Redskins position-by-position review: Ups and downs against Giants

The Washington Redskins were officially eliminated from playoff contention last night, although we’ve all known for a while that this team wasn’t playing well enough to make it to the playoffs. They suffered a 24-17 loss at FedEx Field to the hands of divisional rivals New York Giants. Here’s my position-by-position review.

Quarterback

Robert Griffin III was much improved from his recent performances. He looked much more comfortable running the no-huddle uptempo offense on the opening drive than he has running a more traditional style offense this season. The tempo forced the Giants’ defense to run very vanilla looks and coverages, and tired out the pass-rushers on their defensive line. That slowed down the rush and gave Griffin more time to stand in the pocket and progress through reads, something he’s not been able to do much of this season.

Griffin started the game completing his first 12 passes, throwing on time and accurately to allow his receivers to secure passes and fight for yards after the catch. When the Redskins reverted back to a normal tempo, Griffin continued to play well. A few of the negatives that we’ve seen this season still crept into his game at times; overthrown and underthrown passes, and inaccurate ball placement at times, but overall he was much improved. He did a much better job of moving to check-down targets and taking what the defense gave him, although he did miss a few chances to take deep shots to Aldrick Robinson. His receivers let him down with some drops; Pierre Garcon and Logan Paulsen were both guilty of that, among others.

We all understand that Griffin is a competitor, but his decision to run out and act as a led blocker on the reverse run by  Robinson is something he cannot do. He ran a bootleg to help sell the initial run and that left him in a position to be a lead blocker. I don’t for one second believe that the Redskins coaching staff told Griffin to go out and try to block. But Griffin opted to try and make a block for Robinson, and he took another big hit. There are plenty of things that the Redskins coaching staff can be blamed for, but that hit on Griffin was down to Griffin.

He did a good job scrambling to keep plays alive, but you’d like him to wait that extra second once he breaks the pocket to see if he has anything developing downfield. He doesn’t always need to take off past the line of scrimmage and run, sometimes he avoids the pressure just by breaking the pocket. I’d like to see him hold off for a second or two before he takes off running.

Running backs

The Giants did a good job slowing down Alfred Morris. They used defensive line shifts along with eight defenders in the box to aggressively attack any hand off to Morris. Morris rarely found any rushing lanes to cut into and found himself constantly fighting to make it back to the line or pick up minimal gains. Washington brought in their change of pace back, Roy Helu Jr., to see if he could use his speed and elusiveness to find small holes in the defense, but had no success with that either. The Redskins’ only rushing threat was Griffin and a pitch man on read-option and triple-option plays. The fact that Morris finished with fewer rushing yards than receiving yards says a lot about the Redskins rushing attack without Griffin’s running threat.

This offense misses fullback Darrel Young. He’s been inactive the past two games and was most recently replaced with running back Evan Royster. Royster is clearly not a fullback, and missed the few blocks he was asked to make. Young is one of those types of players that you don’t realize how good he is until he’s gone. He has been opening holes and leading the way for Morris all season and his absence has had a clear effect on the offense.

Tight ends

Logan Paulsen continues to work hard, but isn’t a No. 1 tight end. He’s dropped a lot of passes this season, including one last night, but I’m more concerned with his blocking. Paulsen has been the Redskins’ best blocking tight end for a while, but has struggled a lot this season. Too often he’s found himself pushed back two or three yards into the backfield and has no leverage to stop the defender from getting to the runner. He’s a honest, hard working character that Mike Shanahan loves in his locker room, but he needs to translate that to the field more often and repay the faith shown in him by Shanahan.

Fred Davis saw some more playing time and made a nice catch on the opening drive. His versatility to line up all over the field is a weapon in the no-huddle attack that Washington opened up with. But when it mattered the most, Davis dropped a crucial pass late in the fourth quarter that should have been an easy play. Yes, the officials got the downs mixed up and that should have been a first-down play instead of third down, but it wouldn’t have mattered had Davis made the catch.

Wide receivers

After a run of games in which he looked like a true No. 1 receiver, Pierre Garcon has been inconsistent. His game has been plagued with drops in between good catches and great runs after the catch. He dropped two passes that, although poorly placed, were catchable. He was responsible for the game-ending turnover, catching a low pass to convert on fourth and short before having it easily stripped from him by a Giants defender. Garcon appeared to be stretching the ball out for extra yards despite already having picked up the first down. One thing Garcon needs to work on is keeping his emotions in check. He plays with great passion, which is part of what makes him as good as he is, but at times that passion gets the better of him. He cannot afford to kick the ball in frustration and give up a needless penalty in a tight game. Sure, it only ended up with a five-yard penalty and it was still an easy field goal. But if that had happened when the Redskins were on the edge of Forbath’s field goal range, he could have cost them three points.

The Redskins continue to use Aldrick Robinson as their deep threat, but unless they have him running some other routes, he’s going to tip off the defense every time he enters the game. A number of times Sunday night we saw Robinson run deep. Griffin took one shot to him, but the defender was right there with him the whole way. Robinson’s route-running hasn’t developed to a point that the Redskins are confident in him enough to run much outside of deep posts and go routes. But perhaps they could run some underneath crossing routes or screens to him, just to mix it up and not tip off the deep shot every time he’s in the game.

Offensive line

We saw, once again, that this offensive line needs help to pass protect. Early on, the Redskins used the no-huddle and ran uptempo to tire out the Giants’ defensive line. That made it much easier to maintain blocks and give Griffin time in the pocket. We also saw the play-action from read-option looks help out the protection, just as we had last season. But in the second half when the Redskins were down, the offensive line struggled. New York make an adjustment to move Justin Tuck inside to defensive tackle from defensive end. They matched him up one on one with the Redskins guards, and Tuck took full advantage. Chris Chester particularly struggled to block Tuck. Tuck has too much speed and quickness for Chester, and proved such on one of his four sacks. Tuck had great burst off the line that saw him level with Chester almost instantly. Tuck made little work of Chester’s desperate attempts to get his hands on him before taking down Griffin.

