Redskins-Patriots: Five observations from Washington’s preseason opener

Coach Jay Gruden started quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III slowly in the first preseason game. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins’ 23-6 preseason opening victory over the New England Patriots went about as well as the team could have hoped.

Okay, well maybe a touchdown to Aldrick Robinson on Washington’s first possession instead of a field goal, and a successful 46-yard attempt by Kai Forbath instead of a miss, and a shutout by the defense rather than a late-game touchdown pass by Jimmy Garoppolo would’ve counted as the best possible outcome. But as far as Preseason Week 1 outings go, this was a decent showing.

Now, you have to take it with a grain of salt — or two. As Brian Orakpo will remind you, Washington went 4-0 last preseason, and that meant very little. Also, the Patriots played without eight starters, including Tom Brady and his top two receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.

But the Redskins – controlling what they could control – did what they should have done. They too were without key starters (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jason Hatcher and Ryan Clark), but they moved the ball on offense, and got stops on defense. Now they return to Richmond, where they’ll spend four more days and then break camp and continue their work in Ashburn.

But first, here are some observations from last night’s game.

1. Griffin’s start: Four pass attempts in 10 snaps don’t give you much to go on, but Robert Griffin III did some good things, and he also had one shaky play. On his first pass attempt of the night, Griffin showed an ability to quickly scan the field, diagnose the situation and go from Plan A to Plan C. Griffin took the snap, faked the handoff to Alfred Morris and wanted to go to Robinson deep. But he was covered. His second read – Ryan Grant down the middle – was covered as well. So Griffin wound up dumping the ball off to Logan Paulsen. Now, a couple of plays later, Griffin had a close call. His throw to Alfred Morris sailed wide and out of bounds. But it’s a good thing it did, because linebacker Darius Flemming would’ve had a shot at an interception as he tried to jump the route. Griffin almost had a touchdown pass to Robinson, but the receiver couldn’t come down with the ball in bounds. On such a small body of work, it’s hard to grade Griffin, though. He was serviceable, which is okay. Jay Gruden took a conservative approach and called six run plays to ease the quarterback in, which was probably smart. Next week we’ll probably see the workload increase slightly. But the coach felt good about what he saw. “Overall, he managed the game and got guys in and out of the huddle,” Gruden said. “We got what we wanted to do. We got about an eight-play drive together, went off the field, and it’s something to build off of.”

2. Applying pressure: No, it wasn’t Tom Brady, who got the ball out at a lightning-fast pace in practice this past week, and yes, left guard Logan Mankins received the night off as well. But Washington’s defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage. The goal of this season is to get more pressure on the quarterback. Washington did that. Three players – Orakpo, rookie Trent Murphy and defensive end Chris Baker — recorded hits on the quarterback. (Speaking of Murphy, he did a good job of shedding blocks and making tackles in the run game. He was engaged with a lineman on both of his tackles, but he used his hands to shuck the blocker and slide over to grab the running back for the stop.) Orakpo generated a holding call on one rush. Then, later, he and Ryan Kerrigan worked together nicely as Kerrigan rushed from the left and forced Ryan Mallett to step up into the pocket – and into the arms of Orakpo. Just last week, Orakpo was talking about how Washington’s defensive players needed to get more team-work sacks, where multiple players are swarming and even if the quarterback eludes the first, another defender is there to get the stop.

3. Running back use: Redskins backs combined for nine receptions for 81 yards on 11 targets against New England. Gruden has talked about the importance of having the running backs involved in the passing game because it makes the offense more well-rounded, and because good screen passes catch pass-rushers off guard and then prompt teams to scale back their pressure. Going to the running backs also gives the quarterback a safety valve. It looks as if Roy Helu Jr. has a leg up on the competition for the job of leading receiving threat out of the backfield. He had two nice catches and narrowly missed on a third. He looked as good in the open field as he has in recent years. This role seems to suit Helu. As a rusher he struggles to generate yardage when met at the line by a group of tacklers, but as a receiver he benefits from more space, where he can put his speed and shiftiness to use. Helu worked on improving his pass-catching skills this offseason; if he had no one else to work out with, his wife would throw him passes to help improve his hands. He said his goal was to get his pass-catching skills to the level of a wide receiver. We need to see more to get a feel for if he’s at this level yet, but he looked good in this capacity for one night. Gruden and Sean McVay have plenty of options, it seems, however. Silas Redd, Chris Thompson and Evan Royster also caught passes last night. Redd has a nice blend of speed and power, which would seem to make him a good challenger. But we need to see what he can do in pass protection, where coaches say Helu is the more advanced of all the backs. Thompson is shifty in space, but lacks power. Royster can be slippery, but he doesn’t have as quick of a sudden burst of acceleration. On another note, it was good to see Gruden display a commitment to running the ball. Right off the bat, the Redskins set the tone with a physical mindset as they put the ball in the hands of Morris. Players say that although Gruden is known for his work with quarterbacks, and that he’s a former quarterback himself, he definitely has the mindset and belief that offensive success begins with the rushing attack.

