Redskins vs. Ravens: Observations from Washington’s third preseason game

Well, that’s not how Jay Gruden & company wanted to look in their final dress rehearsal for the regular season.

The first-year head coach’s star pupil looked like anything but a franchise quarterback. Robert Griffin III struggled mightily, and as he goes, so goes the offense. For a third consecutive game, the first-team offense failed to score a touchdown, and miscues abounded.

Washington’s offense had only four first downs, 40 yards and three points. Griffin completed 5 of 8 passes for just 20 yards, got sacked three times, threw an interception and finished the game with a quarterback rating of 27.1.

Meanwhile, the defense played well, aside from a few hiccups. The unit was aggressive, and even nasty at times. Ray Rice did not play, but Washington held Baltimore to 17 rushing yards on 12 carries, denying the Ravens twice on fourth-and-short situations. Poor tackling proved costly twice (a 30-yard catch-and-run by Steve Smith and 23-yard gain by Kyle Juszczyk), and E.J. Biggers fell down while covering Smith and surrendered a touchdown.

But as a whole, the defensive players had many positives to take from the game. Special teams did well also.

The starters will not play Thursday, Jay Gruden says. So this is the last time we will have seen them until the season opener on Sept. 7 in Houston.

Here are five observations from last night’s game.

1. Griffin’s struggles – That was an extremely concerning showing from Robert Griffin III. He didn’t look like a starting NFL quarterback. There’s no other way to put it. He held onto the ball too long. He gave up on his receivers too quickly and took off running. He failed to see wide-open receivers, and instead opted for ill-advised throws, one of which wound up intercepted. After doing a serviceable job in his one series of the preseason opener, and then at least showing an ability to move his offense last week, Griffin had no command of the offense against the Ravens.

What’s more disconcerting about his showing was the fact that the Ravens had three backups playing the cornerback and nickelback positions. Griffin had his rhythm thrown off on one play because he had to jump to snag a high shotgun snap. But on the following third-down attempt, he let the snap bounce off his hands and had to fall on the ball. Griffin’s protection wasn’t flawless, but not all of the sacks could be blamed on the offensive line. Two came as a result of his refusal to throw the ball away. Another time, the linemen had sealed off the pocket on either side of the quarterback, but he pulled the ball down and ran, rather than hanging tough and finding a receiver. Griffin missed an opportunity for a big play with DeSean Jackson when he underthrew the receiver, prompting him to have to slow down for the ball. Jackson drifted out of bounds as he made the catch. On the interception that opened the third quarter, Griffin didn’t see Jordan Reed wide open down the seam. He went to his check-down, Alfred Morris, who was draped by a linebacker.

2. Root of the problem – Confidence and comfort are the two missing ingredients in Griffin’s game at this point. That’s why he won’t throw the ball. That’s why he looks skittish even when the protection is fine. He needs a strong dose of decisiveness. All of these struggles are mental, not physical like last season. You would hope that by his third season, he would be further along in his development, but that’s not the case. These are the growing pains of a quarterback still learning how to be a pocket passer in the NFL. Jay Gruden and Sean McVay have overhauled his game – which is what they need to do to ensure that he has a sustained NFL career – but the fruits of their efforts will take a while to manifest themselves. Yes, Griffin has spent the past five months working in this offense, which is a scheme very similar to what he ran last season. But his lack of comfort and confidence is evident. He doesn’t have the self-assurance to take the snap and rifle the ball where he knows it should go. He wants to make the right throw, and seems to have fear that he’ll make a bad play. Right now, he lacks the anticipation and trust to throw a pass before a receiver comes out of his break. He needs to throw to spots and throw receivers open, not wait for a wideout to get open and then pull the trigger.

Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins passes in Saturday night’s second half. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Contrast Griffin’s play with Kirk Cousins, who comes to the line, takes the snap and right away knows where he’s going with the ball. His decisiveness and lack of hesitation gets things clicking. Now, that is in no way to say that Cousins should be the starter. Cousins also gets himself into trouble because he has his mind made up off the bat and at times because of that, he will throw an interception, or put the ball in the spot he thinks the receiver will be (and misses) rather than taking a tenth of a second or two to ensure better accuracy. Don’t forget Cousins had his success against the second unit, so it’s not a fair comparison. But, Griffin does need to be decisive like Cousins.

A couple hours before last night’s game, a buddy of mine asked me if Griffin has regressed. I said no, but that it was hard to say if he had gotten better. Last night Griffin did appear to have regressed. But I don’t know that he has as a whole. Last week there definitely were things he did better. He hasn’t found a way to build on performances from week to week. Consistency is key to improvement. Griffin insists that he hasn’t regressed. He said last night, “It is a learning process, but I think it’s good that we get these game-like experiences with everybody in the heat of battle. I think going through this process, having a bad outing tonight, will help us. I know people can’t see that right now. There will be overreactions all over the place. It’s our job to make sure we stay cool, calm and collected and keep fighting on.”

Jay Gruden couldn’t put much of a positive spin on his quarterback’s performance. He said that he needs to keep working with Griffin and find ways to help him get into a rhythm early in games. It’ll be interesting to see how the coach does this. It could be kind of like basketball player whose shot hasn’t been falling. He starts taking it to the hole just to get his confidence up. Or, with a struggling hitter, whose coach will have him bunt just to have him start putting the bat on the ball and get that feeling back. In Houston, we could see Gruden dial up a number of short-drop, quick-hitter passes to get those completions going – keep it simple as Griffin builds his confidence and comfort.