On another Tuck sack, there appeared to be a breakdown in protection. The Giants sent an extra blitzer to the right side of the line. Tyler Polumbus stepped outside to meet the extra blitzer, but allowed Tuck to run free inside. Chester pulled from his position to sell a play-action fake, which left Tuck free to run straight at Griffin. It was another sack on which Griffin had hardly any time to even look at his first read, let alone progress to a second or third read.

But we know this line is built to run the ball. When they struggle to do that, then the Redskins are in big trouble. They failed to cope with defensive line shifts from the Giants, who were happy to move from 4-3 over to under fronts and vice versa. The right side of the line spent more time in the backfield trying desperately to recover instead of getting to the second level. Even if Morris or Helu were able to avoid the initial penetration, the Giants linebackers were allowed to roam free and wrap up for minimal gains.

Defensive line

Barry Cofield bounced back after a couple of rough performances. He did a much better job at nose tackle controlling the point of attack in the run game. He nearly had a safety early on. The Giants were backed up on their own one yard line and Cofield used his favorite swim move to quickly penetrate the offensive line and attack the running back, who just managed to escape his own end zone. He was also more aggressive than we’ve seen him be this year in the passing game. He was more active in pushing the pocket instead of maintaining gap integrity. Eli Manning isn’t the most mobile quarterback in the league, so perhaps the Jim Haslett lifted the chains from his defensive line and allowed Cofield to attack. Manning wasn’t able to step up into the pocket on a lot of throws as a result.

I was also impressed with Chris Baker. Stephen Bowen has been a solid player on that defensive front for the Redskins, and worked well in tandem with Cofield. But his injury provides guys like Baker with an opportunity. He was effective as a pass rusher and, like Cofield, pushed the pocket to stop Manning from “climbing the ladder” and stepping into throws. He definitely still needs work on maintaining his gaps in the run game, but he’s proved versatile in lining up at defensive end and nose tackle. His movement ability at his size is a good trait to have going forward.

Linebackers

I thought that Brian Orakpo once again had a very good game. Some people will point to him playing against weak opposition, but he can only play what he’s put up against. Orakpo took full advantage. He was allowed more freedom than he has been a lot of the season because he faced a less-mobile quarterback in Manning. He used his speed rush outside to set up the inside move well, and made excellent reads of Giants left tackle Will Beatty whenever he overextended outside. That allowed him to cut back inside and generate quick pressure on Manning, leading to his two sacks.

But outside of his rushing, Orakpo was also active in the run game. He did a much better job setting the edge and forcing the run back inside against the Giants than he has done in weeks gone by. He also blew up a couple blocks and quickly wrapped up the runner for little to no gain. There is some concern, however, that this sudden improvement in performance is coming as he feels his contract running out. I don’t believe that Orakpo is the kind of player that would play for a big contract and then quit on his team like, say, Albert Haynesworth. But I can see why some people carry concerns with the timing of his improvement.

Perry Riley Jr. is quietly proving he’s ready to take over from London Fletcher when he retires. His coverage ability is improving every week. He did an excellent job staying with a receiver near the sideline and tipping the pass to make it fall incomplete. He also made a good play to stay with Victor Cruz on an out and up route. Riley didn’t bite on the fake and managed to stop Cruz from getting both hands on the ball. He was put in a tough spot on the Giants’ second touchdown. Riley was the middle linebacker in Tampa-2 coverage and dropped deep to split the safeties. New York sent two routes down the seams and forced Riley to choose between them. Manning had an easy read, throwing to whichever route Riley opted not to cover.

Secondary

DeAngelo Hall didn’t appear to perform to the level he has all season, although the Redskins did run a lot of zone coverage and limited his man-coverage responsibilities. He did stay tight to Hakeem Nicks on a pass up the seam by Manning. Hall positioned himself on the hip of Nicks, and then attacked the ball as Nicks turned to look for it. They both fought for it as they fell to the ground, but Nicks managed to come away with it.

Josh Wilson had another tough game, covering Cruz in the slot. But he did manage to get a sack on a slot-corner blitz that saw him rush free at Manning. But in coverage, he found himself getting turned around too often or opening his hips too early.

Brandon Meriweather has been making a case for coming back next season. His athleticism at free safety allows the Redskins defense to be more versatile and run different looks with him staying as a single-deep safety. He’s also become much better tackling up around the line of scrimmage instead of going for the knockout hit. He made a nice play intercepting the tipped pass and then returning it to give the Redskins’ offense great field position. But he did go in too high on one run by Hillis. Meriweather had a chance to stop the run for a four- or five-yard gain, but tried to tackle too high instead of wrapping up low. Hillis broke the tackle and picked up 27 yards.

With the Redskins now mathematically out of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see if Mike Shanahan gives some of his developmental players a chance to show what they can do. Tom Compton, Adam Gettis and Brandon Jenkins, among others, could all benefit from extended playing time over these last four games.

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

What’s ahead:

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

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Mike Jones’s five observations from Redskins vs. Giants | Doughty, Hall, Fletcher hurt

Hamilton: The latest act in a ‘theater of the absurd’ season | Reid | Boswell

Game ends with confusion, controversy | Early lead, late chances slip away

On this night, Griffin was not part of the problem | Redskins’ miscues hurt

D.C. Sports Bog: Jurgensen says Shanahan safe | RGIII’s run-in with sideline | More 

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