

Alfred Morris looked like he would be a thorn in Denver’s side throughout the game. The stretch zone runs and the counter runs were working excellently and allowed Morris to average 5.5 yards per carry on 17 touches. Even if you take out the big 27-yard run, Morris still averaged a solid four yards per carry. Morris did a great job setting up his blocks by leaving it late to cut back. He’d force defenders to overcommit to the play side before cutting back to find open field.

I thought Washington made a statement coming out of the half. After recovering a fumble on the Denver 20, Morris took three straight hand-offs and scored. That looked to be a statement of intent by the Redskins of how they meant to go on. Especially after the seven-minute, 16-play, 95-yard touchdown drive to end the first half. But after the touchdown that gave Washington a 21-7 lead, Morris only received five more carries the rest of the game. With a lead and the run game working, Morris should really have taken over the game. But instead of pounding the run game and giving Morris his deserved 25 touches, Kyle Shanahan opted to pass off of play-action. Had Morgan caught the ball he dropped, who knows how the game would have gone. But after that, Denver never looked like it was going to give up the big play Washington was looking for.

Darrel Young deserves a mention here. For a number of weeks now, Young has been superb with his run blocking. On all of the big run plays we’ve seen from the Redskins in recent weeks, Young has led the running back through the hole and blown up a block at the second level. On Morris’s 27-yard run, Young managed to help a tight end secure the outside block before going on to block an incoming defender and spring Morris free. Fullbacks are often thought of as not needed in the modern NFL, but Young is one of a few that are fighting to prove the worth of the position.

Wide receivers

Washington’s receivers struggled to separate for large parts of the game. Pierre Garcon was the only consistent threat to the Broncos, but still struggled to gain many yards. Garcon pulled in seven catches, include a spectacular one-handed grab on a high throw from Griffin, but only managed to turn those catches into 46 yards. Garcon was signed to be a receiver that can pick up yards after the catch, but couldn’t find himself any room to maneuver. Garcon had some surprising quotes after the game, some of which I imagine he’ll wish he could have back today, but they were brutally honest and on point.

Josh Morgan

Josh Morgan with the ball in his hands against Denver. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Morgan is being used as more of a tight end than receiver at this point. His blocking ability as a receiver is definitely valued in Washington, who likes to motion him into the formation and run counter plays to his side. But at his price, Morgan needs to produce as a receiver. Griffin did miss him or opt to run himself a couple of times when he had Morgan open as a checkdown option. But Morgan also dropped the ball downfield when he was wide open. The ball got to Morgan much quicker than he anticipated, as it arrived the moment his head turned back to it. So perhaps this one is on Griffin to time his throws better, but that was definitely a bad moment for Washington.

We saw just what a red-zone threat Leonard Hankerson could be. The route he ran on his touchdown reception was very good. Once he stopped to come back inside, the defender had no chance of recovering and adjusting back to the route. But that is something we just aren’t seeing consistently from Hankerson.

Aldrick Robinson has improved his blocking. He made a couple of nice blocks, and did just about enough to cut off his defender from making the play on the big run from Morris. He definitely still needs to improve his blocking to see the field more, because he did miss a few blocks as well. But he’s getting better in that aspect of his game. Primarily though, Robinson is a deep threat. Washington was desperate to find him downfield off of play-action, but Denver was all over him. Even with his speed, its hard to take the top off a defense when they are playing for the deep pass.

Tight ends

Jordan Reed was again the bright spot on offense. Reed was a reliable target for not only Griffin, but also Cousins. The latter found him twice for a total of 29 yards, including a nice connection on a deep corner route from Reed. Reed did bobble a potential catch that lead to Cousins’ second interception, but that was one of the few mistakes he made. His blocking is improving every game, much more than anyone could really have anticipated. The hard work he’s putting in is paying off, with Reed looking to be a very exciting prospect for Washington going forward.

Offensive line

In the running game, the offensive line was solid. Denver has a stout run defense, but the Redskins were able to execute their standard zone stretch plays effectively. They were much more consistent in their run blocking and didn’t allow anywhere near the penetration we saw from Chicago a week ago.

Initially, they were fine in pass protection too. But that was more down to the fact Denver rushed just three or four early on and focused more on containing Griffin and covering his receivers. This line isn’t built to maintain pass protection for long periods of time. It’s at its best when they can sell play-action and get the defense off balance. But when Denver took away the deep-shots off play-action and Washington had no answer. Kyle kept calling for two-man routes and Denver wasn’t buying it. With only two receiving threats, Denver began to send more rushers and the offensive line couldn’t cope. Kory Lichtensteiger struggled again, often over-extending and getting caught off-balance. But it wasn’t just him, even Trent Williams allowed some pressure as he slipped, allowing Von Miller to sack Griffin and force a fumble in the fourth quarter.

Defensive line

The defensive line didn’t particularly stand out. Jim Haslett did his best to rotate guys in and out to keep things fresh, but Denver used the no-huddle frequently, which limited Washington’s ability to make substitutions. Defensive linemen tire quickly and their performance levels drop just as fast. Denver was able to convert both third and fourth downs with short runs, which Washington shouldn’t really have given up.

But when they were fresh, Stephan Bowen and Barry Cofield in particular applied good push up front to stop Manning stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure off the edge. On Brian Orakpo’s fumble recovery, Bowen drove back his blocker and stopped Manning from stepping up away from the outside rushes of Ryan Kerrigan and Orakpo.