The knee-jerk reaction to last night’s game is to start talking quarterback controversy. But the Redskins can’t pull the plug yet. They have too much invested in Griffin. He is certainly more physically gifted than Cousins. He has the skill set to have elite performances. But remember, both Gruden and Bruce Allen said early in camp that Griffin has “a long way to go.” We’re seeing what they meant. The offense from his rookie year clicked because it was similar to his college scheme, but it lacks sustainability. Last season Griffin was trying to learn how to play with confidence in his legs again. This year, it’s the developmental stage all over again – like tearing a wall down and building it back up again. Patience is hard, but you have to hang in there through the ugly stages. You just have to hope that the other guys on board – particularly wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson – have patience as well, and don’t erupt, destroying the needed harmony on the offense.

3. Hatcher’s debut – Okay, now on to something positive. Jason Hatcher had a great first outing, especially considering that he didn’t take any live reps in practice until Wednesday. We saw Jim Haslett move him all over the place and take advantage of mismatches along the line. Because of that, Washington’s other defensive linemen and the outside linebackers found themselves in a lot of one-on-one situations, and they were able to capitalize. Hatcher admitted that fatigue started to set in during the third series. That’s understandable. So he’ll spend the next two weeks working to improve his stamina and conditioning. This will help him maintain a low pad level and get better leverage. Once Hatcher puts it all together, he will be a greater force. Washington will have a nice rotation of versatile defensive linemen. As we saw, Chris Baker, Jarvis Jenkins and Kedric Golston have the ability to flip-flop all over the line to mesh well with Hatcher. Barry Cofield also can slide over from nose to defensive tackle. This is going to keep offenses guessing and create uncertainty in the mind of a quarterback, as he sees all kinds of crazy looks in front of him. The Redskins just have to hope that Hatcher can remain healthy. If so, they will receive a nice return on their investment.


Keenan Robinson stops Bernard Pierce short of a first down in the first quarter. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

4. Keenan Robinson’s rise – The Redskins sensed that despite his limited experience, Keenan Robinson had the ability to step in and fill the big shoes of London Fletcher. Thus far, the 2012 fourth-round pick has done nothing but get better on a weekly basis. Last night we saw Robinson making plays all over the field. He had a great open-field tackle for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-1. He snuffed out an end-around attempt, running Jacoby Jones out of bounds for a five-yard loss. He provided solid pass coverage. He came up and forced a fumble, although the ball went out of bounds and Baltimore maintained possession. Yes, the Redskins have found a player in Robinson. Sure, there will be some struggles ahead. He’s still learning. But the potential is certainly there, and in Robinson and Perry Riley Jr., Washington could have a talented inside linebacker duo manning the heart of the defense for years to come.

5. Other bright spots – It was good to see Jarvis Jenkins maintain the high level of play we have seen from him since the start of training camp. Last night he took on a new role, as Hatcher replaced him as the starter at right end. But Jenkins remained effective, giving Washington a spark off the bench. He proved stout against the run, and provided pressure on the quarterback. Jenkins also showed good pursuit, running down a pass-catcher from behind, stopping him for a short gain. …

Rookie guard Spencer Long got some time with the first team as coaches wanted to see what he had to offer, and how Chris Chester would do at center if ever required to fill in for Kory Lichtensteiger. Both appeared to do well on the series. Long wasn’t perfect, but didn’t commit any egregious errors. If he had to play there for an extended period of time, it looked as if he would be able to settle into a rhythm. Chester hasn’t filled in at center for six years, and he said it felt like it. But he proved himself to be capable. …

Evan Royster had another strong showing as he continues to vie for a spot in the running back unit. He displayed good pass-catching ability, something he hasn’t had much chance to do the past three years. With Chris Thompson again unable to get on the field, Royster made a strong case for himself. …

Cornerback David Amerson made two nice tackles. He’s playing with great aggression. He also did a good job of using his length to break up a well-thrown ball in the end zone. …

Rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland had a nice pass breakup, but he did get turned around in coverage a couple of times. He got some action with the starters in the nickelback capacity for the first time. He also showed versatility, recording a 26-yard kick return. …

Tight end Jordan Reed’s finest moment wound up getting called back. He showed some great toughness as he made a catch and broke two tackles en route to a 29-yard gain that would’ve extended a drive and put Washington in Ravens territory. But a holding call on Trent Williams wiped out the play.

Have a Redskins question? Send an e-mail to mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question,” and it might be answered on Tuesday in The Mailbag.

More from The Post:

Starters will sit vs. BucsMoses has sprained MCL? | Meriweather frustrated

Griffin rejects suggestion that he’s regressed | Struggles in loss | Photos

Takeaway: No physical pounding for RGIII, but he deserves a critical one

Bog: Best & worst Theismann says Cousins outplayed RGIII

DE Hatcher proves as good as advertised in Redskins debut

More NFL: Home page | D.C. Sports Bog | The Early Lead | Fancy Stats | Fantasy

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo | @lizclarketweet | @JReidPost | @Insider

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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