The Washington Redskins escaped FedEx Field with a 24-23 victory, but it was ugly on many fronts. Despite that, Jay Gruden said he felt like he and his players could take a lot from this game.
“There are a lot of good things on this tape that we can learn from,” he said. “A lot of people say preseason isn’t very important but I beg to differ. There is a lot of teaching that we can learn from. We gave up a Hail Mary, we got stopped on short yardage goal line and we got some sudden change from our defense. There are a lot of situations out there that will be very beneficial moving forward. I think both sides of the ball played hard.”
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of lessons the players learned after going over the film with their coaches Wednesday.
There was indeed much to take from last night’s game. Here are my observations from five areas on the field.
1. Griffin’s mentality: Robert Griffin III’s never-say-die mentality is what enables him to make plays that others cannot. But it also can get him into trouble and subject him to unnecessary risks. Griffin’s knee bent awkwardly as Karlos Dansby tackled him from behind on his first scramble. It’s a wonder he wasn’t injured on the play. Also troubling: Griffin had Dansby completely second-guessing himself just before he decided to run. Griffin had rolled out and eluded Barkevious Mingo, rolled out some more and approached the line. Dansby initially took a step toward Griffin, then took two steps back to cover fullback Darrel Young, then stutter-stepped again, unsure of where to commit. He finally headed Griffin’s way with the quarterback still five yards behind the line of scrimmage. That was the perfect time for Griffin to dump the ball off to Young, who was a yard away from the first-down marker, or Pierre Garco, who was a yard beyond the marker. Gruden admitted that he is concerned about Griffin’s recklessness. But Griffin doesn’t have an on/off switch. Or, he hasn’t located it or figured out how to use it. Gruden continues to preach the importance of Griffin learning “when to avoid making a bad play a worse one,” by just settling for throwing the ball away at times rather than trying to do too much. But it’s hard to tell if the message is getting through. It’s also hard to tell if Griffin sees the other areas in which he needs to improve. He got the ball out rapidly on plays designed as quick-hitters, and he threw a great deep ball to Andre Roberts to bail Washington out on what had started as a struggle-filled possession. But a number of times, on slower-developing plays, he still held onto the ball too long, and on the interception, he both stared down his receiver, and threw that pass late. A lot of times, a quarterback has to throw the pass just before the receiver comes out of his break. We’ve yet to see Griffin do this consistently. This trust and confidence will make a difference when/if it clicks. Griffin acknowledged that he threw the pass late, but he had an upbeat mentality about the overall performance, at least publicly. He didn’t dwell on the lack of points on the board, and the two turnovers in three possessions. Instead, he liked how the unit moved the ball. Griffin isn’t one to discuss what he dislikes about his play, or his teammates’ play. He tends to dance around questions when asked for specifics on what he needs to work on. Behind closed doors, perhaps it’s different. Griffin doesn’t have to publicly discuss errors and areas of weakness. But to improve, he does need to recognize shortcomings. And maybe he does. As long as he’s having these talks and identifying problem areas with his coaches, and during his own film study, then it’s okay. If not, Gruden and Sean McVay can preach it to him over and over and improvements will not come.
2. Weapons use: The positive regarding the first-team offense (despite the lack of points, and the turnovers) was the fact that Gruden and Griffin found a way to incorporate all of the weapons during their three-series showing. Griffin has traditionally done a good job of spreading the ball around, but everyone – his own teammates included – were curious to see whether he would fall in love with one of his new toys and lock in on them, forcing throws and ignoring other openings. But he did demonstrate a continued ability to distribute the ball. He targeted Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts, DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed two plays each. Penalties erased both Garcon targets (one completion). Griffin also connected with his fullback, and running back Roy Helu Jr. Commend Gruden’s play-calling for a lot of the disbursement. His philosophy on offense is to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, using short drops, and put the ball in the play-makers’ hands and let them get the yards after the catch. Griffin was on point in these situations. On the slower-developing plays, timing and awareness will be key going forward. We saw open targets, sometimes after Griffin had opted to run, or threw to a more well-covered target. Griffin having the confidence to promptly pull the trigger will pay off in a big way. It’ll be extremely hard for defenses to key on just one player. And given the speed that the offense now has (it’s not just Jackson), the home run threat is ever present. Several times we saw the defense key on one guy (Jackson and/or Garcon) and forget about another threat until too late (the completions to Roberts, and to Reed).