Linebackers

The outside linebackers had a fairly good outing. Darryl Tapp and Rob Jackson saw more playing time than I thought they would. Tapp managed to go past the right tackle as if he wasn’t even there on Jackson’s sack. He did a great job selling an outside rush, before quickly cutting back inside. The tackle was left flat-footed and couldn’t do anything to slow Tapp down. Manning was forced to roll to his right to elude the pressure from Tapp, but that allowed Jackson to case him down from behind.

Kerrigan also did a good job against the right tackle when he was called upon to rush. He managed to get a hand on the ball and knock it loose as Manning began to throw. His pass-rushing partner, Orakpo, was able to chase the ball down and recover the fumble despite Manning’s best efforts to hold him back. Kerrigan was also asked to cover tight end Julius Thomas on occasion. Thomas was kept fairly quiet, but did beat Kerrigan on a crossing route. Kerrigan did a good job making an immediate tackle and stopped Thomas from converting the play for a first down though.

But while Thomas was kept quiet up until his injury, running back Knowshon Moreno found himself in plenty of space coming out of the backfield. Washington was often so focused on not giving up the deep play that Moreno was left open underneath. Manning was more than happy to dump it off to him and take what the defense gave him. Moreno ended up as the Broncos’ leading receiver with six receptions for 89 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown on a screen.

Secondary

DeAngelo Hall is stepping up to Haslett’s call for him to play at a top level every week. Hall  rarely made a mistake. Hall was all over the slant pattern that he turned into an interception return touchdown. Hall had a great jam at the line and then jumped the route as his receiver, Demaryius Thomas, slipped. Nobody was catching him on the return from that distance. He also pulled off an outstanding interception down the sideline in the fourth quarter. On one of the few occasions a receiver got a yard on him, Hall recovered and stole the ball right out of Demaryius Thomas’s hands. The throw from Manning was slightly short, and Hall was able to get back and get a hand on the ball. He ripped the ball away from the receiver, who had two hands on the ball, and secured it before being tackled.

But those weren’t the only two interceptions that Hall could have had. Earlier on, Manning threw a slant route to his left. Hall read the route beautifully and was in a great position to make a play on the ball. But Manning saw Hall and placed the ball perfectly on the opposite shoulder of his receiver, where Hall couldn’t get to it. After that, Hall dropped back into a Cover 3 look, where he was responsible for the outside third of the field. Demaryius Thomas ran up the seam between Hall’s zone and that of the deep middle safety. Hall read the play and came across to cover Thomas, getting a hand on the throw from Manning. Thomas actually got a crucial touch, or Hall probably would have had another interception.

One positive of this game for the Redskins was the return of rookie safety Bacarri Rambo. I’ll need to see the all-22 footage to fully review how he did in coverage, but he was much improved in run support. He made a number of very good tackles up in the box, finishing the game as the Redskins’ second-best tackler, with eight. We saw slight improvements to his tackling form early in the season, but it’s clearly something he’s been working on while he’s been inactive. Almost every tackle he attempted saw him take a good angle to the runner and wrap up his legs to stop the runner from gaining anything extra. Rambo might have earned himself some more playing time after that performance, but again I’ll need that all-22 footage to see how he did in coverage.

David Amerson stood up well against a tough challenge. In the second half, Denver had a spell where they got receiver Eric Decker matched up on Amerson and Manning went after him. Amerson was in a similar situation against Green Bay, where the Packers matched up Jordy Nelson on Amerson and Rodgers exploited him. But Amerson was much improved from that performance, stepping up and covering Decker as well as he could. Amerson won the coverage the first two times they went after him, but then Decker managed to get open on a crossing route, which are difficult to cover when matched up man-to-man. Amerson redeemed himself in the red zone by covering a fade attempt to Decker that was never really on, thanks to Amerson’s size and tight coverage.

Special teams

Believe it or not, Sav Rocca did an excellent job punting up until his mistake in the third quarter. He consistently pinned Denver back inside their own 20, including one punt that Jordan Murphy managed to take out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Denver was in a constant battle for field position, which helped the Redskins on their way to a 21-7 lead. But when he mishit a punt that only went 15 yards in the fourth quarter, Denver regained all the momentum. Manning and the Broncos made Washington pay by scoring a touchdown on the very next play to take back the lead and Washington wasn’t able to recover.

Kai Forbath did his job, making all three extra point attempts. He also managed to kick two of his three kick offs out the back of the end zone for touchbacks. On the one he left short, Trindon Holiday returned it for 30 yards to the Denver 25, only gaining an extra five yards from a touchback.

Josh Morgan still doesn’t look like a return man. But to his credit, he somehow managed to break two tackles and elude three more on a punt return deep in his own half. He questionably fielded the ball on his own six, and then ran backwards to try and avoid tackles. He got lucky that he managed to break the initial two tackles and find his way back up the sideline. He really should have been tackled around the Redskins 5-yard line, but made it to the 40.

Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team.

The Takeaway video:

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 Tuesdays.

What’s ahead:

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

More from The Post:

Jones’s five observations from Redskins vs. Broncos | Game story

D.C. Sports Bog: Critics blast the play-calling | Best and worst | More

Wise: Getting away from the running game was costly

The Takeaway: Bad outweighs the good | Gallery: Photos from Denver

Griffin gets a scare, but says knee is fine | Defense superb, then it goes awry

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