4. Kicking competition: You don’t draft a kicker if you aren’t seriously considering a switch, but it’s also hard for a kicker to succeed as a rookie. However, in the practices leading up to the preseason opener, Zach Hocker has proven to be a worthy challenger for Forbath. Coaches were curious to see what would happen once the lights came on, and Hocker remained solid while Forbath struggled. The third-year pro demonstrated improved leg strength on one kickoff as he recorded a touchback. But he had another short kickoff, and then sent a third out of bounds. Forbath also nearly had two missed field goals. His 35-yard attempt in the first quarter bounced off the right goal post, but a penalty gave him another chance, which he made from 39 feet out. Forbath, who last week easily made a 60-yarder in practice, then missed a 46-yarder wide right and short. Hocker, meanwhile was perfect from 27 and 39 yards, recorded a touchback and made the new, longer point-after attempt. It’s only one game, and Hocker could struggle next week while Forbath rebounds. In practices, we’ve seen one have a good day while the other has some misses, and then the next day, they’ll flip-flop. They’ve both had perfect days twice. Forbath was frustrated with himself saying he didn’t have the focus he needed to and allowed himself to take his eyes off the ball for a split second when he made contact with it. “It’s a stupid thing, but luckily it happened now in the preseason rather than when it really counts,” he said. Now, when you’re battling for a job, every kick counts. But that’s how a kicker has to think as he tries to flush it from his memory and move onto the next kick. Hocker has a good demeanor and said he was surprised he didn’t feel more nervous in the game. He credited lessons from Forbath for his ability to maintain his focus and deal with the pressure. Gruden said Forbath obviously needed to make that kick, then praised Hocker for his kicks, and for the open-field tackle the rookie made. He added that this decision will come down to the final preseason game.

5. Bubble watch: Bacarri Rambo may have helped himself with the four tackles he recorded last night. His best play was probably when he raced downfield in run support and tackled running back Shane Vereen to hold him to a seven-yard gain. It doesn’t sound like much, but Rambo did not hesitate, he took the proper angle as Vereen turned the corner, and then did what Raheem Morris has been stressing: “Just get a body part and hold on.” A miss by Rambo in this situation would’ve meant a big pickup by the back. Rambo looked as if he played faster last night than he has even in practices. He almost had an interception, but couldn’t quite get to an underthrown ball. … Morgan Moses had a couple good plays at left tackle, but he also had a hold call while run-blocking, and then got beat a couple of times. … Josh LeRibeus missed a few blocks, and it looked as if he would lean to his left pre-snap on run plays going that way. That’s not the best idea because that means he’s starting off off-balanced if a defender got a great jump off the ball and drove him that way. … Third-string tackle Maurice Hurt had a couple of breakdowns both in pass and run blocking. … Will Compton (fighting for a job behind Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson) had a nice play in which he shot the gap and had a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. He seemed to show good pursuit on other run plays as well. And he made a play in pass coverage. … Fellow inside linebacker Akeem Jordan didn’t run well and lost his man in pass coverage. He did fine in run defense, however, and recovered a fumble. … Outside linebacker Adrian Robinson caused that fumble and recorded a quarterback pressure. … Cornerback Chase Minnifield drew a pass interference call that put the ball on the 4-yard line, but then he acquitted himself by breaking up a pass in the end zone on fourth-and-goal. … Fellow corner Peyton Thompson got picked on frequently. … Robinson had the good night that he needed as he battles for a roster spot behind Garcon, Jackson and Andre Roberts. He ran a variety of routes had three catches for 45 yards and touchdown. … Redd and Lache Seastrunk both made the most of their opportunities. Seastrunk had a couple of big gains on runs to the outside, but it doesn’t appear he likes to cut back to the inside. Redd, meanwhile showed versatility, picking up yards on stretch plays to the outside, and on runs between the tackles. … I don’t think rookie receiver Ryan Grant is on the bubble, but he had a good night with three catches for 37 yards. He showed an ability to create space for himself, and the ability to make a tough catch on a well-contested through. … Another receiver who could be on the bubble is Rashad Ross, but he did well for himself, recording a 37-yard kickoff return, and also had a 35-yard catch in tight coverage.

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