Five observations from the Redskins’ loss to the Vikings

So much for the Redskins’ overtime victory over San Diego serving as a turning point to their season. The Redskins reverted to their old ways with another collapse in a very winnable game. Now at 3-6, they’re teetering on the edge and need another heroic 7-0 run to save their season.

“It’s extremely frustrating that game was right in our hands,” tight end Niles Paul said. “We had it won. It seemed like anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It sucks, man.”

The Redskins don’t play against for nine days, in effect a mini-bye before traveling to Philadelphia on Nov. 17. They’ll get back to work Monday. But first, here are five observations from last night’s 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

1. Mental problems: It appears evident that this team’s problem — at least on offense — isn’t physical or talent-related. Sure, there are some holes at some spots, and we’ll get to those. But a lack of mental fortitude has proven most crippling. This offense has key pieces in place: talented quarterback, running back, No. 1 receiver, seemingly unstoppable tight end, Pro Bowl left tackle. This offense can orchestrate long drives up and down the field, and put up points. Sometimes. The unit’s players still don’t know how to seal the deal, however. At times, they get within a couple yards of the end zone and suddenly forget how to execute. First offensive possession: The Redskins get to the 1-yard line. First play: Poor push from the offensive line and Alfred Morris is stopped for a loss. As he’s tackled, you see right guard Chris Chester, who’s having a rough year, standing up three yards behind the line of scrimmage rather than in front of his back, plowing a clear path. Next play: No one accounted for linebacker Marvin Mitchell in pass protection, so Griffin came under immediate pressure as he tried to roll out to his left, and his pass to Darrel Young missed its mark. Third-and-goal: Trent Williams had trouble when Jarred Allen slipped to the inside, and Griffin had the pass-rusher in his face and unleashed a high pass off Logan Paulsen’s finger tips. The Redskins have to do better in in crunch time. First-and-goal inside the 1 doesn’t happen just any old time. You can’t blow it. Then, in the second half, there was no display of a killer instinct.  We saw no “we’re up 10, now let’s step on their throats” type of mind-set. The effectiveness disappeared. Three points was all Washington could muster. Then in the closing seconds of the game, three straight incomplete passes (a catchable ball to Jordan Reed, fairly high throw to Pierre Garcon, and the fade route to Santana Moss) killed all hopes. Unlike the San Diego game where players made the tough plays, the ball hit the turf too many times.  Players said in between the two games that “it’s a mind-set thing.” They believed they had finally figured it out. Well, they didn’t appear to be in the right frame of mind Thursday night. And the struggles in the mental battle aren’t restricted to offense. It’s partly to blame for penalties. Chris Baker’s roughing-the-passer call was pretty close, but Perry Riley and Young’s personal fouls can’t happen. The players have to keep their heads.

2. Toothless defense: You would’ve never known the Vikings were playing with two backups along their offensive line and then eventually a backup quarterback. Washington’s defense posed little to no resistance all game. Christian Ponder flushed his early-game interception and then looked all-world as he completed 17 of 21 passes for two touchdowns. The Redskins generated little pressure (only one sack all game) as the third-year quarterback succeeded with a number of quick-hitters and bootleg passes. Matt Cassel replaced an injured Ponder and made tough passes as well. The Redskins limited Adrian Peterson to 75 yards on 20 carries (3.8-yard per carry average). But he had two touchdowns (18 yarder and 1 yarder) and he ran untouched on both. After making strides over the last month, the Redskins’ defense regressed. Missed tackles were frequent, and pass coverages were soft. A short week limited prep time, but the Washington needed to be better. The defense definitely needed to force more than just two punts.

3. Interior protection issues: This is an area in which the Redskins had struggled early in the year, and then, to a degree, seemed to have corrected. But the struggles returned last night, particularly in the second half when the line surrendered four sacks. Redskins players said the Vikings didn’t make any major changes in their pass-rushing schemes. But the defenders appeared to play with more aggression. The players blamed the increased pass rush on their having allowed themselves to get in more third-and-long situations. But actually, one sack came on second-and-7, another on second-and-6. There was a sack on third-and-16 (the fourth-down play right after the second-and-6 sack) and the other came on third-and-3. The Redskins didn’t go away from the run to the degree they have in previous games. Maybe a couple more runs here and there could’ve made a difference, but that wasn’t the sole problem. The Vikings didn’t appear to run a lot of stunts. It was just man on man, beating your guy for the most part. Those breakdowns can’t happen if you expect to win a game.

4. Great individual efforts fall short: Alfred Morris had a monster day with 139 yards on 26 carries. He averaged 5.3 yards per attempt with many of his yards coming after contact. But the Redskins didn’t go to him inside the 10 with the game on the line. You have to wonder what would’ve happened had he gotten one more carry. Garcon put up big numbers with seven catches for 119 yards and a touchdown. He had a chance to win the game, but Griffin’s pass in the end zone with 35 seconds left sailed a little high. Garcon couldn’t pull it in. Leonard Hankerson had possibly the most solid game of his career with five catches on five targets for 61 yards. What would’ve happened if the they went to him on a slant into the end zone late? Griffin himself had a strong showing with clutch passes in the first half and on the final drive. He had three touchdown passes and no interceptions. But he spent much of the second half pulling himself up off the turf. He needed just one more clutch red zone pass to make a difference.

5. Same thing only different: At this point last year, Mike Shanahan and the boys had fallen to 3-6 with a loss to the then 1-6 Carolina Panthers, and after the game, the coach said, “You lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come.” Shanahan basically could’ve said the same thing last night. But he didn’t. When asked about remaining hope, he acknowledged that the record is the same as last year and that there’s always hope. But you have to wonder if this team has it in them like last year’s did. Far too many inconsistencies remain. Last year the offense always played at a high level, but it was a question of whether the defense could deliver. This year there are problems on offense, defense and special teams. These players still don’t seem entirely in sync with each other. There are gaffes such as the fake punt, where players said they had a miscommunication, on some unit seemingly on a weekly basis. The offense is too hot and cold. Washington started the game converting 9 of its first 10 third downs, but in the second half, they went 0 for 6. The unit mustered just 69 yards on four second-half drives combined before the final possession. And the defense is terribly unpredictable. There just aren’t many signs that this squad has a special something within.

More on the Redskins & NFL:

Takeaway: A 13-point lead evaporates, and so do division title hopes

Wise: If Griffin doesn’t get some help, he’s going to get hurt again

Vikings rally for a 34-27 victory | At 3-6, a desperate but familiar place

Bog’s Redskins-Vikings Best and Worst | Hundreds protest name in Minn.

NFL Week 10: Previewing D.C.-area TV games, matchups & fantasy implications

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