3. Defensive promise: Six series, zero points, four three-and-outs. That’s the showing of the starting defense in their first two preseason outings. We’ve seen increased pressure and effectiveness from the outside linebackers (Week 1 it was Orakpo with a sack and pressure, and Kerrigan with a pressure. Last night it was Kerrigan with two sacks, and Trent Murphy with a pressure). The defensive line has been getting some good penetration as well, and Jason Hatcher hasn’t even stepped on the field yet. The secondary has looked solid as a whole. There indeed appears to be a new mindset. Kerrigan said that the group adopted it after being embarrassed by the Patriots in the joint practices. From that point on, the players had a fire lit within them, he said. It has carried over into the past two games. But all this must be taken with a grain of salt. Tom Brady didn’t play in Week 1, and the Browns’ quarterback and offensive line situation is pretty bad. This weekend’s game at Baltimore will serve as a better indication as to where this unit stands. Not only will the Redskins likely play at least a full half, but they will be going against a quality opponent in the Ravens. The most concerning thing out of the defense on Monday night was a lack of an impact from Orkapo. He had a good first game, but was virtually invisible against Cleveland. Yes, he faced a seven-time Pro Bowl tackle in Joe Thomas. But he has to find a way to become more disruptive. I feel like we’ve said this before (because we have). But he needs to find a way. In practice, we’ve seen Orakpo struggle to bull-rush his way through Trent Williams and Tyler Polumbus. The same was the case last night against Thomas. He has to use his quickness, hands and flexibility to get by stronger linemen. Then, if you have him and Kerrigan consistently swarming in the backfield, this defense reaches another level.
4. Young bright spots: As noted, Murphy got in on the action of pressuring quarterbacks last night. He remains involved in those first-team fast nickel packages. We saw him move all over the line. He played as a down lineman inside of Kerrigan, lined up as a stand-up rusher outside of Orakpo, who stunted with him, and later lined up as a stand-up rusher next to Kerrigan. The versatility that Murphy brings as he still learns the ropes is a definite positive. Murphy’s draft classmates Ryan Grant and Bashaud Breeland also shined. We’ve talked before about the effectiveness of Grant’s route running. He turned in another consistent and effective performance with four catches for 41 yards and a touchdown. He’s always seeming to find a way to get open, whether it’s by selling the deep route hard and then stopping on a dime and making the catch on the comeback route, or putting a move on a defender at the line to create a three-yard gap as he runs upfield and hauls in a pass. Grant doesn’t have electrifying speed, but he has great instincts and learns quickly. Breeland continues to impress coaches after doing well both in coverage and in run support. Breeland is a physical, sure tackler. He relishes contact rather than shying away and trying to make shoulder tackles like some cornerbacks do. Breeland had five tackles, two pass deflections and one fumble recovery. Coaches knew he had potential, and they saw him improving in pass coverage. But they are most surprised by his effective tackling skills. Even in padded practices, there’s not a lot of tackling from the defensive backs. So now that the lights are on, Breeland has kicked it up a notch. The physicality he has displayed is exactly what you want from your nickelback, who at times is used to rush the passer, and other times must help out against the run since he lines up near the box. For now, E.J. Biggers remains the top nickelback, lining up with starting cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson (who also had a good tackling day). But I get the sense that sooner than later (much sooner than coaches’ original projection of 2015), that Breeland will work his way onto the field in a key capacity.
5. Gruden’s mind-set: So far, I like Jay Gruden’s approach, and the mind-set that he brings to this team. Players have continued to buy in because he is genuine, and an effective communicator. Players say he’s an encourager. But at the same time, as we’ve seen, Gruden doesn’t mince words. He gave a brutally honest assessment of the game, saying he had stressed no turnovers and limited penalties, and that the players didn’t take his message to heart. We’ve seen through OTAs and camp that Gruden is a teacher. He saw last night’s struggles in various aspects as positives because he can use them as teaching points. I liked Gruden calling four straight run plays inside the 5-yard line last night as well. He said he wanted to see his players earn a hard-fought touchdown since live goal line situations are limited in practice. The Redskins came away empty handed as the line got stonewalled on the first three plays – power plays to the right, left and left – and then Alfred Morris got stopped a few inches short on the outside run. But Gruden said he would’ve done the same thing all over again since it was a preseason game. He could’ve easily called for a play-action pass on the second or third down. But instead, he’s trying to instill a hard-nosed, dictating mindset in his players. They all expressed disappointment, and for some, embarrassment over the lack of the touchdown. Gruden will now take that failure and the feelings associated with it and use it for further teaching and motivational purposes.